By Freddie Broadhurst, Account Director Digital Engagement
In aspiring for the sustainable development of our built environment, that meets the needs and aspirations of both the landowner and of local people, we must find space, early in a project’s lifetime, for authentic community engagement.
Criteria for authentic community engagement includes inclusivity – equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized. The methods we choose to engage specific communities – typically a blend of traditional ‘offline’ and online methods – can go some way to determining just how inclusive a community engagement programme is.
The digital revolution in community engagement
It was not until March 2020 that the practice of community engagement, particularly in the context of built environment projects, experienced the beginning of a digital revolution and the full embrace of online methods to engage communities. COVID-19 rendered traditional face-to-face engagement methods totally useless (albeit temporarily), whilst we came to terms with the reality of the pandemic and the measures we would need to take to keep us all safe.
Almost 2 years on, online methods are now tried and tested. Harnessing these methods has created unparalleled access to great numbers of people, many of whom had not engaged in built environment projects in their local area before – including seldom-heard groups and those who are time-poor and were excluded by traditional practices – and who have now been mobilised to be actively involved in shaping local built environment projects.
With greater access to local people comes a greater number of representations and a more complete picture a local community’s needs and aspirations from the development of their built environment.
Evidencing inclusivity with data
By using online community engagement methods, including custom—built engagement platforms, such as Kanda Shape, Kanda websites, social media, and e-newsletter campaigns, we can unlock data-driven insights into the people and communities who engage in projects local to them.
With access to these insights over the lifetime of a given project, we can consider the performance of online community engagement methods. Where we identify the under-representation of specific sub-communities, we can diversify and adjust the weighting of our methods. In doing so, we can further extend the representation of local people and communities, ultimately amassing greater, more representative feedback on built environment ideas.
Since March 2020, we at Kanda have seen over 200,000 people interact with our online engagement platforms and have reached over 750,000 people through social media, approximately 1 in every 10 Londoners.
Social media gives us the ability to expand the pool of people that get involved in our projects and engage with changes to their area. It increases the awareness of development plans in the community and gives a more diverse range of people a voice. We’ve seen as many as two thirds of visits to our online engagement platforms come via our social media campaigns.Sabrina Francis, Digital Engagement Manager
The benefits of online methods of engaging communities are undeniable with the evidenced rates of engagement, when compared to offline alternatives, profound.
However, it is vital that we recognise the issue of digital exclusion and the ranging levels of digital literacy in communities.
Recognising digital exclusion
As recognised by the NHS, some sections of the population are more likely to be digitally excluded or have lower levels of digital literacy than others. These include older people, people with disabilities, and people whose first language is not English (reference). The sole use of online engagement methods will inevitably exclude some of the most vulnerable members of our society.
Whenever we aspire for authentic community engagement in built environment projects, online methods should always form part of a greater and more inclusive toolkit, including in-person events, postal correspondence, and telephone lines. Equally, we should make conscious effort to engage with local groups, particularly those that represent vulnerable members of our communities, establishing direct access to the seldom-heard.
A carefully selected toolkit of community engagement methods can provide equal access to conversations concerning built environment projects and begin to establish the conditions for delivering socially-sustainable development.