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Traditional consultation is dead

Community engagement

Aurecon’s Joel Fredericks and Kylie Cochrane reflect on the impact of digital technology on the future of consultation on water policy and infrastructure.

We live in a world where we are more connected than ever before, and where we are exposed to an unprecedented amount of digital content. However with the exception of the recent work on the Lower Hunter Water Plan, consultation on water issues in New South Wales has mostly used traditional face-to-face methods.

Traditional consultation attracts an unrepresentative proportion of the wider community, which can impact on the implementation of infrastructure within the built environment. It is critical that governments and organisations have a more considered approach to community and stakeholder engagement on key water policy, governance, planning and infrastructure.

Urban computing technologies, gamification and virtual panoramas offer opportunities to devise novel situated community engagement strategies that can engage previously difficult to reach, as well as new, segments of society.

Existing community engagement approaches

Community engagement is practised by government agencies and private enterprise with the intention to obtain public feedback on the development of infrastructure within the built environment. Through collaboration with communities, businesses and government organisations, community engagement aims towards guiding the decision making process based on the outcomes of the engagement undertaken.

Community engagement is generally undertaken as a legislative requirement, to inform communities on the creation of policies and infrastructure developments within the built environment. However, relationships between local communities and government agencies have traditionally played a consultative role, with the level of engagement reduced to only informing communities.

As a consequence, the engagement process and the level of community input is controlled by government agencies, and is often attributed to political agendas of elected representatives, political party practices and bureaucratic power-brokers.

Current methods of community engagement, such as, face-to-face workshops, community forums, public hearings, and online forms, only reach certain demographics of the population.

As a result of this, opinions of community members classified as ‘hard to reach’ are not reflected in the overall engagement process. It has been argued by many engagement practitioners and community groups that legally required methods of community engagement in government decision making rarely achieve genuine engagement outcomes; create dissatisfaction among citizens who feel they are not being heard; do not significantly improve the decisions of government agencies; and do not incorporate a broad spectrum of the community.

It has been further argued that some traditional engagement practices suffer from a lack of integration between governments and the public, and have been shown to have inadequate representation of age groups and demographics.

Community engagement and technologies

In the last decade information and communication technology as we know it, has evolved from simply using a personal computer in the workplace or at home, to becoming an integrated feature of daily life through new forms of digital and mobile technologies. New technologies are increasingly being designed for everyday use in urban environments, such as, smart phones, tablet devices, digital signage and urban screens. Researchers and engagement practitioners investigating the use of digital technologies are in the early stages of exploring the myriad of opportunities new digital technologies offer for community engagement.

In the new age of social interaction and communication, contemporary society has adopted the use of digital technologies within a variety of urban contexts. In particular, the use of situated digital technologies offers opportunities to engage people in localised conversations within a particular urban public space around engagement topics of local relevance.

In a study undertaken in Melbourne’s Federation Square, an existing urban screen was used as a situated technology encouraging citizens to respond to community engagement questions using SMS and Twitter. This approach to the community engagement activity enabled citizens to submit their responses on the spot, in real-time, which encouraged collective expression and public discourse (Schroeter and Foth 2009).

Similarly, a study undertaken in Sydney made use of a public screen in Chatswood to deploy a situated voting system that consisted of a survey running on an iPad mounted on a stand and deployed in a busy public precinct. Participants were able to submit their votes on the iPad, which then displayed all the responses on the public screen. The study identified that situated digital voting systems can be an effective strategy for attracting the attention of members of the general public and converting them into active participants (Hespanhol et al., 2015).

New and innovative approaches to community engagement can actively involve community members through the deployment of small scale but effective situated digital technologies.

An example of this was seen with the installation of low-tech input devices in shops and cafés and displayed visualisations along the street. This enabled citizens to vote on locally relevant questions, encouraged reflection of local issues and generated conversations about the community (Koeman et al., 2015). A further example of this approach was investigated through the deployment of low-cost, open-source interactive posters for citizens to vote on community related issues.

The posters were deployed in two different contexts. The first one was placed on a street lamp post, with little supervision and the second at a fair, with the interaction mediated by a community group who facilitated the community engagement discussions. This approach ensured greater representativeness, heightened sense of credibility to the engagement activity, and general discussion among members of the community.

Additionally, it introduced potential barriers to engagement, due to the explicit governance by a group whose members were in a position of power relative to ordinary community members (Vlachokyriakos et al., 2014).

Common findings across these previous studies indicate that it can be challenging to make members of the public aware of the engagement activity. Other issues are linked to the question of authenticity and ownership, which can lead to low participation rates. Successful strategies shown to increase participation rates are to (1) link the consultation process with a public event, (2) locate the engagement interface within a staffed information kiosk , or (3) encourage representatives of the local community to take ownership of the engagement process.

Interactive, situated digital technologies have the potential to facilitate effective community engagement by attracting varied demographics, fostering local discourse and augmenting decision-making processes. This approach deployed within public spaces provides citizens the option to participate on the spot, with little effort in comparison to attending traditional community engagement events.

Digital technologies, such as tablets and urban screens can be easily appropriated to engage citizens in public spaces. Gamification and virtual panoramas also allow communities and stakeholders to view the consultation in a 3D-style model that they can virtually experience at a time and place of their choice. Instead of attending a community engagement session in a set location and during set hours, they can instead view the information in their own time at home, waiting for the train, from a café etc.

This approach significantly broadens the reach of water engagement and consultation programs. It can either replace or complement the more resource intensive face to face approach.

Communities and stakeholders are time poor. They access their information and entertainment via digital means. This is also their primary form of communication with colleagues, friends and family. In this new era of digitalisation, water authorities need to rethink their consultation and engagement approach. Water authorities that continue to use traditional consultation on its own will simply fail to engage and will be left behind.

This article was published in the Water Journal, September 2015, and is reproduced here with permission.


Hespanhol L, Tomitsch M, McArthur I, Fredericks J, Schroeter R & Foth M (2015): ‘Vote As You Go: Blending Interfaces For Community Engagement Into The Urban Space, Submitted to Communities and Technologies Conference 2015.

Koeman L, Kalnikaite V and Rogers Y (2015): Everyone Is Talking About It!: A Distributed Approach to Urban Voting Technology and Visualisations. In Proc. CHI’15, ACM Press (2015).

Schroeter R & Foth M 2009: Discussion in space, In Kjeldskov, Jesper, Paay, Jeni, & Viller, Stephen (Eds.) OZCHI 2009 Proceedings: Design: Open 24/7, ACM Digital Library, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, pp. 381-384.

Vlachokyriakos V, Comber R, Ladha K, Taylor N, Dunphy P, McCorry P and Olivier P (2014): Postervote: Expanding the Action Repertoire for Local Political Activism. In Proc. DIS'14, ACM Press (2014).

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