by Gail Ramster
Last year, Creative Citizens researchers at the Royal College of Art worked with Kentish Town Neighbourhood Forum (KTNF) to see if we could get more people involved in their Neighbourhood Plan. They had already reached about a 1000 locals using posters, word of mouth and fantastic public engagement events such as stalls on the street and hosting walking tours of the area.
However, the plan would be voted on at a pubic referendum with an electorate of 15000. To succeed, it would need to be both well publicised and representative of the whole community. We wanted to see whether digital media could add something to the mix; perhaps reaching people with whom the group had so far struggled to engage. Our proposal was to come up with an idea for how to use digital media that the community could pilot and, if successful, could then be adopted by other groups.
We wished to use a ‘co-design’ approach, where designers/researchers (Royal College of Art) and users (KTNF) would work together throughout the design process, preferably with the user having greatest input into the design work whilst designers take on a guiding and facilitating role. Co-design would ensure that KTNF had a sense of ownership over any design outcomes, as well as making sure that outcomes matched the skills of the KTNF members and would be sustainable once RCA involvement had ended.
So how did this work in practice?
Making sure that we stuck to a co-design approach was something that required constant reflection, for two reasons. Firstly, as designers it’s hard not to get excited about our own ideas and develop them outside of sessions with the group. Secondly, there is only so much that KTNF could take on. They were already developing a Neighbourhood Plan in their spare time, with all the meetings and public engagement events that this involved. How much would they want to do on top of all that, particularly when this was all the suggestion of two paid design researchers, who could be getting on with it for them?
Consequently our approach was designed around what was practical and useful for KTNF, even if that made the research less robust than an academic might like. We began with a meeting with the Chairperson, Treasurer and Secretary of the Forum to discuss the brief and plan the first session. As with all good local meetings, this was for a couple of hours after work at someone’s house, with a cup of tea and biscuits.
Our first workshop was a brainstorming session. About 12 local people came. This ran one weekday evening from 7-9pm, because 7pm is the earliest that anyone in London can get to a workshop after work, and 9pm is the latest that anyone can go without dinner. It was held in Kentish Town, in a community room, to not inconvenience our attendees.
At this workshop we ran two activities. The first was a ‘speed-dating’ set-up. We invited the forum members who had come to bring a friend who knew little about the plan. We then gave them 3 minutes to find a way to engage the newbie in a local issue that related to the Neighbourhood Plan (Parks, Traffic, Housing etc..). After 3 minutes the newbie moved seats to the next person. This helped the members to hone in on the new person’s interests and how to relate them to the quite dry policies in the plan (a necessary evil of any planning document). This helped to get everyone into the mindset of the problem we were addressing – ideas for engaging new groups of people.
For the second activity we formed groups of two and gave them a template and a number of cards relating to local ‘assets’ such as businesses, parks, newspapers – anything considered of benefit to KTNF. Two assets were picked at random to build up a sentence; e.g. “ ‘The Tube Station’ can help ‘local cafés’ spread the word about the Neighbourhood Plan by… “. The group would have a couple of minutes to think of an idea to complete the sentence. A ‘media’ asset such as e-newsletter or an local app was then selected to see how that could help the idea further. The 6 couples completed about 20 of these between them within half an hour. To find out which people liked best we gave them each 100 ‘Kentish Town Pounds’, which they could place on one idea or split between as many as they liked.
Although these were just momentary ideas based on a random and sometimes nonsensical game, the voting was quite conclusive with 2 ideas emerging as clear front-runners. We had got the ball rolling!
We arranged another tea and biscuits meetings with the core group to discuss how the workshop had gone, how the plan was developing and what we should do next. We chatted about what it was about the winning ideas that people liked, and how they could be developed to meet the forum’s needs whilst still fitting the scope of our research. We also discussed other problems that the forum faced that we didn’t have time to cover in the workshop, from which more ideas emerged.
Organising this workshop was a lot of work for the forum chairperson, who had to find a suitable date around everyone’s other commitments, invite participants and arrange the meeting space and refreshments. This was in addition to participating on the night and arranging and attending the meetings before and after. Each meeting would need to be planned at least a month in advance and although they were invaluable, we needed to make progress before putting any more demands on the forum members. So we developed 7 design concepts based on ideas from the workshop, the additional meetings and our own observations, and presented these in a booklet that the forum committee could circulate and reflect on in their own time. Luckily KTNF had an upcoming committee meeting so were able to discuss the ideas as one of the orders of business, then report back to us by email on which they’d like us to pursue.
Inevitably, there was no clear winner. They liked different aspects of a few of the options so more refining was required. To ascertain exactly what would work best in both the immediate and long term, we planned a second workshop, this time for concept development, in a Kentish Town pub. 4 people came, less than we might hope, but still a surprisingly good mix!
In this workshop we printed cards representing several different functions that their online media might include – photo gallery, forum, project timeline, downloadable documents etc. We then split the group into 2 teams and asked them to prioritise the functions into what they thought most important for their website now, with the referendum approaching. We then repeated the activity but for a few years down the line, when the referendum has been won and the plan is in place but the group still needs to exist – what would the website need to look like in the future? This was a great way to get the group thinking about the longterm aims of KTNF, since so much of the focus was currently, inevitably, on the short-term challenge of getting the plan accepted.
The process outlined above took about 6 months from planning the first session to being in a position to trial something – in this instance, adopting the Stickyworld application for use by KTNF. We also produced KTNF beermats to publicise the project – one of the winning ideas from our brainstorming session!
We started this process with our own ideas of what we’d like to do, but with no real idea of what the group might come up with. The day-to-day practicalities of people’s time commitments might seem limiting to the co-design process but in a way we actually found them useful, setting parameters within which we would need to work. It was difficult to strike the right balance between wanting the group to take the lead and feeling that we were asking too much of their time, but ultimately as well as leading to an agreed design, participating in the process itself was useful to KTNF. The activities and discussions that the group took part in lead to new insights into their engagement challenges and lots of ideas that they could take on themselves outside the scope of our project. It took time, commitment and a lot of planning, but I believe that the co-design process was one that paid off in the end.