Engaging Virtually Becomes Reality

Public engagement is vital to the success of community projects. The engagement process—empowered involvement of citizens and stakeholders—provides valuable data and key public opinion that helps define how a project can best serve its community. Engagement campaigns that attract robust participation and honest feedback deliver the best results.

In early spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic halted everything and everyone, making business as usual impossible. To keep critical projects on track, virtual techniques were rapidly adapted by design teams to maximize engagement with communities remotely. Efforts proved highly successful and yielded rich insight into the added value virtual processes hold.

Discovering the Unexpected

CPL has developed effective strategies that make virtual engagement not only possible, but enhanced, which has revealed unexpected benefits for our clients and project teams. Time and cost savings are two obvious advantages that come with eliminating the logistics associated with in-person meetings. Less obvious is the more candid feedback that introverted participants are more likely to offer anonymously in virtual settings than they would at in-person events.

On the project management side, virtual efforts inevitably yield much faster results in terms of public data collection and analysis—a benefit that can often accelerate project schedules. However, these benefits (and more), can only be achieved when virtual public engagement campaigns are executed with strategy and intention.

CPL’s Proven Virtual Engagement Tactics

1. Virtual meeting platforms are the backbone of virtual engagement, so it is important that all citizens and stakeholders are directed to use simple and reliable technology. Since live interaction, discussion, and graphics are all critical components to our engagement process, we select platforms that are both easy to navigate and supportive of dynamic content.

2. To cater to participants who may not have access to home computers and internet, we make it a priority to provide physical spaces that are easily accessible like public schools, community centers or libraries where members of the community can visit to engage in virtual sessions.

3. During large virtual meetings, CPL often plans and executes smaller online “break-out rooms,” each equipped with dedicated facilitators to help foster more personal connections and ensure that everyone is heard. These smaller group sessions can also offer a sharper focus on specific topics or issues and generate enhanced communication.

4. A “virtual crowd favorite” has been our utilization of online, live polling platforms to instantly gather and deliver citizen and stakeholder opinion. This real-time data collection technology enables quick and anonymous feedback and gives us a more accurate representation of public insight. Additionally, the interactive nature of this tool offers participants a fun, game-like activity during sessions.

5. To provide equal opportunity for all and ensure our less tech-savvy participants can be heard, we provide paper versions of online surveys at familiar community places such as schools, libraries, and food banks. Similarly, where language barriers might be a factor, we offer communities ample language preference options and materials.

6. Finally, we suggest utilizing live meeting platforms with a recording feature to allow clients to archive their sessions for reference, future recall and for sharing with more community members.

The public engagement process—whether in-person, virtual or a hybrid-version of both—provides key data proven essential to the community design process. While virtual public engagement does not completely replace in-person engagement events, the benefits show that it is certainly here to stay in some capacity. Its convenience to participants and wider audience reach combined with its surprising ability to generate more honest feedback and connection, has demonstrated its powerful in helping us fine-tune what is truly meaningful to a community.

About the Author

At her core, Architect, Rachel Nilson, AIA, yearns to cultivate community through quality design. Get to know Rachel and discover how journeys across the United States and beyond helped fuel her desire to build trusted partnerships that yield impactful community spaces.

Rachel is an Architect, Project Manager, Senior Associate and a natural leader here at CPL. She has a knack for spotlighting the characteristics unique to each project within a framework of fundamental design principles that focus on digital modeling and sustainable design.

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