Why we need less community engagement and more co-creation in infrastructure development

The timely and coordinated sequencing of infrastructure is critical to the success of Australia remarks Infrastructure Australia in its recently released report “Planning Liveable Cities: A place-based approach to sequencing infrastructure and growth” reporting that communities are increasingly disappointed by their experience of growth.

The report identifies six common challenges facing Australia’s five largest cities as they grow, citing how Australian cities are playing “catch-up”mode regarding infrastructure development and housing.

Co-creating using virtual reality in local libraries

A section in the report focuses on how existing community engagement often aims to ‘inform’ local communities about developments that have already been planned and designed.

As the report writes (pp 37):

The focus on micro-scale impacts also naturally attracts vocal community representatives, making it harder to hear from and engage with a broad cross-section of the community, including the time-poor, young, and vulnerable people in our cities.

Which brings us to a tweet we saw yesterday in our feed, which reminded us of some of our thinking on this issue.

According to the article linking from the tweet, Port Macquarie-Haystings local government have opened up this week a new virtual reality space enabling the local community to be “a ninja, ride a roller-coaster and swim with sharks…”

The article goes onto explain how the space can be used for entertainment and education and is funded from a grant from the NSW State Government. As Port Macquarie-Hastings mayor Peta Pinson is reported to have said “libraries need to adapt to cater for the changing demands of society, particularly as more of our everyday lives involve interactions with new technologies and the digital world”.

This reminded us of a strategy meeting we had at Snobal 3 yrs ago. There we shared our vision for a day where all local council libraries in Australia would have VR rooms or spaces available for use by the local community.

These VR ‘rooms’ would provide access not only to immersive entertainment and education opportunities but also enable citizens to experience design proposals on infrastructure and housing development for their local community.

The VR rooms would enable citizens provide feedback on design and help co-create their local community and city in tandem with government decision makers and infrastructure developers.

Government decision makers would be able to get input on redevelopment of parks and playgrounds for example from all ‘users’ of the facilities not just the most ‘vocal’. :)

In time these VR rooms could replace or at the very least compliment the ‘traditional’ infrastructure community engagement drop in sessions that typically are a part of infrastructure development. Drop in sessions that are often not well attend by a cross section of the community but rather by more ‘vocal’ or ‘enraged’ citizens.

It would mean community engagement session would move from a ‘static’ model of viewing architectural plans and artist impressions…

Source: “Planning Liveable Cities: A place-based approach to sequencing infrastructure and growth”

…to enabling people actually experience design and provide ‘lived experience’ informed feedback.

Moving from ‘engagement’ to ‘co-creation’

It makes so much sense and it is a vision that at Snobal we have been thinking about and working on for the last 4 years.

We know a time will come in the near future when VR head-mounted displays will be widespread and available in most people’s homes, much the same as tablets are now. A time will also come when all infrastructure and housing developers will be required to provide people with virtual reality experiences of designs for input, co-creation and feedback. This will also mean designs will be available online for people to experience immersively and provide input on.

But for the moment our local libraries provide a great avenue for enriching ‘community engagement’ in infrastructure and housing development.

Which brings us to the word ‘engagement’. It’s a curious word if you think about it to describe the process of obtaining citizen feedback on design (or an issue) with the word ‘engagement’ having multiple meanings ranging from “an agreement to marry someone” to “an arrangement to meet someone…” to “the act of beginning to fight someone, or a period of time in a war…”!

Perhaps with the proliferation of digital its a good time to stop and think about our language. More ‘co-design’ and ‘co-creation’ and less ‘engagement’?

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