Hi, I’m going to talk today about current and future approaches to online community engagement around urban planning and design.
I’m not an urban planner – I’m an online engagement specialist, who has spent most of the last twenty years assisting organisations across both private and public sectors to engage constructively with their communities via digital channels.So I’m not going to talk about digital approaches or tools that are necessarily valuable for urban planners, but rather the ones that have been effective for communities and stakeholders, with the end result that planners have received the information they need to make the best possible decisions.
A process that Delib’s been involved with which has achieved this bringing along of the community and stakeholders, has been the Thames Tideway Tunnel. The London sewage system is over a hundred years old and was not designed for the population of London today. As a result it was spewing thousands of tonnes of raw sewage directly into the Thames whenever the city had significant rainfall, creating pollution and health issues for both humans and wildlife.However to correct this problem involved extending and widening the sewage system under 28 significant historic buildings, managing both conservation societies and extremely wealthy owners as well as the community.To achieve this the Thames Water Authority has engaged in a three year consultation journey. This has been centred on their website – as a hub for the information and a centre for consultation, which took place both offline and online. We’ve worked through several rounds of engagement with them, using our survey and consultation management platform to power the back-end. Delib also developed the website and assisted with the approach, which involved the integration of online and offline consultation into a seamless approach.
We’ve done some similar, but more limited work in Australia, with the Plan Melbourne consultation. This was a three year consultation process, which for the first two years largely involved stakeholder engagement. We were brought in in February 2013 to lead their social media practice as they began to bring citizens onto the journey they had been engaged in for the last few years. The image is part of our report on their Community Forum, which involved 800 participants in the room and roughly another 400 remotely via social channels, discussing some of the major decision points of the plan.It represents the twitter engagement throughout the day by time – we also cut it by topic and tracked sentiment manually for almost 600 tweets.We also ran a liveblog which was updated approximately 400 times through the day – or once a minute – with much of the material from the room, including videos, quick polls and opportunities to comment on a range of topics.
Throughout the eleven months we ran their social presence we made heavy use of Facebook to build community and Twitter to raise awareness and reach, focusing the conversation back into a series of forums on their website and into the Facebook page, where people preferred to have conversations. It was very difficult balancing the political and departmental requirements, and with a change in Ministerial advisors we were required to cut back on most online engagement and consultation, which I feel reduced the effectiveness of the final outcome.Regardless, throughout the social media engagement, which had very light physical support with the planning with the Community Event, four information sessions and some shopping centre ‘pop-up’ displays, we engaged with over 15,000 people directly and indirectly with over 100,000 and significantly raised awareness of the process and constraints that led the state into its final decisions.
And this is the mapping component we use – which can be adapted to any type of design image as we don’t restrict it to the use of a background map. You can seek feedback on the development of a town centre, shopping centre, golf course, website or any other type of design that can be represented visually.
Now there’s often the need to use different types of engagement at different stages. While many people seem to like forums, I’m not really a big fan because they are so unstructured, do not attract broad engagement, require a great deal of management and often do not educate the community while engaging them. I like cause and effect consultation tools – which allow organisations to influence a community’s views while collecting them – such as this example from the my2050 consultation by the UK government. This approach challenged people to select the adaptive behaviours they’d prefer to reduce carbon emissions in the UK, and attracted an enormous level of engagement because there was no upfront requirement to register, it resembled a game-like engaging experience and it challenged people to come up with their own solution to a commonly discussed issue. People were educated through the process of making changes and the experience wasn’t a spurious one – the sliders and their impacts were designed from the actual modeling spreadsheets from the department, so resembled the real impact.This type of approach both educates and engages people in significant challenges and can readily be adapted to urban design issues around allocation of different types of dwellings, commercial and industrial structures and green spaces. Being able to show the impact of decisions – by cost, environmental impacts, health effects and others helps guide people rather than simply having them give an opinion.
Going a little further forward, it is starting to become possible to design 3D urban landscapes through tools adaptable to consultation. One example is Minecraft, a hugely popular game which has also been used for educational and design purposes.This type of design is highly interactive with people able to walk through the virtual landscape, individually or in groups and even adjust features where appropriate.
Minecraft and its community are now sponsoring urban design projects, such as this park in central Nairobi, using the inexpensive game to provide visualisations that people can walk through at extremely low costs.One of the advantages of this type of approach is how accessible it is to people in the community to actively contribute to urban design processes without having to train people on using a more sophisticated 3D modeling system – even a tool like Sketch Up.By lowering the barrier to community engagement, it broadens the engagement potential – whether as a visualisation or a codesign platform.And Minecraft can involve active collaborative design within a virtual world, with many people simultaneously contributing to a project in an iterative way.My 14 year old daughter last year used Minecraft to model the explosion of Mount Vesuvius for a school assignment and there’s tools for importing real world plans and models into Minecraft as well as a highly engaged development community around the world.
Other approaches sliding further into game-like activities include the work the ABS did to create Run That Town, an app specifically designed to model ABS data and represent how it was used in decision-making activities.This game challenges the player to manage their postcode, making development decisions based on community sentiment and real demographic data.While this wasn’t designed for planning purposes, the concept is readily adaptable for city planners, and could be used within highly interactive engagement processes – challenging people to balance the different parameters and make decisions, then aggregating that data for internal review and even reflect back the aggregate decisions to the community.
Just a final view on the visualisation space. Vizicities is a UK start up focused on how they can integrate real-time data into urban design. They’ve modeled the real-time airflows for airports and geolocated real-time tweets and movements around cities in their prototype engine. This video shows the London Tube in 3D, with real-time train movements around it.While most urban planning tools today are still limited to static views of cities, perhaps with some AI individuals or vehicles in the streets, in the future systems will be more like Vizicities and able to model cities in real-time – living citites.We won’t be able to move structures and infrastructures around and see the effects in real-life (at least not yet), however understanding the real-time movements of people and vehicles will help show how cities are used and where the stress points will be.
One approach that begins to remove the screen as a barrier has been used through horizontal touchscreens, which can interact with physical objects on the surface as part of a design process.This has been trialed using tools such as the original Microsoft Surface – which is essentially a large touchscreen in a table that can read the position of certain devices on top of it, and integrate information from them via a tagging system.This type of approach approximates the process of working with physical maps, but with the ability to turn on and off layers and add game like elements. However it still involves staring at a screen.
The next phase beyond this is wearable computing… This is one of the earliest public prototypes for Google Glass – and really isn’t a very flattering system.
More flattering is their current configuration – and there are thousands of people testing this system in the US and around the world. There’s about 8 sets in Australia, and I got to play with one in Melbourne last week with BuilderAR.There’s also technologies such as the Ocular Rift, which has overcome the uncanny divide for fully immersive 3D worlds through some very smart programming and technology.The technology still has some way to go, but it is disappearing into the background, allowing this type of experience.
The ability to integrate living information, and urban design information, directly into the environment is starting to open the door to new approaches to architecture and to community engagement.Being able to move models into the real world as an overlay – giving people the ability to actually walk through a future cityscape
How this will integrate data into the world will also become a factor for urban design. Suddenly when designing a space there’s not just the physical but also the digital world to consider. What information will be supplied to people along with a specific structure or location?This also moves into real-time consulting for spaces, where an engagement can be anchored to a place and people visiting it with the appropriate wearable technologies will be able to engage and share their views and experience in real time at the place.
This is a view of where these types of wearables could go – not a fully positive experience, but an interesting possibility.
Just to show these types of visualisations are not a futuristic vision, here’s a publicly available service showing some of the potential for this type of overlays.When coming to Sydney from Canberra for this event, I wanted to checkout the venue first – so I looked at Urban Jungle…As you see it takes Google Streetview and applies a 3D filter, greening our city.It wouldn’t be hard to create a similar virtual view of a future cityscape for any ongoing development, maybe with a timescale allowing people to look at how a city will evolve over years based on projects underway or under consideration.
Finally, I’d like to give a quick plug for a tool I’ve designed for helping people plan their online engagement strategy – in a way that involves no computer technology whatsoever.Social Media is a deck of cards which teams can use at a table to design their strategy. I am currently crowdfunding the production of the cards and looking for backers willing to pay $25 or a little more for an early bird pack.Just go to SocialMediaPlanner.com.au and click through to the Kickstarter for a video and details on how to back the project.
Thank you for your time.
Current (and future) approaches to
(online) community engagement;
tools and practice
Gov 2.0 Advocate
Urban Technology IN FOCUS
19 March 2014
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