How ‘getting on with it’ can reap the rewards when it comes to place-based transformation

blog | 26 Jan 2021

Part 4 in our series on place-based transformation argues that meticulous planning is unnecessary and that more progress can be made by starting and doing

A few years ago, I worked on a project where we had designed a very logical strategy for how to involve residents in changing the use of local authority- owned assets to provide more local benefit. We planned timeframes, venues, feedback mechanisms down to the smallest of details so that we could get permission from the right people to start the work.

To nobody’s surprise, we tried talking to people who weren’t that interested, picked places that the groups we wanted to talk to don’t normally go to, and our timeframe clashed with other important events including a local derby football match. It only took a couple of days to realise that we should just start talking to people, scrap everything we planned and work up a new plan as we went. A few days sitting in the greasy spoon buying cups of tea for anyone who wasn’t too suspicious to talk to me was more valuable than anything I could come up with on my own.

What this experience taught our team was that, when it comes to place-based transformation, it is important to start listening, and to do so quickly. Of course, encouraging citizens to share their experiences deserves deep thinking and planning so that this work takes place in a way that offers them value as well as you. But the value that just getting on with it offers should not be overlooked.

Designing new futures

Placed-based transformation is about designing a new future for a place with the people who live within it. If those leading the transformation are focused on equity and justice for those living there, it means creating an opportunity for citizens to play active roles in the development and implementation of the design.

Many people think it’s not possible to influence local development, and that change happens outside of our control. There are very valid reasons for thinking that.

Historically, planning policy and practice in England has not incentivised and prioritised community involvement, and when it does, the public sector is not well equipped to engage with the complex fluidity of groups that residents belong to and the deliberate informality of community organisations. When there is a budget to engage communities in the development of the built environment and local services, consultants are often brought in to run workshops and produce reports, but aren’t around after a few years to keep the conversation going.

So for people who don’t think their contribution would be valued, or have previously been let down or faced injustice around the development of the place that they live in, it’s a big ask to expect them to be active participants in the process. Most people don’t want to attend ‘co-creation’ sessions with strangers they’ve never met before, or fill in online feedback forms around other people’s ideas.

Nurturing a community of shared vision and values

This work should be about connecting and galvanising a community of people with shared values, not just convening a group of organisations together to attend steering groups and offer feedback on ideas. It means engaging in an intentional relationship to make something better together, and it can be very messy. There’ll be disagreement, asymmetries, past trauma, past disappointments, and all kinds of power dynamics to untangle. Doing ‘community engagement’ means helping people to build a shared view, and this takes time.

I have made the mistake of working with activists, community groups and public sector service providers in separate groups for too long. I cared too much about wanting people to think that I could make everything run smoothly and so I delayed bringing them together to talk until I had ‘worked out the power dynamics a bit better’. The reality was that there was no other way of understanding this, and the only way to build a shared view and develop ideas together was to bring them together to start forming a community.

How to get on with it: tips for evolving ideas

1. Don’t get hung up on an idea too early on.
Too much time planning means that ideas can become fixed. Early ideas should be hunches to test and an invitation for others to build on them.

2. Start small and grow.
Identifying short term projects or events that can be funded quickly gives people something to build on instead of starting from a blank page. This can also reveal bigger and very useful questions about the permissions, resources, and connections that are needed to make this small scale work have impact at a larger scale.

3. Pop-up versions can work wonders.
In a previous project I was very fortunate to work with architects who had expertise in creating short term and pop up versions of new ideas so that people could understand what it was and think about what a real version would mean for them. They went beyond the traditional tabletop architectural model and tested things that people could interact with in the street.

4. Make the most of local expertise.
Hiring residents as community researchers can be an antidote to premature planning. They can advise on different ways of listening to residents, have credibility and provide local ownership of the insights that emerge. It’s also a way of embodying the values of building equity and justice; by training and employing local people to do this work in collaboration with organisations, you give back some power and get much richer data.

5. Set expectations from the start.
Getting on with it doesn’t mean rushing into things and asking too much of people; careful consideration of how much time and labour people are asked for is required.

As human beings, we like the illusion of control and careful planning makes sense when we already know how to get from A to B. But when we’re not quite sure about where we’re starting from or what brilliant will look like when we’re done, we need a different mindset. We need to do things and learn together, and the path is made by walking.

This blog is part of our series on place-based transformation. Find the rest of the series, as well as more information about how Innovation Unit can help you realise your vision for transforming a community, town or service, on our page about place-based transformation.