Effective Community Engagement in a Hybrid World

COVID taught us we don’t need in-person workshops to gather input from the community. New digital tools and lessons learned from the pandemic can make us better at equitable, inclusive outreach.

The COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting effect on how designers and developers engage with the public and seek input on projects. In the past, in-person interactive design workshops were considered the most effective way to tap into the creativity of a community’s residents. During the pandemic, we learned there are many ways to gather detailed data to solve design and programming challenges.

One big takeaway: Combining in-person meetings with broader, more representative outreach is actually a better way to collect relevant input from communities. Workshops are great for generating concepts, encouraging small group creativity and obtaining group feedback. But for data that better represents and serves the whole community, old-fashioned meetings alone are not as good as a hybrid approach that merges in-person contact with digital outreach, especially if the outreach is designed to get beyond the most interested parties.

Over the last decade, we have seen a gradual decline in the participation rates for community input on projects, which suggests we should be trying different approaches. New tools and more responsive strategies can increase participation from a wider variety of residents. Making involvement easier and more inclusive improves the quality of the results and the breadth of the overall data, ensuring that the final project better serves the current and future population.

In too many cases, the process is skewed by the most vocal segment of the population. They are super-engaged and opinionated and show up for every meeting. They don’t necessarily represent the opinions of the entire community, but they are the loudest voices at the table.

Insight John Courtney2
Combining in-person meetings and charrettes with broader outreach on digital platforms such as Mural and Zoom is an effective way to collect community input.

A hybrid approach between live meetings and digital tools can make the outreach process more inclusive and produce better results. As we learned during the pandemic, people like using Zoom, GoTo and other digital platforms. It’s easier and less time-consuming and will bring in people who might not attend a live meeting.

With the help of new digital platforms, we can improve the experience and re-create many of the aspects of traditional workshops. People feel engaged and part of the design process. It’s virtual, but it’s almost the same as being there in person.

For a recent virtual design charrette with the city of San Jose, we used Mural software to share visual listening photo collages. Participants were able to engage with us in real time using the same green dot/red dot selection methods that we would use in a big room with a lot of people. The “touch” factor — the engagement — is still there. The design charrette portion of the meeting was conducted with Mural as well, utilizing bubble diagram shape templates to gain an understanding of common concerns for adjacency and conceptual park diagramming.

Over the past few years, scientific survey outreach systems have rapidly improved, offering better user experiences and graphics along with statistically representative data. One of our consultants, FlashVote, develops concise but meaty, three-to-five-question surveys that are easy to answer and collect in a very short time, typically 48 hours. They can also create a representative user group that is willing to offer quick, informative responses to multiple questions or surveys as they arise throughout the design process.

Firms like FlashVote also use geotagging and demographic filters, adding more context to data gleaned from responses. Viewing responses by custom overlays on a map can provide clients with insights beyond just answers to the questions.

To develop the detailed community engagement plan, we often collaborate with the client in a “plan the plan” initial meeting. We provide a tailored approach unique to the individual nuances of local demographics, geography and project goals. Recently, we have facilitated a combination of online and in-person engagement strategies to create a more inclusive, equitable engagement process that reached a wider variety of demographics. Especially these days, a holistic approach is required to make sure the process is reaching every corner of the community and generating useful data.

Digital responses should never fully replace in-person meetings, but we are growing more sophisticated in our strategies. During the pandemic, some agencies increased participation by organizing public design workshops and site awareness tours into multiple, in-person meetings of 12 people or fewer, staged outdoors with safety protocols at staggered times. The approach worked to provide in-person, on-site, CDC-compliant experiences for the community. We were able to obtain important community input with these modifications, but with higher costs, in terms of time and money.

Every tool should be explored. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Meetup and Nextdoor are cost-effective vehicles for delivering open-ended survey questions where responses don’t need to be representative, as well as a way to invite the community to more in-depth workshops or focus groups. Special project webpages should be frequently updated to encourage interest and promote transparency and participation, supporting the other areas of the outreach strategy.

By implementing community outreach throughout all stages of the design process, we’re building a record of what the community is thinking and how it has evolved through the life of the project. The engagement process should evolve with the times, recognizing that people are interacting in different ways.

Engaging with a combination of in-person and digital outreach strategies will help communities make better, more informed decisions. For everybody involved, a project is a success when we engage with the community to determine their true needs, and then deliver it through the design process.