Urbanism Data : Participatory Communication Methods and Tools in Urban Research

community workshop held by MCTspacelab (photo credit : Shaharin Annisa)
Author : Shaharin Annisa

Introduction on the discourse of participation in a planning process

The globalized world urban development is no more only in the hands of planners and decision makers at the governmental levels, but a joint responsibility we all hold. This in turn calls for unifying the voices of various stakeholders and actor groups who are affected by the process. How can we bring them together? What modes of communication is required to understand the needs of diverse stakeholders and give them a platform to participate with their resources? A change in the discourse of participation was identified through the 1980s to 1990s where a focus on human-centric approach had slowly taken momentum in discussions, with an emphasis on identifying and understanding the needs of residents on a community in planning processes (Nelson & Wright, 1995)

This gradually led to an increase in diversity of participants’ demography, socio-economic situation and education (disciplines of expertise) among other factors. Actors and stakeholders involved in the process, both in academia and at the practical level (Harries & Lyon, 2014). It allows room for a better understanding of the multi-faceted issue at hand, as it looks at the problem in context with the lens of various disciplines and actor groups.

Participation in development process:  Key research in the discourse of participation is from Arstein (1969) who categorizes participation into three categories: A- Nonparticipation with levels: Manipulation and therapy where in practice no participation occurs; B Degree of Tokenism: which are Informing, consultation and placation, where even though the community is made aware of the process, their decisions are hardly taken into account and finally C- Citizen Power Empowerment: with levels: Partnership, delegate power and citizen control, where community is integrated both in the decision making and implementation process steps. Participatory planning, when executed effectively should reach level C. Arstein further puts emphasis on educating the community members instead of informing them (Arstein, 1969). Top-down approaches to planning however fails to reach level C, as planners and public sector takes up the role of key decision-making bodies. In order to bring community members into the decision-making process, a bottom-up approach is necessary which holds potentials of community empowerment with effective community engagement (El-Shahat, 2018).

Core points that article addresses: Respecting the diversity of backgrounds of the participants in the process, public, private and civic stakeholders should all be included at various steps. However, for an effective process certain factors should be customized and fine-tuned, as per the requirement of the specific project. Community members are kept at the core of the decision-making process, by acknowledging their knowledge and expertise on the socio-spatial factors that shape their neighborhood. 

Communication between all stakeholders is thus key element of a participatory process. Transparent communication aids in:
a) understanding the needs of the community,
b) building trust between diverse stakeholders,
c) coming to consensus on one common overall goal and agenda;
d) developing conceptual ideas of common interest. 

Below is an outline of few of the methods of communication that MCTspacelab have implemented during our course of interaction with the community :

Methods and tools of participatory communication
Before the start of active participation, a clear understanding of the community in terms of economic, environmental and social aspects is required, which is often undertaken by un-structured interviews (explained below) with several actors within the community. The outlinted methods aim at:
- Understanding the community in order to identify key topics of relevance (Analysis phase 1)
- Understanding the community in order to gather larger number of perspectives of key topics of relevance (Analysis phase 2)
- Understanding and evaluating conceptual ideas developed with a diverse group of stakeholders and actors. 

0) Un-structured interviews
What? Un-structured interviews are conducted by one person or a small team of researchers who go into the field with an open mind.
How? Stroll around the community; approach available residents on the street; conduct very open interviews with no specific topic in mind.
Why? They aid in getting to know the community; get a quick overview of the neighbourhood; analysis of the interviews can lead to some basic identification of interesting areas of discussion within the neighbourhood. 

1) Open Space
(Harrison Owen, 1980s) 

This is conducted at the very first analysis phase of exploration.
Image source: Graphic recording explaining the four rules of OPEN SPACE TECHNOLOGY, as applied at La Futura, a summit for international innovators held in Berlin and New York City, November 11, 2011
Aim? To bring diverse groups of people together in order to identify fields of interests, knowledge exchange and enhance ideas in order to develop prioritization lists or action plans. 
Who is involved? One main facilitator and all other interested members.
What is needed? Chairs in a circle for the participants, moderation cards, pens and tape, good spirit, motivation and open mind.
Procedure? All participants gather in a big circle with the facilitator in the centre and start to put points on the agenda on moderation cards, which are then placed in the centre of the circle. Several topics are identified by this procedure. The participants then cluster and divide topics, placing priorities based on their needs. Since the participants develop their own fields of interest, the method allows them to feel responsible and gain ownership of an issue. Thus, the goal is to collectively work on topics of interest.
Important laws? a) Whoever comes is the right people; b) Whenever it starts is the right time; c) Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happen; d) When it’s over, it’s over.
Owen also developed the ‘law of two feet’ which entails that at any point, a participant who is not actively contributing or loses interest can walk up to more productive zones. Only the people actively taking part in the open space method remain for the discussion.
Duration? Can vary from half a day to three days, depending on the discussion within the participants. 

2) Focus group discussion 

This is usually conducted at the second level of analysis after definition of key interest points.
Image source: https://www.connective-cities.net/en/good-practice-details/gutepraktik/participatory-community-development-in-urban-areas-of-cairo-1/
 Aim? This method can start at the second phase of analysis when certain topics of interests are already identified. This method aims to gain more insights into the context, topic, modes of interest.
Who is involved? Facilitator (s), group of participants with knowledge and interest on the topic or affected by the topic on discussion.
What is required? Chairs in a circle for the participants, moderation cards, pens and tape, knowledge on the topic; genuine interest.
Procedure? A facilitator works with a certain topic on the moderation board and devices key questions to the participants. The participants then indulge in bringing their knowledge on the table in forms of story-telling or short discussions.
Important rules? Everyone’s story counts and hearing them out is essential.
Duration? Half a day to 1 day depending on the discussion pace. 

3) Fishbowl
This is conducted at the second level of analysis after definition of key interest points.

Image source: https://gamestorming.com/fishbowl/
Aim? This method can be conducted at the second phase of analysis when certain topics of interests are already identified. This method aims to gain more insights into the context and topic and to identify key actors and their motivation.
Who is involved? Facilitator, group of participants with knowledge and interest on the topic.
What is required? Chairs in a circle for the participants, moderation cards, pens and tape, knowledge on the topic; genuine interest.
Procedure? Fishbowl methods involves a small group of people sitting in a small circle around the facilitators with a larger group of interested audience around them.
Important laws? Only the people sitting at the centre (in the fishbowl) actively engage in the conversation. Audience members might tap of the shoulders of a participant in the fishbowl, in order to switch places with him/her and enter the discussion with their contribution.
Duration? 40 to 90 mins, depending on the need for discussion. 

4) Planning for real
This is conducted at an advance phase of analysis and idea conceptualization.

Image Source: https://www.communityplanningtoolkit.org/sites/default/files/Engagement.pdf
 Aim? This method is effective after a certain interest has been identified; several ideas have been generated; and ideas have been conceptualized. Used widely for spatial and social understanding and development of neighbourhoods.
It aims at first understanding the perceptions of people on the idea, second to re-check and refine ideas that have been generated
Who is involved? Facilitator, Idea initiators, residents in question, (any public, private or civic stakeholder and actor groups effected by the project)
What is required? Involvement of stakeholders and actor group in question, physical conceptual model of ideas, pens/stickers/pins to make required changes within the physical conceptual model.
procedure? Identification of idea; call for participation to all stakeholders and actors; introduction discussion of the idea conceptualization phase; description of the conceptual idea. With this starts an interactive discussion between actors which is then summarized at the end of the activity.
Important laws? Involvement with an objective that calls for participation; participants should place honest opinions on the table; participants should have a notion of collaboration in their minds.
Duration? Half a day to one day.

The various methods thus bring along stakeholders and actors across trans-disciplines, aiming to give them an equal voice on the decision-making process. Participants are taken along on the journey of idea conceptualization with the result that, when a product is produced, it is co-produced at different stages. Participants can thus experience ownership of the product/idea and be empowered to take the next steps.

El-Shahat, M. (2018), ‘The Role of Academia in The Participatory Planning Process of Informal Settlements. Case Study EZBET Project in Cairo, Egypt‘, 19th N-AERUS conference Housing and Human Settlements in a World of Change, Stuttgart, Germany, 7-9 Nov. (Conference presentation)
Harris, F., & Lyon, F. (2014) ‘Transdisciplinary environmental research: a review of approaches to knowledge co-production’ Nexus Network Think Piece, Series, Paper, 2.
Nelson, N., & Wright, S. (1995). Power and participatory development: Theory and practice. ITDG Publishing.
Arnstein, S. R. (1969) ‘A ladder of citizen participation’, Journal of the American Institute of planners, 35(4), 216-224.
Owen, H., 2008. Open space technology: A user's guide. Berrett-Koehler Publishers