The phygital frontier: opportunities for smarter engagement in British town planning

2 minute read

For recovering perfectionists such as myself, carrying a journal paper to final publication is always an achievement, if not a miracle.

It always feels like one will lose some skin in the game. So it might be best to see it as a game of sorts, and not worry excessively about the final outcome.

The latest in line took just about two years, and several turns in the road. Kudos to my colleagues without whom it would never have happened: my former PhD supervisor James Charlton to whom I owe more than one paper, three-time stellar research colleague Richard Watson, and participatory environmental policy action researcher Caitlin Hafferty. Due thanks also to the editors of Urban Planning and the anonymous reviewers for their generous and constructive comments. And to the hundreds of conversations with planners, consultants, tech representatives, elected officials and activists in the past ten years or so who have shaped this paper in one way or another.

If you are into digital planning, Civic Tech, public participation, urban planning, co-production, community engagement, placemaking, participatory policy-making, and the like, you will probably enjoy reading it:

Phygitally Smarter? A Critically Pragmatic Agenda for Smarter Engagement in British Planning and Beyond.

In a nutshell, we review a selection of high-level British national planning policy documents for opportunities to adopt phygital engagement, i.e. citizen participation that uses in-person/face-to-face/analog methods along with digital ones. In the age of ‘digital first’ and ‘digital by default’ government services and community engagement, digital exclusion is still a significant hurdle. As a result, phyigital engagement still seems to be the final frontier for inclusive and innovative public participation in what is a (very) complex planning system for most people (including planners). Phygital engagement could, perhaps, even help reshape the planning system itself, although that is a separate conversation to have in a future empirical paper.

The paper seeks to make sense of the requirements for a ‘smarter’ phygital approach to engagement using both critical realism and a pragmatic mindset. To better consider related opportunities both conceptually and practically to transform planning data into meaningful knowledge, we suggest an original conceptual framework based on Paul Beynon-Davies’ unified theory of unified conception of information, systems, and technology. On the basis of the policy and literature review, we view that good practice takes place through seven socio-technical ‘Is’:

  • Interoperability
  • Integration
  • Intelligence
  • Inclusion/Inclusiveness
  • Intentionality
  • Interface(s)
  • Invisibility

We also propose three pillars for effective engagement:

  1. Well-informed, literate residents about planning and technology
  2. Well-resourced planners and local authorities
  3. Plural methods and tools for public participation

Critically, each pillar must address a set of entrenched challenges, ranging from digital divides in society to low capacity from local authorities to engage residents as they might. So read the full paper to get the full insight.

Readers are warmly invited to read the rest of the Urban Planning special issue entitled Smart Engagement With Citizens: Integrating “the Smart” Into Inclusive Public Participation and Community Planning. The papers in the special issue showcase empirical evidence and theoretical insight from across the globe. They are open access and so free to download and share.

Till next time!

Like a true chameleon, phygital/blended engagement can literally blend into any planning context. Quite probably the smarter way to go. Credit: picture by Karl Roby on Flickr.

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