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Consultation fatigue? Try Pre-activation

Consultation fatigue. ‘You keep asking the same questions but nothing ever happens.’ Does that feedback Sound familiar? The speaker doesn't mean you specifically, but but the council, the charities, the outsiders.

We say we want to consult with the ‘hard to reach’ or more accurately the ‘hardly reached’. So does everyone else. We may be genuinely keen to listen, to understand, to act on feedback, but infrastructure and changes to the built environment take time, funding and resources. They may never happen.

It doesn't matter if the questions are open, not leading, appreciative and focused on making the most of local strengths rather than weaknesses. If you’ve been asked them by someone else already, do you feel listened to or ignored?

In my last blog, I spoke about an approach I call ‘pre-activation’. An approach that seeks to give experience and build upon that to provide insight.

That’s why I’m calling for capital grant funders to support ‘pre-activation’ as a key part of the design process, not to dismiss it as ‘revenue’ and therefore ineligible.

One key benefit of a pre-activation process is that the engagement has intrinsic value. To those who face barriers of inequalities and inequities, traditional consultation often feels like a lot of talking and a lot of taking.

Traditional consultation, even when delivered digitally often only reaches the same interested parties. Consultations that claim to be ‘participatory’ or ‘co-design’ may make efforts to ‘reach’ those who face barriers but often the questions posed and artists impressions shared demand an immediate knee-jerk, contextless response.

Pre-activation isn't singular method, it is an approach that creates context for informed insight. That insight may come as a by-product of the activity, or it may come from slow conversations in real-life situations – ideally with trusted individuals – to shape meaningful input both verbal, and non-verbal to be translated by experts. (More on that here).

Oslo’s bid for safer, greener streets created ‘Traffic Agent’. With a blend of gamification and reporting, Traffic Agent was a fun game that encouraged walking to school, but also allowed children to report where they felt safe, and where they didn’t. Where they would like to cross the road, and where they couldn’t.

The children enjoyed the game for its intrinsic value, but the real-life reporting that came through ‘pre-activation’ also provided rich insight for change.

When a little boy reported that some bushes meant he couldn’t see where he was crossing, two days later the bushes were cut. When children said they would like to walk through a privately-owned piece of land as it felt safer, the municipality made an agreement for access and built a crossing, path and handrail.

City Legends, Netherlands

Dutch consulting agency Lines by City Legends take a similar approach when making use of their digital urban sports platform to create youth consultation through activity.

The CityLegends app seeks to create an “engaged community of street athletes, artists and make their voices heard”. The app allows them to share everything from videos of their tricks – in prize competitions – to reviews of official or unofficial skate spots.

Perhaps the unofficial is most interesting, with real potential to drive an approach that builds on existing assets in the public realm rather than ‘fixing’ the problem with a new skate park. This could encourage a municipality to make slight alterations to improve a pre-existing spot, already popular with young people rather than building something new in a place to which they have no connection. In other words, a cost-effective approach that enhances social spaces to support activity rather than building community sports facilities from scratch.

As with so many good digital sports apps, they also seek to turn digital communities into real-life communities. To get users on the app in any new town where they are building a ‘strategy for urban’, they not only run competitions but first “bring together initiatives, young people, urban and social parties” to attract people to the app.

Backyard Football, Nørrebro United, Copenhagen

A group of 5 year olds plays football in a astro turfed cage with parents. A table football table sits in front

Pre-activation isn’t just about new sites, it might also mean re-activation before regeneration. When Nørrebro United realised that children from disadvantaged neighbourhoods only five-minutes-walk away weren’t attending their sessions, they went to them and made use of gravelly ball courts in the estates on Denmark’s ‘ghetto’ list.

This family focused intervention with children aged 5-7 and their parents activated these poor facilities that were low on priority for renewal because no-one was using them. This activation showed the courts were valuable and gave the Copenhagen municipality the confidence to renew the courts with a rubber crumb artificial turf pitch. After this happened a few times, the municipality now asks United where they should prioritise their renewal programme next, and is even building brand new facilities

Those new facilities are being supported by LOA-Fonden – The Danish Foundation for Culture and Sports Facilities. When they first receive interest in their capital funding, they do not ask for blueprints or artists conceptions, they ask for a vision. What does an applicant hope the building deliver? It then goes through that list and points toward those things that do not need a new building to happen, asking the applicant to first deliver these and work with those they engage to design a facility responsive to their needs.

They do not is believe in ‘build it and they will come’ mantra, their call is to invite their target audience in and build it with them. The result is unique and innovative spaces that are designed spaces for people not just spaces for sport.

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