How to design in the public space? Lessons learned on citizen engagement

We are currently facing many societal challenges, being energy transition a pressing one. We are part of a large H2020 EU project called a Lighthouse project, in which cities in seven countries in Europe bite the bullet to effectuate innovative solutions for energy transition in demo areas in each city.

A prime focus in projects like these is solving problems in implementing emerging technologies. Integrating various solutions is a non-trivial problem. Installing solar panels is by no means a solution in itself. It creates challenges such as how to store excess energy and to retrieve during peak hours, making it a complex issue.
Technological challenge?

While the talented technicians grind their way in the multitude of technical challenges, another challenge is looming that is also non-trivial yet not yet fully addressed. This is the notion of citizen engagement. How do we get citizens involved in decision making, adoption and proliferation of these solutions in their daily lives?

In the scope of our project, ( we notice strong differences per city and country in terms of tradition and experience with citizen engagement.

In the Netherlands we arguably have a well-developed system, where citizens have rights to participate and object formally to spatial developments in their surroundings. As designers, we do approach this subject from a different angle and looking through a design lens to current practices in citizen engagement, this matter raises a number of concerns.
Wishful thinking

In general, people tend to be too optimistic and rosy regarding the behaviours of other people they are made responsible for. Doctors, teachers, urban planners, all follow some hidden rules set firmly in the collective mind about how to be effective in engaging the people they tend to.

One of these unwritten rules is: the better people are informed, the more likely they are to act on the information provided. There is some truth in this, of course. If people are totally ignorant on a subject, they will not change their undesirable behaviour. But the sad bit is: the moment they know enough about the matter, they might still persist in their unwanted behaviour! And they do.

A second unwritten rule is: if you provide people with the opportunity to participate / give their opinion / contribute to a public cause, they will act on it.
The low numbers game

Again, the hope is there, but there is so much evidence that this is not leading to massive participation. Regarding citizen engagement, the figures in general are not looking good. In a neighbourhood covering 8000 inhabitants we tried these proven methods for engagement, and 15 people would show up for an evening meeting.

These 15 were also by no means representative of the 8000 people living in our demo area. No scientist would accept this as a valid sample representing a population, yet decisions were taken in the public space based on their input. To engage, a key aspect is the balance between effort and motivation.
Meet civilus imperfectus

The effort to become part of the decision-making process is very much put with the citizen as a responsibility. This sounds like logical and fair, but it does not take into account an important aspect of us as human beings: as a species we are flawed. We are no Homo economicus, always acting optimally on information provided, circumstances, priorities and procedures.

We lack and slack and procrastinate and avoid and ignore and delay… we want to, but we can’t, we wished we would, but we don’t. Any one of you ever had a subscription to a gym without using it? Ever brought a book back to the library far too late? Ever put your bike against a windowpane of a shop against a sign “no bikes here” when there is a massive bike storage two blocks near to your shop? We are no homo economicus, we are part of another species: Civilus Imperfectus.
Low Effort Design

Civilus Imperfectus follows a very basic trade-off in many situations in life: a trade-off of intrinsic motivation set against the effort it takes to achievable a certain goal. If the intrinsic motivation or desire is high, we are willing to put in a lot of effort. Young people can line up in sleeping bags to acquire a ticket for their favorite performer. But if the intrinsic motivation is low, a bit of effort will easily lead to disengagement or avoidance. Civilus imperfectus acts like water, finding the lowest path of resistance to achieve a goal.

As a designer, this means we can do two things: either raise the intrinsic motivation (beyond offering more information!), and/or lowering the effort for the citizen to achieve the goal we have in mind, like lowering energy consumption or throwing garbage in a can. We call this approach Low Effort Design.
High effort design example

In a recent example, I stumbled across an online invitation in my hometown of Utrecht to participate in an online citizen engagement exercise regarding a public park discussing potential art in this public space. I decided to give it a spin and test the effort component. I had to go through two admission pages, ending up in an online ticket sale environment (Eventbrite) to buy a ticket for 0 euro’s, submitting al my personal data, ending up in a poorly constructed manual containing critical mistakes to be able to participate. It took me 35 minutes as an experienced computer user. That is not low effort design. This hassle would not survive a bit of intrinsic motivation to participate.
Low Effort Design as good practise

A Low Effort Design approach means low effort on the side of the citizen. And this depends on the situation, since ‘the citizen’ does not exist. Highly contested or unwanted developments in a particular area might easily provoke a strong resistance and therefore substantial motivation by citizens to engage (often trying to prevent something perceived unwanted to happen). But for less contested subjects (healthy urban living or energy transition) these resistance mechanisms are often not strong enough to provoke substantial participation levels.
More work, higher impact

Low effort design also implies a higher effort on the side of the party formulating the ambition or being made responsible for the solution, which often means the government or NGO’s active on a subject. I think it is safe to say that current allocation of means for effective citizen engagement fall short to accommodate for this higher level of commitment to put in effort to substantially raise the levels of engagement. Current practices are also informed by the level of means available for effective engagement activities. In our own project about 3% of the total project budget is allocated to deal with direct citizen engagement, compared to the massive investments in the technological and construction activities needed to effectuate the energy solutions from a material point of view.

In our IRIS projects, we have seen best results so far when we followed these rules of Low Effort Design, taking into account the trade-off citizens make between intrinsic motivation and effort. In all fairness, this is not to put a blame on citizens on their disappointing efforts in engaging. In current energy transition projects, policy makers tend to focus on social housing in order to achieve a certain level of scale of operation. Time is running out to achieve climate goals set nationally and internationally, so to opt for large scale social housing (and housing corporations as natural partners) seems a logical policy choice.

At the same time, it means we focus our attention on a group in society who faces more challenges than most in their daily lives. They struggle with the most basic aspects of living; job security or being jobless; social issues and safety issues in their neighborhood; worries about the future and living conditions of their children; poor health; dereliction in their environment… all these living circumstances are close to the lower steps of the Mazlov pyramid. It is logical that on that list of urgent living issues, energy transition is not their top priority. Intrinsic motivation for the subject is in that respect a luxury for those struggling with these basic requirements. This put even more strain on engaging these citizens, despite the obvious and urgent requirement to deal with this subject immediately.

Author: Willem-Jan Renger

07 Apr 2021

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