RBKC residents take part in the first “Smartathon”

An interview with Joanna Hammond, Neighbourhood Planning Team Leader, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

December 2016

London held its first Smartathon on 17 September, gathering around 50 residents to discuss how the smarticipate platform could function. The residents were highly engaged and eager to share their thoughts and ideas, leading to an open and fruitful exchange. A short video was produced capturing the event.

“From the borough’s side, this was our first opportunity to share our ideas on how smarticipate might help people to engage more easily with our Planning Department. We wanted to know if we’d identified real problems and if we were able to solve them – would people be interested?” says Joanna Hammond.

Attracting the right mix of participants

RBKC made an effort to attract residents that may not have given input on urban planning issues in the past, says Joanna. “We invited a group of people who had not had contact with the Planning Department previously because these are the people we need to engage.  We invited people from the council’s residents’ panel who we consult on council-wide matters and we sent out a general invitation via our website for anyone who would be interested. We also contacted a group that represents older people in the borough and people who had participated in an event on local planning. However, we deliberately did not invite any representatives from residents’ associations as these are the groups that are already well engaged.”

Although Joanna was pleased that the Smartathon attracted participants from different sections of society, one group was noticeably absent: “There was a good cross section of people from different walks of life but we failed to get any young people along. This was because the schools had only just gone back and it was too short notice after the long holidays. We hope to remedy this at the next event.”

Using stories to understand smarticipate

Following  presentations from the borough and the smarticipate partners, the participants broke up into small discussion groups, each with a chair who was one of the participants that had been briefed in advance, to talk though the Urban Stories.

The so-called Urban Stories provide fictional examples of how the smarticipate platform can be applied. They serve to display the type of common issues that citizens, public authorities and businesses have in urban areas, and how smarticipate can be used to help them tackle these issues.

One of London’s Urban Stories involves residents using the smarticipate platform to create a football field. As Joanna explains, this received mixed reviews from the residents: “Some thought the Urban Story wasn’t relevant to them because it was an unreal situation – there isn’t space to create a football field anywhere in the borough. Some identified that it was oversimplified.  Others, however, accepted that it wasn’t a real life situation but more of an illustration of the platform’s capabilities.

“One person thought we had gone about it the wrong way and that the experts should develop the platform first, and then the residents should be involved to test it and suggest improvements.”

Gathering feedback

At the end of the event Andries Geerse of smarticipate-partner WeLoveTheCity summarised the discussions from the floor, while the chairs of each group fed back their views.

The general comments from the participants were that the platform needs to be specific to their interests, non-technical, easy to use and cost effective. “They liked the community spirit that it invoked but there was concern that people with no links to the community should not be able to participate and businesses should not be able to use the data generated for commercial purposes,” says Joanna.

“There were doubts expressed about being able to do such intricate work on a phone screen and that it may be more suited to a computer screen. All the comments and feed-back from the event have been captured and will be used to guide the project’s development.”

By the end of the event, much of the initial doubts about the project had dispersed, according to Joanna: “When the chairs fed back from their groups they were very positive, and some people who had reservations at the beginning had started to see what smarticipate could offer. It should be said that a healthy skepticism about viability remained.”

Joanna was highly impressed by the dedication shown by the participants: “People engaged incredibly well, it was a tough ask to get people to give up most of a Saturday to talk about how something that doesn’t exist might work. I was amazed at the energy levels and the commitment that participants maintained throughout the day.”

Overall, feedback towards the event was positive. “Generally, I think the participants liked what they saw of the pilot app but they did stress the eventual product needed to be very easy to use and relevant to their needs and interests,” says Joanna.

“I have bumped into a couple of people who attended since who have asked how smarticipate is progressing and when the next event will be, which is a positive sign.”