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Design Council

Reflections on hosting our largest virtual event — Digital Community Engagement

Last month, we hosted our largest virtual event, Digital Community Engagement with 186 people in attendance on Zoom. The event was inspired by our latest research and digital workshop discussion on where design can best support health and wellbeing, which found that inclusive community engagement is critical. Many designers had been using digital methods to engage communities before the pandemic, and others had pivoted to digital during it.

Our goal was to showcase the best examples of digital community engagement across service design, policy design, organisational design and place-shaping, inspiring our audience how to best engage with people in our new virtual worlds.

Here are some of our collective highlights from the talks.

Human connection in digital services: Matt Mcstravick from Deepr talked about how to build connection and trust digitally. He started his session with a 30-second trust building exercise — the hot mug technique. Research shows that when we bring a hot mug to a meeting with new people we are physiologically disposed to feel more connected. Then Matt shared the five conditions for building human connection: presence, equality, accountability, autonomy and bringing your whole self.

Using digital as a way to connect with places — Sarah Jones-Morris and Dr Jo Morrison from Association of Collaborative Design (ACD) shared projects that show how digital technologies are supporting communities to build better relationships with their environment.

(1) Participation through data gathering — for example, the Hush City App, a free citizen app, empowers people to identify and assess quiet areas in cities with the potential of orienting plans and policies for healthier living in response to issues framed by European environmental policies. Consequently, this shows a link between an individual’s experience and a collective global response.

(2) Imagining hybrid spaces — Calvium, a leading digital agency was commissioned to undertake a six-month research project in Cardiff, which used a new method of community consultation. For example, they wanted to understand how digital technologies might enhance people’s experiences. So they created a showcase Ideascape that provoked attendees to imagine how location-specific digital products and services could provide new ways for people to experience the public spaces of Porth Teigr. The outcome of this was interactive prototypes that ranged from using augmented reality binoculars to a geolocated audio tour telling the history of the on-site lock keeper’s cottage. As a result, Calvium captured feedback from the attendees and used this information as the basis of the Ideascape research report.

Pivoting engagement to digital through Covid — Akil Benjamin, Head of Research at Comuzi kickstarted his session with a breathing technique to build connection and create synchronicity. Research has shown that synchronicity enhances trust and togetherness in the brain, which gives people a sense of belonging. He then shared methods to connect researchers with communities meaningfully. For instance, Comuzi’s Connecting with Communities Framework helps you to understand the community you are trying to engage with, determine the research topic that is authentic to the community and best serves them, understand what they value the most, and then frame your engagement in a way that they see value. Do your participants value their time or money? If they value money and your study is for commercial use, Comuzi believes it is good practice to pay or incentivise your participants.

Digital and remote engagement, creative learning and reciprocal value in public consultation — this session led by Duncan Bain from New Practice shared the difficulty in replicating the messy creativity and hands on processes when meeting digitally and how building remote engagement processes has helped to shape their thinking and future practice. They have upskilled by developing significant experience in creating bespoke digital engagement packages for their clients using online surveys, video presentations, webinars, and even video games. For instance, they used gaming software Minecraft to recreate the Portobello area and by doing so they were able to mimic model making and messy crafts which is how they were previously engaging with young people. Adopting video gaming technology has helped to foster creativity and create meaningful two-way conversations with their target audience.

Using digital engagement within traditional organisations — Sarah Drummond, the CEO of Snook took a critical approach to technology. Just because you are using technology doesn’t mean it will work or you will achieve your desired outcomes. Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation (1969), offers up the notion that most engagement is tokenistic, and true participation is achieved through co-design and co-production.

How do we go beyond the consultation route, which is the default standard of working with people? How do we use technology in a genuinely way to provide partnership working? What’s the solution? Sarah offers up co-designing. This approach goes beyond technology as it focuses on the human experience. For example, in 2009 Sarah designed MyPolice, the UK’s first online Police feedback tool, which enabled people to make practical suggestions to improve the service they receive from the police anonymously. This meant that hard-to-reach groups and people reluctant to approach the police were able to come forward. Consequently, empowering the public to push for changes to service delivery through empathetic stories shared online.

“Co-designing is a spectrum” Sarah Drummond, Snook

And finally…

Adapting to a changing world: Vasant Chari, Head of Policy Lab, talked about lessons learnt from their Covid19 experience, people centred methods and the way they are bringing policy makers together. He shared how they adapted their ethnographic methods to social distancing restrictions using a mix of remote video diaries and interviews via Zoom and telephone.

Lastly, what I learnt from hosting our largest virtual event is that although technology helps us to facilitate conversations, it isn’t perfect. Neither does it replace the need for human connection. As Matt Mcstravick, Deepr’s Creative Director puts it “at the centre of every design problem is a human relationship”. So, we mustn’t forget that. To view the presentation slides from the event, click here or you can view the recording here.

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