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The psychology behind participation

Well begun is half done

Participation – the word on everyone’s lips in 2018. It literally means ‘active participation’, which ranges from simply being informed to actual decision-making, also known as co-creation. In the participation debate, we all focus mainly on the form. One idea is more creative than the one before, while another is even bigger. Let me start by saying that the form matters. No doubt about it. With my background in psychology and communication, however, I wanted to reflect on the process that underlies participation. People quickly adapt to the form, but why do we do what we do? How do you actually get people moving?

If you approach it from the perspective of psychology, you would say that you can only really get people engaged if you know what truly moves them. Of course, wishes and needs differ per person, and certainly also per country, region and city. And who knows their own city, village or street better than the people who live there? Start a participation process at the beginning: get to know the target group before the ball gets rolling. In this blog I’ll show you how to approach participation from a psychological angle, and how you can put these insights into practice.

Start by involving people
Surroundings shape people, but people shape their surroundings too. If your environment has such a deep impact on what you feel or do, it’s only logical that we should think about what happens in this environment. And, by involving people in a project at the concept phase, you build awareness and engagement – and ensure far greater support for the final result.

In other words, it’s better not to go ahead and make plans for a place, community or city single-handed. Make those plans in collaboration with local people, businesses, and trusted organisations. But how, exactly? My research highlighted one very simple lesson. Gather information and ask questions, rather than floating ideas first, then asking for people’s responses. Go into the community and speak to local people. By starting at the beginning, by listening and being flexible – as a municipality, property developer or housing corporation – you’re taking a far more active approach to participation. Delfts Doen is a good example of this. The Municipality of Delft tackles the participation process by starting at the beginning. In September 2016 they began by asking: ‘As a resident, entrepreneur or organisation, how do you want to be involved in developing your living environment?’ On the basis of surveys (online and offline) it appeared that more than 80% of the people of Delft were eager to get involved in developments in the city. Based on the input, local government created ‘9 Rules’ of participation in which the residents of Delft, as it were, make plans for the city. They are invited to stage meetings, test out their ideas and report results. With support from the municipality where needed, the citizens were given a large amount of responsibility for the city.

Keep listening
Well begun is half done – but it’s important to listen throughout the participation process. An interesting example of this is Fietsfan010. The municipality of Rotterdam wanted to encourage more Rotterdammers to cycle, and asked us to help out. We developed the online platform Fietsfan010, a place where locals could share their thoughts about Rotterdam as a cycling city. At first, the platform was mainly active on Facebook. Soon, however, we realised more channels were needed. Instagram and Twitter were added. If you keep listening to what people have to say, you will go on growing and improving. Fietsfan010 has continued to provide the municipality of Rotterdam with valuable policy input for a number of years.

Tell them they matter
In addition to listening and asking questions, it is crucial that you tell people how much your project relies on participation – and their participation in particular. When you organise consultation evenings, you often see the ‘usual suspects’ turn up. But most projects affect a far greater number of people. While participation isn’t for everyone, there’s always a large group of people eager to have their say. But they may not know how to do it, were unaware a consultative process existed, or may simply feel they have nothing valuable to contribute. But everyone has their unique expertise and insights into their local community: everyone’s contribution counts. The owner of the corner shop, the chairman of the property owners’ association, nearby residents, the housing federation officer. Make sure they know that their input is valued; tell them their ideas matter. Communicate transparently and explain what happens to their input. You can’t ask people for feedback and then ignore their ideas.

There is no roadmap
A participation trajectory begins with a specific goal in mind. And this is vital, because it generally ensures that everyone’s working towards the same objective. But the road you take to reach that goal differs from one project to the next. There is no roadmap or template for structuring a consultation process. You need to be bold, and set out with no clear signposts. Dialogue and participation are unpredictable processes; they never go quite the way you planned.

 

In short, if you want to involve people, be bold – don’t immediately think of the form: a festival of ideas, online community, neighbourhood safari or even the good old information evening. Start with a blank sheet of paper and engage with the people you want, in that specific situation, in that community. Listen closely to what they have to say, and use the online and offline tools that are practical and easy for them. You might end up using channels less sexy than you would have hoped, but they will massively increase the chances of a productive participation process. Which in turn will result in a more inclusive building – or area development – and, in the end, far greater value for the local community! 

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Malou Bromberg is junior PR and communication advisor at BRAND The Urban Agency. This article is based on literature research and interviews with Sander van der Ham, Christina Blijenberg and Rinske Brand. Thanks to Rozemarijn Stam. You can contact us at: malou@brandurbanagency.com

Sources
Blijenberg, C. (2018, 27 June). De ‘unusual suspects’: hoe bereik en betrek je ze? Van https://www.overheidincontact.nl/de-unusual-suspects-hoe-bereik-en-betrek-je-ze/

Decorte, S. (2018, 24 April). Hoe de stad ons ongemerkt beïnvloedt. Geraadpleegd van https://www.psychologiemagazine.nl/artikel/domweg-gelukkig-op-het-piazza-navona/

Swaab, D. (2016). Wij zijn ons brein. Rotterdam, Nederland: Olympus.

Van Raalte, J. (2018, 8 March). De burger mag meebeslissen in de gemeente en krijgt zelf de kas in handen. Geraadpleegd van https://www.volkskrant.nl/politiek/de-burger-mag-meebeslissen-in-de-gemeente-en-krijgt-zelf-de-kas-in-handen~a4578622/

Interview with Sander van der Ham
Website: Delfts Doen