Giving people a voice, making better decisions

Paul McDonald, information systems strategist with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, believes that smarticipate could help people to understand how planning works and encourage more people to have their say.

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) reflects the diversity of the British capital – it is filled with a variety of nationalities and cultures.  But it is also unusual as it has very expensive homes from the Victorian and Georgian era alongside social housing, and almost nothing in between.

Residents enjoy its well-kept parks and public areas, with those from across London and beyond journeying to the largely residential area to visit its famous museums and shopping centres and top-quality restaurants. It is an area renowned for being a pleasant place to live in the midst of a bustling, high-tempo metropolis.

RBKC council is highly rated by residents, with many praising the quality of the services it provides. However, the requirements of English planning law tend to lag behind the possibilities offered by new technologies. So although the council strives to reach out to as wide a group of stakeholders as possible on planning matters the law requires lengthy planning policy documents and specific information for planning applications. This means that generally only specific groups with time and expertise participate. Those that take part tend to have an acute interest in planning and are already well-informed about the process surrounding it.

Paul McDonald is hoping smarticipate will help to change this, broadening participation and allowing councils to engage with a more diverse group of people, particularly those who are younger, less well informed about planning and time poor.

“The councillors talk to people as much as they can, but they can’t reach all 160,000 residents,” says Paul. “They want to make sure people have the opportunity to get their views across. Smarticipate’s role in making it easier, dare I say fun, to access information on how their area might change will be crucial to bringing more people into the process. And having access to a wider range of views will allow councillors to weigh the various voices in line with their own knowledge when they make decisions.”

Unsurprisingly for a wealthy area, RBKC is a particularly computer-literate, with studies revealing the concentration of residents with smartphones and tablets to be among the highest in the city. “Coupled with the way that younger people live their lives via their phones”, says Paul, “the hope is that smarticipate will make the process of giving feedback on urban planning proposals simple, quick and accessible to many more people.”

“We want residents to be able to go on their smart phone and express their views and have access to other people’s views. We want to help modernise government and make it more user-friendly, so the council can understand the wishes and aspirations of as many as possible of the people it serves. ”

Making progress with people onboard

Paul is pleased with smarticipate’s progress in these early stages and is looking forward to the unveiling of a working prototype of the platform. The Smartathon event, which took place on Saturday 17 September 2016, gave residents a chance to learn more about the project and to help shape the final product. Around 50 people participated.

“We demonstrated a 3D model to get people to think about how technology can aid them in understanding planning applications and how it can make it easier for them to understand what is being proposed for a location. We have also begun to build a core group of local people to guide us through the next two and a half years of the project.”

The feedback gained through the Smartathon is vital to the success of the project, says Paul: “We’ve had a wonderful opportunity to pick up on what people said during the Smartathon, this will feed into the design of the smarticipate platform and app.”

Meeting the challenges of resources and location

Reflecting the views of many of his counterparts across the continent, Paul singles out the level of resources available at council level for implementing these projects as a particular challenge, noting that many council employees are already working to full capacity as it is.

RBKC’s setting may also pose a barrier to embracing the innovative nature of smarticipate: “One of the main challenges is the reputation of RBKC itself and its high land value.  People feel very strongly about making sure it stays a very nice place to live, while developers obviously have a strong economic incentive to create new buildings.”

Lessons for the future

“When we initiated this project we were not clear which department would take the lead. Then the planning department identified a problem – increasing participation – that smarticipate could tackle, which was a good fit with the project’s objectives. That meant when we had the first meeting in London we already had a very clear idea of how the project could fit within the constraints of the UK planning system, which we could share with the rest of the smarticipate team.”

If successful, smarticipate could be just the beginning for RBKC. The principle of simple, manageable interaction between the council and its residents and businesses could be applied to areas beyond planning.

“We may be able to use [the smarticipate approach] when redesigning or adding any new council services, to ensure that they are in line with what people want. It would be an excellent opportunity to co-design services with those who are going to receive them, all the way through the process.”

Paul also stresses that it is vital that not only do local people have buy-in, but politicians as well: “It’s important that political leaders are aware of the benefits of smarticipate, and that they view it as a way of enhancing their insight and expertise as a way to support their leadership role. It’s not a substitute for the democratic process.”

A new live case study will be published every three months. Check back regularly to see how RBKC is progressing.