After 18 months of doing almost everything on a screen, we’ve recently restarted our in-person activity. Over the last two months, we’ve run events from our Campervan Ed, engagement workshops, and pop-up shops. Next week is our first face-to-face education programme since February 2019. But, with Covid cases soaring and potential restrictions looming on the horizon, what can we learn from our experience during Covid that we can draw from going forwards? And can we really engage, when we can’t be together?
At PLACED, we’re passionate about the importance of shared ideas and in-person dialogue. We place great value on the unplanned conversation with someone passing through a square that they know well, where we’re holding a pop-up event about its’ future. Going to people rather than expecting people to come to us and enabling people to share their views who otherwise probably wouldn’t is fundamental to our work.
Pre-Covid, we’d do occasional online surveys, but responses didn’t allow you to explore what people really wanted. For example, what does “I want the square to feel more European” mean? Sunny? Less Costa Coffee? Or a space were families come together? Traditional surveys have benefits, but they’re not really what we’re about.
We also recognise the wider social value that comes from conversation about our towns and cities. With loneliness and isolation at a record high — even before the epidemic — and a loss of places for people to interact, the value of the conversation itself is something we’re incredibly passionate about. We often speak to the most vulnerable in society, who simply want to be heard and know what they have to say is valued. For someone to take the time to listen to their views and experiences, which are fundamentally connected to where they live. It’s a big part of what we do. Our Liverpool Urban Room, Ed’s Place, provided us with evidence of the benefit of a shared space to come together and talk about our city and the positive social value of this space was significant.
When Covid hit, it really tested our values. We battled with the idea of online. Would we be excluding all those we most wanted to reach? How can we make the conversation and dialogue positive, collaborative and solution based? But we felt it was vital to keep on delivering meaningful, creative and accessible engagement to ensure developers, designers and decision makers could continue to involve local people in their proposals. So, we committed to trying.
We put a lot of energy into finding the right tools and platforms that best reflected our values. For example, PLACED Engage, our digital engagement platform, enables collaborative, accessible engagement. It includes Interactive Maps and Ideas Walls where people share their thoughts on images, can view each other’s comments and engage with them, whilst giving people the option to also share through a traditional online survey. There were many similar tools popping up, but this felt by far the most tactile and open, and the one that best reflected what we do.
One example of how this worked is in Hoylake, where the future of the beach and the naturalisation process was a key topic of debate. The site allowed voices to come out in support of this process, feeling that chemicals and raking wasn’t a sustainable approach to management. Prior to this, the overwhelming and dominant voice had been for keeping it as a traditional beach. Allowing people to put forward their perspective in a way that was dialogue based but avoiding the confrontation which had become associated with this discussion was therefore a great strength of the tool, and a view that may have struggled to be heard in face-to-face events.
We also found ways to keep supporting young people — who you’ll see from previous blogs are a critical part of our work. During the first 12 months of the pandemic, we completed the first PLACED Academy online, delivered two sponsored PLACED Digital Academy programmes, and self-funded two educational programmes for young people.
Being online allowed us to grow our reach and accept 70 young people onto the Academy, instead of the previous 40. It also resulted in some of the best work we’ve ever seen. Those young people we worked with produced designs that were empathetic, people-focused, considered and emphasised the need to focus on the sustainability of our planet. Amongst so much sadness, their work bought real hope and joy.
Alongside our education sessions and PLACED Engage, we had workshops where people clapped at the end, developed creative mailouts so people could do creative activities in their home, had a fun day about the Spatial Development Strategy which ended in a glittery gold quiz, zoomed into schools and supported home learning. We kept evolving, our offer changed as people’s needs changed and in response to the different communities we were working with.
It surprised us how well it worked. Whist I really don’t like the term ‘pivot,’ we did learn a lot about how to do things well, differently. In the first 12 months of Covid, we delivered 12 projects and engaged over 2,000 adults and young people in a range of issues about their built environment through 103 digital workshops and events
So, going forward, what do we see as the role for digital engagement?
We now advocate for a blend of in person and considered online engagement, including both wherever we can in our proposals, regardless of Covid restrictions. Digital allow people to participate at a time and place that works for them, essential for the millions of us with caring responsibilities. It makes it easier for the quieter voices to express themselves, provided it is well managed. And it removes the need for travel, which can be a barrier to accessing events in terms of cost and mobility. And frankly, not everyone is ready or able to get out and about whilst Covid still looms. Many are still apprehensive, feeling anxious about social interaction. We’ve noticed with our pop-up events, some are more reluctant than normal to stop and chat. So, there are real benefits.
But — and it’s a big but — it’s not enough on its own, no matter how good it is. It rarely has the same broad audience that we can achieve through pop-up events and activities, where people stumble across our events and then spend an hour in deep conversation over a cuppa. Many are excluded, whether due to digital literacy and poverty, but also being outside of digital networks. And, especially in recent months, people really are tired of looking at small boxes of people’s faces online. Our young people on our current Academy have found it incredibly difficult to complete the course online, feeling tired, overwhelmed, and many experiencing poor mental health. We’re digitally fatigued and craving real interaction.
Looking to the next few months, we hope we can still get out and deliver the many events we have planned. If not, we feel well-equipped to keep conversations going. We will also continue to adapt and keep things fresh where wherever we can. Either way, digital engagement is a firm fixture in our expanding toolbox.
But we know that making things together out of card with other young people you’ve not met before, drawing ideas about how a space could look with your neighbour or debating with a stranger in a pop-up about the pros and cons of ideas can’t be beaten.
To read the full reflection on our experience during the first 12 months of lockdown click here.