7 min read
As you may have observed, the number of online community engagement projects (aka ‘e-Participation’) has boomed over the years all over the world, particularly following recent evolutions in cloud-based technologies and innovations in local governance.
This blog post presents important findings from my PhD thesis about the objectives and design of e-Participation in urban planning.
The post begins with a brief overview of ‘e-Participation’. It then presents the findings from 83 research participants at local planning authorities and consultancies. Next come findings on the same topic that were collected from representatives at 13 Civic Tech start-ups. Taken together, all the collected responses concern 60+ e-Participation projects featuring no less than 25 different Civic Tech platforms. The projects were located across Europe, North America and Australia, and therefore provide a broad international spread for a wide range of planning projects, from public square redesign to metropolitan planning. The online community engagement projects were active between 2014 and 2019, with project durations lasting anything from a few weeks to a few years. Due to the long-term nature of plans and projects in spatial planning, many of the investigated planning processes are still ongoing.
In this post, e-Participation refers to online consultations in urban planning. As I review in the thesis, industry professionals and researchers use dozens of different terms to describe technologies for online community engagement in planning. This post by researchers Enzo Falco and Reinout Kleinhans reviews no less than 27 platforms that enable local authorities and other client organisations to actively involve residents in urban planning.
You can find some four examples of the projects I investigated here.
Based on the work by Falco and Kleinhans, I use the term ‘digital participatory platforms’ (DPP) to designate e-Participation platforms in this blog post.
About the objectives, I asked respondents to pick from the objectives described on the widespread Public Participation Spectrum by the IAP2. I also asked them about the main features they valued the most on e-Participation platforms (‘DPP features’), and how they combined them with other tools (‘tool ecosystem’). For reference, below is an adapted version of the Spectrum:
Objectives and design of e-Participation – the view from planning professionals
The following diagram summarises the survey and interview responses from 80+ urban planning professionals across 60+ e-Participation projects.
The findings are self-explanatory. I briefly discuss the main points.
In a nutshell, the key objectives for e-Participation ranged from consulting to collaborating. Earlier empirical and theoretical literature showed many platforms focused mostly on communicating information to residents, particularly at the beginning of the 2010s. A vital insight is that high quality information is not a low hanging fruit, but both a fundamental pre-requisite and outcome of effective online community engagement.
Also, both the meaning and implementation of specific objectives is highly contextual (as per planning project and location) and open to interpretation. For example, ‘consultation’ might mean different levels of participation to different people, even though the IAP2 Spectrum provides an explicit definition.
Because they are contextual, different objectives might also apply at different stages or for different components of consultations for a plan or development project.
DPP / e-Participation platform features
These relate to the front-end interactive functionalities for urban residents, as well as back-end project management and data visualisation for platform administrators, if such functionality is available.
Features such as usability and the capacity to participate at any time of the day and night was highly valued to engage residents in planning.
The main technical improvements concerned workflow integrations on the back-end, as well as simpler mapping and drawing functionalities for platforms that relied on advanced map-based surveys.
Finally, the perceived effectiveness of the technology was seen as inseparable from the use context. This shows the most effective use of technology occurs when it is appropriately embedded within a project. However, this make it difficult to assess the effectiveness of the platform separately from the wider community engagement process, or even the planning process at large.
e-Participation platforms were seldom used on their own. They were usually deployed alongside traditional in-person methods (e.g. public meetings, workshops), social media, and/or other communications and participatory methods, depending on the context.
The key take-away is that digital participatory platforms can function as toolboxes in their own right, particularly for versatile/generalist platforms. In turn, the platforms are best used when deployed with an eye to foster an ‘ecosystem’ of tools as most relevant for specific projects. This can require significant learning by doing on the part of planning professionals, to determine which tools and methods reach out best to different groups of people.
Finally, e-Participation platforms are most effective when they directly shape the content of in-person methods, and vice-versa. This creates opportunities for iterative, recursive engagement. It can also enable engagement officers and planners to bring digital devices on site (e.g. tablets connected to wifi) to collect input from residents.
Objectives and design of e-Participation – the view from Civic Tech start-ups
The findings from representatives at 13 Civic Tech start-ups / community engagement software vendors largely overlap with the responses from planning professionals. However, interesting differences stand out.
The Civic Tech respondents were more conservative as to the observed objective for engaging residents via e-Participation platforms. ‘Consultation’ seemed to be the mainstay of online engagement, as based on their cumulative insight about different client projects. In the final analysis, clients are responsible for managing the online community engagement projects the best they can, with due support and recommendations from customer success representatives and technical support.
A key insight was the explicit participatory ethos and activism of the respondents and companies they worked for. They were passionate about encouraging clients to involve, collaborate with and empower residents. Most start-up advocated this goal as part of their corporate mission statement.
As with the planners, the Civic Tech respondents viewed that areas of improvement would concern workflow integration and back-end functionalities, such as push-button reporting and data visualisation. Greater insight about participants was seen as an important challenge to overcome, to help clients better understand who they were involving.
Finally, several start-ups mentioned opportunities for hybrid, mirrored, and blended approaches to engagement. A methodological exemplar worth mentioning is the ‘phygital‘ approach adopted by the Paris-based consultancy Repérage Urbain in their use of the popular Carticipe-Débatomap map-based survey tool. In essence, boots-on-the-ground and digital tools are used seamlessly, either sequentially or simultaneously, and input on both sets of tools are then synthetically analysed through advanced spatial analysis, delivering high value for clients. Other similar cases in point are Spacescape‘s Bästa Platsen tool (Sweden), now becoming the new Placetoplan tool. One can also cite Emotional Maps, which has been widely used at dozens of local councils across Czech Republic (note: Emotional Maps was not reviewed in the thesis and findings reported here). Few of the Civic Tech start-ups I have come across in my different research projects since 2014 provide such comprehensive planning consultancy services.
The way forward for e-Participation
In other recent posts on this blog, I address the next frontier(s) for effective online community engagement in urban planning. Together with the findings that were shared here, one can highlight opportunities for:
- deploying ‘phygital‘ approaches to community engagement, which is a hybrid/blended form of engagement where online and in-person engagement shape each other iteratively and recursively both within and between projects, over time
- gathering a broadened evidence-base for planning that not only facilitates, but explicitly cares about and for, urban residents’ expertise and experiences about the places they live and work in (see the work by John Forester and John Friedman, among other pragmatic planning researchers). In times of austerity, the capacity to care also implies there would be adequate material and other resources to do so (such as participatory service design and urban design skills)
- nurturing long-term dialogue and conversations that go beyond single consultation projects, and incrementally build community value over time, as underpinned by trust, transparency, inclusion and jargon-free communication
To further substantiate the above, a companion post will share research findings from the same projects and respondents about the perceived influence of e-Participation on planning decisions. It will also address a range of related organisational and institutional factors.