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Reflections on listening, beauty and putting ‘the golden thread of digital’ to work

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In February, the government’s chief planner held a conference devoted to delivering better places through better design. I was curious to attend - but wondered whether such an event could attract the right people to not only create useful debate on the
subject, but also to catalyse real change?

The biggest and most welcome surprise was a seeming consensus amongst developers, house builders, central government, councils and architects, that quality design is nothing without the inclusion of communities. And that listening to communities is the most important way to achieve this.
What does this mean? Are all developers suddenly starting to involve the public in meaningful, open engagement? Almost certainly not, but the tone of the conversation was underlined in the final session of the day by an almost exclusive focus on the necessity and responsibility for community involvement in design.

The missing element was how the sector can make this happen in a way that is efficient, scalable and delivers the quality of engagement that everyone seems to want?

There was no complete answer, but four insights offered by speakers that day have resonated with me since, and taken together point a clear way forward:
“Listen deeply [to find beauty]”
Gillian Horne, Penoyre & Prasad
Gillian’s brilliant research demonstrated that even when you think you know what people are talking about in relation to beauty, they are probably talking about something else. You have to carefully unpack exactly what they are saying, and you can only do that by listening deeply to them. I would add that you need to listen not only deeply but continuously. Surely the only way to do that at scale is using digital tools.

“In the end it’s about the people – a building must please the people that use it”
Sarah Weir, Design Council
Sarah discussed design and beauty, returning several times to a central theme that the proof of good design is in the use of, and delight in, the thing that has been designed (in this case a building or development). And there is only one way to achieve this outcome – which is to involve the users in the design process.

“As open as possible - and listening hard enough to change your mind.” 
Fiona Fletcher-Smith, L&Q
Fiona’s point was in response to a question I asked about the nature of trust in relation to openness during a community engagement, and how open is sufficient when engaging the community. I thought she gave the best answer when she said that you have to listen hard enough to change your mind, and be as open as you possibly can be in order to maintain community trust. At Commonplace we believe that enabling the community to read each other’s feedback is a crucial element of this openness.
“There is a golden thread of digital through the whole process... digitally integrated design with the strength and wellbeing of the community is at the heart of all our plans.”
Karl Whiteman, Berkeley Group 
Berkeley Homes are aiming for ‘digital integration’ from beginning to end. I asked how digital engagement fits into this – and Karl introduced this powerful idea of a ‘golden thread of digital’ running through everything – from the very beginning to the very end of any built environment project.
So what is the way forward? Putting people at the centre of design by listening deeply, being prepared to change your mind, and using ‘the golden thread of digital’ to do all of this at scale sounds like the beginnings of a plan to me.
Is open digital engagement the way to weave this golden thread into the fabric of placemaking? We certainly believe that it is, and there has never been a more opportune moment to seize the advantages it has to offer in creating fantastic places.

Mike Saunders

Mike Saunders

Mike is the CEO and Co-Founder of Commonplace, an online community engagement tool that promotes trust between residents, property developers and local government.