A panel of industry experts exploring the future of community engagement and stakeholder communication say digital technology will play a key role in narrowing the gap between the built environment and local communities.
On 25 February, a group of community engagement specialists came together in a virtual roundtable event to ask, ‘How can we work together to shape our towns and cities for the better?’. Their thought-provoking discussion is presented in full in an exclusive new report How can we work together to shape our towns and cities for the better?
Hosted by built environment hub Build Studios in partnership with SitePodium, the event offered important insight into how developers can be more inclusive and collaborative in their approach and how local communities can be empowered to shape their environment in a positive way.
Digital tools were found to be an important part of the solution, due to their ability to provide real-time updates and offer a round-the-clock communication channel for local communities. Impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, the responsibilities of construction firms and barriers to engagement were also discussed.
The conversation was facilitated by Build Studios chief executive Helen Santer .
- Akil Scafe-Smith, Resolve
- Lucas Wijntjes, SitePodium
- Catherine Greig, make:good
- Jessica Cargill-Thompson, Public Practice
We need to start moving to models by which there’s far more equity in the decision-making process. – Akil Scafe-Smith
Recognising that the built environment has traditionally been shaped by a small group of people and the development process can sometimes feel opaque, the panel noted a palpable sense of change in the air. There is a growing awareness of the issues and inequalities in society, people are speaking up, calling for change and demanding to be involved in local decision-making like never before.
Digital tools offer lots of benefits: it’s a case of using those tools in a considered way to ask the right questions and get responses in a format that’s useful. – Jessica Cargill-Thompson
While traditional and in-person forms of stakeholder communication still hold value in helping developers reach the widest possible demographic, it’s clear that Covid-19 lockdowns have fast-tracked digital engagement across the board. The panel discussed how virtual engagement can still be made to feel personal and that creative responses to online consultations are often the most effective.
Construction firms now understand that proper community engagement is part of the process, not just something forced upon them by a regulatory framework. – Lucas Wijntjes
Panellists commented on how the built environment has evolved over time, noting that developers have a responsibility to inform communities about local projects – and that providing proper access to information helps build understanding and support. One expert emphasised that although community engagement is often outsourced in places like the UK, the commitments to local communities themselves cannot be outsourced.
Engagement should be a joyful process so that people want to participate. – Catherine Grieg
The discussion highlighted the importance of making stakeholder communication an interesting, relevant and hands-on experience for the local communities it aims to reach, whilst noting that “it’s a massive privilege to have time to participate.” One panellist described the value of collaborating with existing civic groups, particularly when engaging with young people: “being local practitioners is how we connect to local people”.
If we’re looking to change the way we engage with communities, what should those improvements be? – Helen Santer
The discussion raised some important questions such as whether strong feelings on social media led to actual engagement and how long-term relationships could be built with communities. Barriers to engagement were also discussed, such as shifting political landscapes, being unable to meet in person due to Covid-19 and the availability of internet access by different groups. The conversation ended with each expert offering their view on which elements of community engagement most need to be improved.
Download the full report or watch a short video of the event.