How the pandemic has changed community engagement

The global COVID-19 Pandemic, with its rolling lockdowns and social distancing restrictions, has defined a ‘new normal’ for how we live and experience our cities.

In many ways the Pandemic was the R&D phase that we needed to have to jettison engagement into the digital age. It forced us to think creatively to deliver meaningful engagement experiences and outcomes that don’t rely on face-to-face events.

With planning applications now being made online through the NSW Government ePlanning Portal, and with Council, L&E Court, and Planning Panel meetings also moving online, utilising multimedia to give engagement a digital presence is a logical evolution.

We are fortunate to be living in a digital era, with most people having access to devices that give them a window into the world. This applies across all age groups. As a sector, we need to look at how we harness this opportunity.

The new digital community engagement experience

At UrbanTalk, we are focused on delivering new content-rich digital engagement experiences that inspire robust and meaningful conversations about development and planning projects. Conversations the community can access, and be part of, wherever they are and importantly, when they have the time to participate. When engagement goes online, engagement can occur anytime and anywhere, when people are at home in their living rooms or at a park.

Giving engagement a digital presence also means we can make it more age-inclusive. Moving to a media that is the domain of Millennials and Gens X, Y, Z and Alpha increases the reach of our conversations and enhances their relevance for future generations. This is the essence of why UrbanTalk has been created.

Digital communication products for each stage of a development

To do this, the UrbanTalk team has looked holistically at the stages of the development process and created a series of digital products that can enhance and support engagement across each of those stages. This means that we are not just looking at one community consultation conversation. Instead, we are facilitating engagement across the whole of the development cycle, using digital media to develop the conversation at each stage.

The UrbanTalk Project Listing

At the heart of UrbanTalk is our project listing web platform. While setting up a project website is not new to engagement, it seemed inefficient that the industry was creating multiple project websites to support engagement activities. So we have developed a centralised online platform that enables your project to have its own online UrbanTalk portal. We work with you to populate your listing, ensuring that it delivers factual and relevant information about your project. Supported by QR-coded site signage and postcards, and with the ability for you to add online surveys and feedback forms, our project listing gives the community a reliable single point of contact for your project that can stay in place from site acquisition, through design, to development assessment and construction.

Capturing locational context at a virtual site inspection

We now have access to drone video footage. This enables us to capture a detailed bird’s eye view of a site and allows everyone to understand locational context. Architects and planners know that locational context is fundamental to the design process. Capturing the site with drone photography and sharing the imagery through our SiteView video becomes a powerful communications tool. Importantly, our SiteView videos also provide a virtual site inspection experience for Council, Panel and L&E Court meetings require you to facilitate a virtual site inspection.

The SiteView video can be shared with the local community on the UrbanTalk Project Listing, giving you the ability to provide the community with rarely seen footage of a site so that they can better understand how a new development integrates or ‘fits’ within its locational context

Explainer Videos that tell the important backstory

Our Explainer Videos help you tell the back story to your project. This is the story that doesn’t appear in the suite of technical DA or Planning Proposal documents. If it doesn’t get told, the community and consent authority never get to fully understand why you have made the decisions that you have. This story is not a PR pitch, it’s the explanation of what makes your site unique, how different aspects of the site have to be treated, and the design and planning considerations that have informed your design. Filmed on-site by our Creative Producer, we can feature your architects, planners and advisers to create a powerful 10-15 minute video that sets the scene for your project. The Explainer Video can also be hosted on your UrbanTalk Project Listing.

Online Q&A Events for convenience

Online engagement must provide the opportunity for questions to be asked and answered, it must provide a platform where conversations can take place. We facilitate online events where the community and integral stakeholders can ask the questions that are important to them. We record our events so that anyone unable to participate can still benefit from the event. The end result is a seamless digital engagement experience that can be accessed by a local community anytime anywhere.

A vision for the future

We recognise that there will always be a need for face to face events for many projects, particularly those that involve strategic planning studies and placemaking. In these instances, I believe the future engagement model will be a hybrid model that uses digital technology to create a centralised inquiry and information hub and multimedia video and podcasts to explain key concepts.

UrbanTalk’s integrity is paramount to our success. We want communities to ask the development sector to list their projects with UrbanTalk and use our digital products to explain their projects to communities. This is how we will measure our success.

Our vision is for the industry to be looking to carry the UrbanTalk branding on their developments projects because it is synonymous with best practices in community engagement, sparks a thriving, inclusive and progressive dialogue around development that ultimately leads to better outcomes for everyone.

Three decades working at the coal face of the development sector in community engagement has taught me there is nothing straightforward about development. It’s complex. But we must evolve our engagement techniques and embrace technology because it has a vital role in connecting the development sector to local communities.

You may also be interested in watching…