Digital Engagement During a Pandemic: how can you bring people together when you can’t bring people together?

Film by Megan Miller — a film-maker documenting the Future of the High Street project process and sharing these via our monthly project blog.

The third in our blog series about project ‘Future of the High Street’ — openly sharing the evolving project and process, our learnings and findings. This month — we reveal insights into live project decision-making and thought processes around digital engagement.

This month a critical question for us has been something that many built environment and placemaking professionals have needed to consider over the last year, as they pivot their previously established stakeholder engagement, placemaking and even day-to-day team working methods to adapt to what has become the ‘new normal’ with Covid.

How can you bring people together, when you can’t physically bring people together?

This question is increasingly important as the team finalise the preparatory work and initial studies for the two project locations of Gorgie/Dalry and Dalkeith (including character, facade, land use and activity studies of the high street and its businesses) and we begin actively engaging with local businesses, organisations and residents.

Thinking about ‘how to bring people together despite a pandemic’, is crucial at this project stage. It affects our decisions about the methods chosen to collaborate, engage and work with others to deliver this project. Not just as a project team and with our advisory board, but how digital tools or other strategies can be used to bring together local stakeholders and the project team throughout the engagement and co-design threads of this shared project journey.

But before we think about ‘how’ to bring people together, it’s important to think about ‘why’ this is important.

Engagement in built environment and place-based projects like this one, allow us to understand the lived experiences of those who know their local places best. Crucially, it ideally also gives local people a voice and seat at the table in shaping an outcome for the places they care about. From experience, this inevitably makes the outcome better.

Through the Future of the High Street project’s ongoing engagement with local businesses, residents and organisations in Gorgie/Dalry and Dalkeith, we hope to understand the current challenges and future opportunities for these high streets as a place and destination, as well as the high street’s financial viability for businesses.

The upcoming digital co-creation workshops planned for late March/early April will then involve working together to develop 6 ideas for small interventions or ‘tweaks’ to address these challenges — two of which will be piloted in June 2021 with a budget of £20k to design, develop and deliver them. By the project’s end in July, we will have piloted, tested and evaluated the potential of two of these ideas ‘on the ground’ to deliver impact in addressing these high streets’ immediate needs, and/or to help the high street pilot ways to adapt and evolve longer-term into a more successful and liveable place. We have not predefined what these pilots will be, as it is important to us that these are responsive and genuinely shaped by those local businesses, residents and organisations collaborating with us.

Stakeholder engagement is therefore vital to this project and the activities above. It will help ensure the ideas and pilots are shaped together, that they address the most pertinent challenges for the high street and its businesses, that they are feasible in practice locally and designed to maximise impact.

Testing out WhereBy as a digital engagement tool with the project’s Advisory Board

How do you decide what methods to use? Engagement principles, project goals and the constraints of a pandemic.

Helping us choose and refine the project’s engagement approach and methods are parameters in terms of the project goals and desired outputs (described above), our engagement principles as a team, and also the Covid-19 and other constraints within which the project operates.

For example, key to the engagement-focused project activities, conversations and workshops will be principles and goals of:

  • genuine collaboration,
  • respecting the time and input of those involved, including creating two-way reciprocal processes wherever possible (such the prize draw for professional photography, illustration or sign-writing packages for participating businesses),
  • and an open inclusive approach that allows diverse voices as part of these conversations.

There are also project restrictions. Beyond the usual project constraints of time and budget, during a pandemic we also have the complication of social distancing, inability to gather indoors or in groups, closed shops and hospitality, and travel restrictions whilst we all ‘stay at home’. This means we can’t create the in-person connections we usually would through popping in to high street shops or places, having conversations face-to-face, or delivering workshops around the same table inside — at least in the first couple of months of this 6 month project.

So how can we best deliver this project’s engagement activities in a genuinely collaborative, inclusive and successful way, despite lockdown restrictions during a pandemic?

This question has been central to our thinking over the last few weeks. It has also led to a reflection as a project team of what does success look like’? Both as a project centred around collaboration and co-design, and also for the evaluation research of the two pilots or ‘tweak’ interventions that will be designed, built and ready to go on-site for June.

Digital engagement tools were a logical place to start when thinking about suitable engagement approaches during lockdown. Many on the project team have expertise in digital engagement tools or approaches. From creative use of social media, or Minecraft schools workshops reimagining the built environment, to use of proprietary platforms like Commonplace or Delib to facilitate conversation or share spatial insights or feedback. The crucial difference is that instead of using a blend of both digital and in-person methods to collaborate and work together with stakeholders and each other (as we may ideally have wished), we are instead — for now at least — relying more heavily on digital engagement tools and approaches that we can deliver remotely. This gives us scope to be creative, reconsider, question and adapt our previous ‘go to’ engagement approaches.

What digital engagement tools and other remote methods will we be using?

Alongside good old-fashioned phone calls and contact via social media and emails, the team are using digital methods to contact and collaborate with stakeholders including:

  • A dedicated engagement-focussed ‘High Street Tweak’ website and branding, created by New Practice and tailored toward local stakeholders as the ‘storefront’ for the project and ways they can be actively involved. This complements the overall Future of the High Street website which includes more detailed information about the project process and approach that may be of more interest to a professional industry/academic audience.
  • An online survey created using SurveyLab. This is available for local businesses, residents and organisations in Gorgie/Dalry or Dalkeith to fill in via the High Street Tweak website. To respect the time and input many local people had already contributed to previous consultations, rather than repeating Place Standard questions or things that had already been discussed at length for other projects in these locations, we instead summarised previous engagement/consultation reports and asked respondents to rank these by priority or add in others of their own.
  • Participatory mapping as part of the online survey allows the easy communication of the spatial location of participants’ ideas or challenges for their high street. This will be helpful to identify potential locations where a pilot might be most beneficial to address a certain challenge or deliver most impact.
  • Whereby and Miro alongside live digital sketching — the upcoming co-creation workshops at the end of March will be interactive sessions with local businesses, residents and young people, where potential pilot ideas will be explored and then refined with the team of designers and architects. To allow individual voices to be heard, and to facilitate this process, the team will be using Miro as an online whiteboard for sharing thoughts and ideas during the structured workshop, and WhereBy as a web-browser based online meeting tool. In addition, we are currently planning to incorporate live design sketching of ideas to help participants see their ideas come to life and to aid discussion.
  • A blended model for young people — where we mix the best of digitally delivered tools and workshops with physical activity packs. This creates a safe environment for young people to be able to easily engage with the project without having to compromise the tangible, creative making that young people respond to so well.

We’ll be covering some more about how the engagement process and co-creation workshops develop in our next blog. In the meantime — below we share thoughts and diaries direct from the project team:

Direct from the project team: our thoughts and diaries from inside the project process — March 2021.

Each month we share insights direct from the project team. This month focuses on how can we make digital engagement and placemaking a success during a pandemic?

Jenny Elliott, Project Lead, Edinburgh Futures Institute:

The Future of the High Street project is happening at a unique time in history. Covid-19 has influenced the ways that we can meet, engage, and talk with other people. This dynamic and constantly changing set of rules and regulations for the ways that we can interact with others inevitably has a profound effect on a project with collaboration, engagement and participation at its core.

Blended ‘in-person’ and ‘digital’ approaches have been around for a while, and — in my opinion — this mixed method approach is ideal in helping reach diverse groups of stakeholders. However, when traditional in-person methods are not possible due to ‘stay-at-home’ orders, the increasing use of digital tools and platforms in placemaking, co-design and stakeholder engagement for built environment projects offers a distanced and safe way to allow as many of the conversations that would have previously happened in person to still go ahead. This can be particularly interesting when delivered alongside complementary remote physical resources such as activity packs.

There are a huge range of possible digital tools now available — from AR and VR to help us imagine what designs might look like, to participatory mapping via Commonplace, to Delib’s digital conversation platforms, from Minecraft to Miro-based workshops. Whilst I’m looking forward to a world where both digital and in-person engagement methods are possible again, in the meantime, the use of digital tools and technologies can add huge value in supporting collaboration and communication. But with the focus on digital, how can this be done in a way that recognises challenges around digital inclusion and accessibility, so that everyone who wishes to be, can be a part of the conversation? How do we choose which tools and methods to use? And how can we make sure we don’t lose that personal touch of going to speak to someone in person?

These types of questions are central to the Future of the High Street project — particularly important at this early project phase, which is centred around speaking with the local businesses, residents, young people and others who all have an interest in the future of their high street as both a place, and as often the social and economic heart to the community. We don’t have all the answers, but we hope that by opening up our project process to others through these blogs and films, we can help share our learnings and findings with those involved in or thinking about similar projects.

Duncan Bain, New Practice (Digital Approach and Technology):

Nearly one year into the Covid-19 pandemic, we are still figuring out what community engagement and participation in a world of lockdowns and remote working looks like. As a practice, we are well-used to the messy, creative environment of a workshop or public event — the small and unpredictable interactions and activities that shape the relationship between the local community experts and the facilitator. So often, it is these small moments of interpretation and chance conversations that inform the final outcome.

A key ambition in planning for co-creative events in March is finding ways to capture those creative moments in a remote format. We have been experimenting with a host of digital and remote tools since the pandemic began, and are excited to bring this learning to this project. We see a hybrid of tools as critical to fostering a co-creative space. Some of these, like Miro, are novel platforms that have come into their own during Covid-19, while others, like hand-sketching as a means to capture ideas are tools that we would use as part of in-person workshops, that we think are still very important to developing a shared vision. The key challenge is marrying these tools together in an experience where everyone involved finds their voice and has fun.

Abigail, New Practice (Community Engagement):

I have been focussing on the youth-focussed aspect of the community engagement programme. I enjoy working with young people because they are the most likely age group to give you something completely novel and unexpected. When working with this age-group you are likely to get ideas and design suggestions that perhaps are a little more outlandish. Where the opportunities and creativity lie within these workshops is in the needs and desires hidden within these creative solutions. If a young person suggests a 5 storey climbing-frame, the need may be for more play space or for a space where young people can come together, rather than a realised version of their exact suggestion.

For this project, I am looking forward to understanding how local young people currently view the high street in each area and excited to develop a design task that aids the visualisation of a young-person-friendly high street. What are the real needs hidden within these creative designs?

Juliet (New Practice — Junior Designer, Site Analysis):

“I have been working at New Practice, and a part of the Future of High Streets team, for just over two weeks. Over this time, I have been investigating the two sites of Dalkeith and Gorgie Dalry, to better understand each area’s individual character. I first located OS Maps of the two areas, and formatted them to make them easily readable, maintaining features such as rivers and parks. I identified the ‘key high streets’ and then, using the building databases compiled by Kleanthis Kyriakou, created diagrams of the two sites. I colour-coded buildings based on six different categories: shops, eating, assembly and leisure, professional services, non-residential institutions and vacant buildings.

This helped to visualise the different zones of the street: where are eateries focussed, which areas are most active? Where are there most vacant buildings, or establishments closed due to the pandemic? Where might pedestrians spend most time, which areas do people tend to drive through? I plan to further build on this information, using these two case studies to better understand the current state of Scottish High Streets. By understanding how these spaces are used, I hope to inform the development of our design concept over the coming weeks.”

Shawn Bodden, Project Officer, Edinburgh Futures Institute:

Things are changing fast these days. This past Sunday I went for a walk and discovered that, when I wasn’t looking, Spring had started. The local park was flush with budding crocuses and overflowing with strolling, cycling, chatting, bird-watching, croissant-nibbling, sun-soaking visitors from surrounding neighbourhoods. For me, it was a much-appreciated reminder that, despite the many ongoing and unpredictable challenges of the pandemic, people are still finding ways to care for one another and to enjoy life — and that something simple like a sunny day can really help.

At this point in the Future of the High Street project, I’m mainly working on how to understand and evaluate the project’s success. As our Team discussed in its first meeting earlier this month, the unpredictable and frequent changes due to the pandemic and varying restrictions can make it difficult to work out ‘what success looks like’. One team member put it succinctly: ‘how will we know that the pilots that we tried really worked?’.

As I see it, the great opportunity — and challenge — of the project’s community-engaged approach to co-design is that other members of the community, in addition to the Project Team and Advisory Board, will help decide what success looks like — their input will shape how New Practice’s small ‘tweaks’ work. Thus, rather than coming up with my own criteria to evaluate success, I’m trying to think of ways to observe and document how members of our Team and local communities alike evaluate the success of the project for them, throughout the entire process of designing, experimenting with and installing the new ‘tweaks’.

Our team isn’t in a position to solve any of the major problems our communities are facing with this lone project, but we can look for ways to help — and we can look together with those affected. I’m hoping that the project becomes a space for local communities to find ways even small ‘tweaks’ might help, and that I’ll be able to facilitate communication of these different visions between the project’s numerous participants.

Megan Miller, Visual Communication Intern, Edinburgh Futures Institute

Covid-19 has drastically changed industry as a whole, and one of the most notable is film. The amount of people required for a single production is immense, and the additional mandates caused by the pandemic has made filmmaking a difficult pursuit. It has certainly given weight to the necessity of physical human connection.

For my role as the Visual Communication Project Intern, my main focus has been to answer the question of: how to create video content when access to filming is limited? I’ve been trying to challenge myself to think differently about my approach to producing visual content and what that means. I think that we limit ourselves by viewing a solution only in relation to the problem — in my case, the absence of film caused by restrictions. I’ve been trying to view the solution not as it relates to how film and visual content was viewed before, but how it has the potential to be viewed without previous expectations. Instead of telling myself what I would have done if it was possible, I’m better able to focus on what can be done now.

The Future of the High Street project is part of The University of Edinburgh’s ‘Data and Design Lab’ — funded by the Scottish Funding Council. It will act as a demonstrator project for how a data-and-design approach can be used to address key contemporary challenges and deliver positive impact. The project follows on from the Edinburgh Futures Institute Smart Places series in collaboration with the Edinburgh Living Lab and Data Driven Innovation programme. Find out more here.

Blog written by Jenny Elliott, Project Lead for Future of the High Street, and Smart Places Lead at Edinburgh Futures Institute.

We bring people together to solve problems using data and design.

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