Trends in community engagement

Having been involved for over 20 years (yikes) doing this strange thing called community engagement, I thought I’d offer my assessment of how things have changed and are changing. Obviously not a complete list – that is why I’d like your thoughts about trends. There are a few obvious ones – less reliance on public (town hall) meetings, and written submissions, and more use of online discussion forums.

These are four trends that I believe are worth mentioning; smart technology, the use of random selection, DIY approaches, and attempts/experiments at involving the ‘community of interest’ much earlier.


Almost impossible to keep up with technological advances available for engaging communities. This list provided in a blog by Amanda Newbery, founder of Ariculous, is very helpful, giving examples that are far superior to flythroughs.

Augmented realitycollab aug reality

Check this video to see what all the fuss is about. This document is also worth looking at. Of note, it looks as though Apple has just purchased an augmented reality start-up company in Germany. Augmented reality is going to be commonplace before long so learn about and think about how it can make engaging your community more engaging when it comes to visualising a project.

Immersive panoramas

According to Amanda Newbery, “this is like being inside a scene and being able to control where you walk and what you look at. You’re not at the mercy of where the fly through takes you.”  It is just like navigating with Google Maps street level view. To get an idea of how it works scroll down to the latest adventures of Mister Fogg or examples at Articulous.


Gaming is a way for people to interact with a concept in a very playful way.
According to Andrew Coulson construction companies, telcos and the health sector are leading the way when it comes to developing online and offline games to engage people for education, training or for brand loyalty. It is now increasingly being used to engage communities creatively with regard to planning. An example is the Community PlanIt Gamification tool. Check it out!

3D printing

Just watch this space. 3D models can now be printed from photographs, and it will become increasingly more affordable to create.
Models of cities can now be printed, such as this example of Adelaide.
Just imagine how useful this could be for all sorts of projects!

Voting with phones.

Here is one that I really find useful and reliable. Instead of using sourcing and supplying voting devices (which can prove to be unreliable at the worst possible time), use Poll Everywhere. With Poll Everywhere participants at a workshop or large meeting, individual respond to a series of questions, using their phones (and it doesn’t have to be a smart phone). A graph is built in real time for all to see. Great for transparency, and for working out where the whole room is at – which sometimes varies considerably from what you might expect.

Random Selection

I have blogged about this recently – the growing trend of using random selection to form citizens’ juries who deliberate over an important, complex and/or controversial decision.

Closing stages of the NDIS Citizens' Jury held recently in Sydney.

Closing stages of the NDIS Citizens’ Jury held in Sydney, Feb ’15

Other processes that use random selection include:

I really believe these processes offer a great option for some situations. They can also be misused, badly designed, and poorly facilitated, which no doubt have the potential to give such processes a bad name.

The value of such processes is that they allow so-called ‘average’ citizens to weigh up evidence from a range of experts and to provide their verdict to the sponsoring organisation/decision makers. They provide an opportunity to do the really deep dive, and given their relative neutrality, citizens’ juries are not subject to the same pressures and fixed positions as stakeholder representatives or politicians. (Check out the short film here of the NDIS Citizens’ Jury process, superbly filmed by the highly talented Lara Damiani of Think Films.)

DIY approaches

An interesting development has been the growing phenomenon of Do-It-Yourself community engagement. This involves a discussion guide being produced and made available for any individual, group or organisation, to examine, ponder and respond to. It means that the organisation does not have to manage, organise or facilitate every meeting. It allows people to gather wherever and whenever it is convenient for them, such a during a dinner party, a barbeque or any group that meets regularly together. Follow the conversation the output can be posted on a website or emailed.

An example of this approach was The Queensland Plan where over 78,000 people provided input (we were hoping for about 20,000).

The reason for this trend? It takes less organisation, it’s convenient to participants and it’s made possible through greater online functionality.

Attempts/experiments at involving the ‘community of interest’ earlier.

Collab Pathway IllustrationConventional community consultation, or community engagement, invariably means that a plan or proposal was substantially developed, and then presented for comment or feedback. It neither allows the ‘community of interest’ to help shape the scope of the process, nor the questions or issues the plan or proposal is meant to address. Through many years of experience I have found that one of the most frustrating aspects of community engagement is that the community does not always accept the premise upon which the plan or proposal is based. Or in other words, the community is not thrilled about a presented with a solution when they don’t agree with, or don’t understand, the question it is meant to answer.

For this reason some practitioners are now urging organisations to actively involve a cross-section of the ‘community of interest’ in developing, refining and clarifying the questions, before exploring possible solutions. Twyfords’ Collaborative Governance Pathway, as outlined in the book “The Power of Co” put forward the case for, and described the process involved in, such an approach. Using this approach for a number of projects I have found the advantages to include:

  • Individuals/groups are provided with the opportunity to appreciate different perspectives
  • Having generated the questions or dilemma to be addressed, participants are inclined to become advocates for the process.
  • The scope of the project is more inclusive or a range of perspectives, as it is not defined by the initiating organisation alone.
Photo by Claude Raschella

Photo by Claude Raschella

Well there you have it – my view about trends in the area of community engagement, and especially engagement around tricky issues for government. There are no doubt more, including community engagement for the purpose of policymaking, and processes that are initiated by the community.

So what trends are you noticing?


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  1. Tim Bonnemann on June 6, 2015 at 4:50 am

    Nice list!

  2. Michael Shepherd on June 7, 2015 at 7:01 pm

    I would include co-production and appreciative enquiry. Citizen’s Juries, panels and
    Similar approaches are great, but authorities have to commit to implementing their advice.

  3. Chris Black on June 9, 2015 at 2:20 pm

    Great list – useful reminder of everything available. On the flip side, I’d note that a trend is for corporates to claim ‘comprehensive consultation’ anytime they do any customer engagement activities, basically misusing the term consultation for their own purposes. Just a reflection but definitely a ‘trend’ I have noticed from the perspective of various community related campaigns/issues of late. ‘Consultation activities’ not always a positive for those being ‘consulted’. And that’s said as a consultant!

  4. Charles Lines on June 9, 2015 at 11:29 pm

    Thanks for sharing this. The gamification aspect is very interesting. It not only enhances involvement but can also change the way people engage and collaborate with each other, as shown here: I also like the stress on early involvement from communities, which highlights the necessity of being willing to embrace different and challenging ways of perceiving things in order to come up with truly attractive and feasible innovations, as shown by this: Lastly, I like the DIY approach, mainly because it increases the informal nature of the consultation, which is a proven characteristics of effective collaborations.

  5. Clare on June 30, 2015 at 10:05 am

    We are becoming very interested in augmented reality as an engagement device that might help stakeholders get a more realistic understanding of buildings that we wish to consult on. Flat, scaled plans often don’t really cut it when consulting with the general public. It is difficult to convey the finer visual, spatial and often beautiful details of a yet to be built building. I first heard about this after the Venice Biennale International Architecture Exhibition where Augmented Australia 1914-2014 provided a virtual architectural showcase of yet to be built buildings, including the new Australian Venice Biennale pavilion which was about to be constructed.

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