The current crisis will undoubtedly change the shape and form of engagement on built environment projects in the future. But what should it look like?

First thing's first: there will always be a role for face-to-face engagement, whether it is in the workplace or in the context of community involvement in shaping development plans. Whilst the current crisis has undoubtedly shifted the emphasis of stakeholder contact online and made digital engagement a necessity to keep things moving, the desire for face-to-face engagement in planning remains strong, though not always for the right reason. As a business specialising in digital engagement, we agree.

But it is important that we take this opportunity to pick apart 'the way things have always been done' and think carefully about which elements of engagement can work better online and which elements of face-to-face engagement offer more value than they would digitally. Here's our vision for the future of engagement in planning after Covid-19:

The role of drop-in events needs to change

Public exhibitions have traditionally been the way for planners to capture the sentiments and views of a community on their plans. But the problem is in the name 'exhibition' - it is more often that not a one-way conversation, a PR exercise in placation rather than a genuine opportunity to shape plans, and that riles communities. What's more, these events tend to attract people with more time to spare and more natural motivation to get involved, skewing the outcomes in their favour.

But they can also be a vital opportunity for members of a community to discuss issues, aspirations and concerns with project teams, which they may not be able to articulate digitally, and for project teams to develop a close working relationship with key stakeholders and influencers.

Our approach would be to instead hold 'meet the design team' events, much earlier in the engagement process, before plans are formulated. This gives the community and key stakeholders a chance to articulate their ideas and aspirations to members of the project team and build a productive working relationship without the prejudice of formative plans. The community's 'baseline' insight can be captured digitally by the project team using touchscreens at the event or remotely using an interactive website, adding issues and ideas to a virtual map of the area or by completing short surveys and polls to capture broader aspirations.

Feedback on the plans is then collected online at a later stage, or by other remote means where internet access is a challenge, and early-stage respondents are contacted directly by telephone, post or email to ask them to participate. The design team then gets the benefit of early community insight, the project team can build an early working relationship with key stakeholders, members of the community can get their concerns and aspirations off their chest early in the process and the consultation is far more open, diverse and representative.

Let's scrap 'display boards', both digitally and physically

Traditionally, information about built environment proposals is presented in a static display of 'boards', each with themes that relate to particular professional disciplines or topics. They are then printed and hung up at a drop-in event or made available as a PDF download online. In the current crisis, many have tried to simulate printed boards in a virtual village hall online. But there are many problems with this approach:

  • The theme or title of each 'board' tends to relate to a professional or technical interest rather than a human interest
  • The information is static, meaning that people have to trawl through information that is of no relevance to them before they find information that they want
  • PDF or 'virtual' display boards aren't mobile compatible, in that they are in a static format and can't adjust to the shape of a smartphone screen
  • Detailed images, such as master plans or CGIs, are displayed at a scale that makes the detail difficult to appreciate

All of the above issues with 'display boards' make vital project information difficult to find and absorb. This, in turn, increases the participant's frustration level and often means that they leave the process uninformed and without the information that they need, resulting in uninformed and potentially more negative feedback.

Our approach is to make this information available in a truly responsive and carefully curated digital format, arranged in a searchable Q&A structure so that participants can find the information that they need quickly and easily. Images and text adjust to the shape and scale of the screen and can be zoomed in and out, meaning that it is clear and participants can appreciate the detail.

The online engagement platform can also be used in the context of a face-to-face event, where members of the project team can present the information of a touchscreen or projector screen and assist members of the community in finding the information that is relevant to them without delay.

Consultation publicity should respond to the shape of the community

No one form of consultation outreach is enough, whether it be a mail-drop, social media or emails to key stakeholders. There are always going to be people that are missed by postal publicity, such as those that live in flats or simply put mail that isn't personally addressed to them in the recycling. Social media helps, but only reaches those that spend time on certain platforms and depends on people spotting information at a certain time.

By far the most effective approach is to identify existing information providers in the community, such as faith groups, elected members, schools, community centres, parent and toddler groups, and ask for their help in disseminating vital information about your consultation and ways to get involved by email or in existing publications. In addition to people getting information from a source they trust, that they have chosen to be contacted by, this helps build a spirit of collaboration with key stakeholders in the community. This can then be supplemented by other forms of outreach, to communicate with people that are more socially isolated, having considered the unique demographic make-up of the local community.

This approach has worked extremely effectively in Streets Reimagined's online consultation for the East Street Vision project, which we have powered with our engagement platform. This carefully crafted engagement campaign has attracted over 500 responses in just over two weeks, without any form of paid-for social media promotion or any postal mail-drop.

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