From town halls to chat bots: how community engagement has evolved

Kylie Cochrane Kylie Cochrane
Design Director, Principal, Engagement & Change Advisory – Australia
8 May 2018
7 min read

When was the first time you heard of pantsuits? If you’re old enough to have worn them when they were original, you may still be struggling with the fundamental value of social media. The social media concept itself may conjure up images of disengaged families around the dinner table, eyeballing their screens rather than each other. But for those born on this side of the Millennial curtain, social media is the new normal when it comes to fostering a sense of community. And it’s a powerful reality that, unlike the resurrected pantsuit, is here to stay.

Welcome to the digital world, where global is the new local. Gone are the days when proximity, gender, and age defined the boundaries of community; now we are connected over shared values and interests that supersede geography. Technology has given people extensive insight into global issues, along with a voice that demands our attention.

Engaging the community is no longer an add-on when it comes to delivering infrastructure projects, or any business, for that matter. It’s an imperative from the onset, and restricting communication channels to old school or ‘controllable’ methods to avoid risk or exposure is no longer acceptable.

Today’s infrastructure design process must broaden its scope to answer the question: How will this project go beyond the brief to incorporate user input and needs, and ensure that it will sit well, if not perfectly, within a community, rather than creating changes that communities have no choice but to put up with?

If you want to ensure a project’s future success and sustainability, you’ll have to make space at the table for this (not so) new stakeholder and let them be heard.

Community engagement is not a matter of ‘if’ and ‘when’ anymore. It’s a matter of ‘are you doing it?’ and, if not, ‘how quickly can you start?’

Community engagement in the digital age

It’s crucial to understand the pulse of a community and to ensure the project reflects those priorities. That’s why sentiment and community values testing should be conducted even before projects are developed. At the very least, this engagement ensures no surprises in the community response or reaction to the announcement of the next infrastructure project.

social mediaThe good news is, we’re perfectly positioned to go beyond the traditional methods of project engagement, and to open channels of communication that the community actually wants to use.

We are now more than equipped to engage a wider and bigger audience with the help of technology via social media, mobile applications, and instant messaging, including chat bots to help citizens easily report incidents and provide feedback on projects.

While face to face engagement still has its place, tens of thousands of other voices will choose a warm dinner with family, caring responsibilities or work over a meeting in a cold community hall. With no barriers to participation, when you include digital, the stakeholder pool only increases and diversifies, and community views and values are more widely represented. As a result, project risk is also significantly reduced when an open and accessible dialogue is created early.

Aside from this, costs are minimised too. Digital platforms are relatively inexpensive, allowing a far more calculated return on investment, and those savings can be used for other things. Creating more accessible and relevant engagement also reduces project risks such as cost and schedule overruns.

But how do we engage when there is no trust?

Ironically, the world is getting bigger as it’s getting smaller. We can obtain information and forge collective experiences from 10 000 miles away – all within the confines of a palm-sized device.

Knowledge is no longer the domain of institutions and news agencies who toss a paper on the curb at 5 am, but is in the hands of everyday people, who inform and advocate as it happens. The pendulum is swinging from dutiful forms of traditional citizenship, with government and private sector at the helm, to a far more inclusive, self-actualised style of civic participation.

But with the abundance of information that we read online, people have become increasingly sceptical and distrustful of the ‘traditional mainstream’ institutions of business, government, media and NGOs; and their impermeable walls of information transfer.

Social media has created a glass door transparency that can fuel doubt and suspicion, and hinder equitable cooperation between the public, private and government sectors. Any hidden agendas that they have can shift from being ‘under wraps’ to this week’s breaking news, in the speed of a click.

In terms of the Social Triangle Theory (TM), as we lose our trust in these institutions, the ‘actual’ community, which we define in terms of people (our families and friends) and place (our cities and home towns), becomes even more relevant, and any change or perceived change to this is a threat.

The dark side of social media

“While distributed trust may sound like a techno-libertarian dream, the flip side is that the same tools that are being used to connect strangers all over the world can also be used in deeply unsettling and nefarious ways. Consider the profound changes in the way information and knowledge reached the public, the dark side of media abundance,” writes Who can you trust? author Rachel Botsman.

And the ‘dark side’ that she is referring to is unfortunately now here: we are getting manipulated. The recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal tells us so. Personal data of up to 87 million users were reportedly obtained and improperly shared for the purposes of profiling people to target for the 2016 US Election campaign.

As we enjoy engaging with our friends and loved ones through ‘likes,’ ‘comments’ and answering those quizzes, it seems that our personal data is too easily compromised, without our permission.

In addition to this, the freedom we exercise to literally share anything we want (even what is not true) on social media has taken us in a very sharp turn to the alarming era of fake news. The amount of misleading news on the Internet today has blown up to the extent that people are now finding it hard to differentiate news from rumours and trolls from concerned citizens.

The potential to engage communities using the power of digital technology is now challenged by this phenomenon and is further endangering the trust and connection that we have built, or worse, are just about to build.

How do you gain back trust?

Botsman says that for any business or project to be successful amid the loss of trust in institutions, we should always start with the people.

She writes, “To get out of the current trust collapse, we need to radically rethink the foundations on which our institutions are built so they are designed to work not just for the people but with the people.”

You need specialist skills and a distinct strategy to win and into a collective energy that will eventually co-author your infrastructure design. You have to start by identifying what the community cares about. You need to understand the reasons behind fear of change. Ask questions and listen to the answers before giving solutions. Engage on ground level and recognise the critical value of community throughout the process.

And, as the issue of the breach of privacy now frightens users of social media, it is now our responsibility to strengthen the security of the digital platforms we are using, by managing and maintaining the data we collect from community engagements with vigilance and integrity.

“There is a lot of confusion between what it means to trust a system, and what it means to trust a person,” says Robert Carolina, the executive director for the Institute for Cyber Security Innovation. “You have to have both the human element and the technological element correct. Ensuring that people do the right thing is a very different art from assuring that machines do what you expect them to do.”

Our job is to invite the community into this creative journey and ultimately to co-labour alongside them. If we can learn to listen to our local experts and to represent key areas of need – we can bank on building long-lasting, viable designs that really work and leave a legacy for the users of the road, rail or building.

After all: Community engagement, whether traditional or digital, is all about matters of trust and understanding.

With all kinds of curve balls that this unfixed future threatens to pitch, one thing is for sure, the design process cannot afford to ignore community – the users of our infrastructure. Our projects’ life cycles need to start right where they end – with people at the centre.

The community has spoken. And will continue to do so.

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Kylie Cochrane
Written by
Kylie Cochrane

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