Community engagement refers to the process of involving community members in decision-making and problem-solving processes that affect their lives.
It involves creating opportunities for community members to participate in discussions, provide feedback, and collaborate on initiatives and projects that impact their community.
Community engagement can occur in the form of town hall meetings, focus groups, surveys, and public hearings; and involve partnerships between community members, private organisations, and government agencies to address socioeconomic and environmental issues.
The benefits of community engagement include increased trust, improved communication, and more effective decision-making.
By involving community members in the decision-making process, community engagement can also lead to more inclusive and equitable outcomes, and more sustainable solutions.
What is Participatory Design?
Participatory Design is an approach to design that involves users or stakeholders in the design process.
It aims to create products, systems, and services that are tailored to meet the unique needs of diverse communities to make the user experience more meaningful to them.
In participatory design, users are seen as experts in their own experiences and needs, and whom should be readily recruited as active participants of the design process.
When designers work closely with users to understand their needs and preferences in participatory design, this process of co-creation can lead to more innovative and effective designs, as well as greater user satisfaction and engagement.
Is There Any Difference Between Participatory Design and Community Engagement?
Participatory Design and Community Engagement are related concepts, but they are not interchangeable.
Participatory Design is a specific approach to designing products, systems, and services that involves users in the design process, while Community Engagement is a broader concept that encompasses strategies for involving community members in decision-making and problem-solving processes that affect their lives, with an emphasis on building relationships and partnerships between members of the community, organisations, and government agencies.
While participatory design can be a form of community engagement, community engagement is not limited to design processes.
It can also involve a range of activities, such as advocacy, community organising, and capacity-building.
How Is Participatory Design Used in The Field of Architecture?
Participatory Design is widely used in the field of architecture to involve users or stakeholders in the design process, and to create buildings and spaces that better meet their needs and preferences.
Here are some ways in which Participatory Design is used in architecture:
Participatory design can involve a needs assessment process, in which architects work closely with users and various stakeholders to identify their needs and preferences for a building or space.
Types of methods: focus groups, surveys, interviews, and other feedback gathering exercises
Participatory design can involve a co-creation process, in which architects work collaboratively with users or stakeholders to design a building or space.
Types of methods: design workshops and other participatory activities
Participatory design can involve user feedback throughout the design process, to ensure that the building or space is meeting the needs and preferences of the users.
Types of methods: mock-ups, prototypes, and other forms of testing and evaluation
Participatory design can involve community engagement, in which architects work with the broader community to ensure that the building or space is meeting the needs and preferences of the community as a whole.
Types of methods: public meetings, community surveys, and other forms of engagement
In summary, participatory design can lead to buildings and spaces that are more user-centred and functional, as well as greater user satisfaction and engagement.
It can also lead to more aesthetically pleasing, innovative, and sustainable design solutions.
How Is Community Engagement Used in The Field of Architecture?
Community engagement is an important aspect of the architectural design process, as it involves the participation of community members in the planning and design of buildings and spaces that will ultimately affect their quality of life.
Here are some ways in which community engagement is used in the field of architecture:
Community engagement can involve a needs assessment process, in which architects work closely with community members to identify their needs and preferences for a building or space.
This can involve surveys, focus groups, and other forms of consultation.
Community engagement can involve stakeholder meetings, in which architects meet with community members, project stakeholders (which includes the building management, developers, engineers, contractors, and safety officers), and other interested parties to discuss the design process and solicit feedback.
Stakeholder Meeting for Ground-Up Initiative New Kampung Kampus
Community engagement can involve design charettes or workshops, which are intensive, collaborative design sessions in which architects work with community members to develop design concepts for a building or space.
Vision Workshop for Ground-Up Initiative New Kampung Kampus
Community engagement can involve public meetings, in which architects present design concepts and solicit feedback from community members. These meetings can be held at various stages of the design process, to ensure that the design is meeting the needs and preferences of the community.
Informal Meeting with potential users of the Majestic Smart Seniors Applied Learning Centre to gather feedback on needs
Outreach and Education:
Community engagement can involve outreach and education efforts, in which architects work to inform community members about the design process, the benefits of good design, and other relevant issues.
Victoria Junior College students learning about the importance of empathy in design
The use of community engagement in architecture can be a very powerful design approach and one that we at WeCreate Studio view as the centrepiece of our design strategy.
When deployed appropriately, it can lead to buildings and spaces that are more responsive to the needs and preferences of the community, as well as greater community ownership and pride in the built environment.
It can also help to ensure that the design is more inclusive, and that the building or space serves the needs of the community as a whole.
A Model to Guide Community Participation in Design Projects?
So, what type and amount of participation in public projects by the community is necessary for it to be deemed as an authentic form of participation and not merely an act of placation from those governing the design process?
Perhaps we can get some inspiration from Sherry Arnstein's Ladder of Citizen Participation.
Redrawn Model of Sherry Arnstein's Ladder of Citizen Participation by Juliet Young
The diagram above shows Sherry Arnstein's Ladder of Citizen Participation, a typology of eight "rungs" or levels of participation that outlines the degree of power and control that citizens have in decision-making processes.
This Ladder of Citizen Participation ranges from non-participation at the bottom rungs, to tokenism in the middle rungs, to citizen control at the top rungs.
The ladder's eight rungs are: Manipulation, Therapy, Informing, Consultation, Placation, Partnership, Delegated power, and Citizen control.
How Participatory are Most Architecture Projects?
So, based on Sherry Arnstein's Ladder of Citizen Participation, what rung of the ladder are most participatory architecture design projects on?
In our opinion, most participatory architecture design projects would likely fall between rungs 4 and 6, which are Consultation, Placation, and Partnerships respectively.
At the Consultation rung (Level 4), the community is asked for their input, feedback, and opinions on the design process and the proposed building or space. The architects may hold public meetings, focus groups, and other forms of consultation to gather feedback from the community.
At the Placation rung (Level 5), the community is granted a limited degree of influence in the design process, having an opportunity to shape ideas, but their participation is largely or entirely tokenistic.
For example, building authorities can hold road shows and ask for feedback on proposed designs on site. However, if the feedback collected was not actually deliberated upon and translated to changes in the final building design, it can be argued that the community was merely involved only to demonstrate that they were involved.
At the Partnership rung (Level 6), architects work in collaboration with the community to co-create the design for the building or space. The community is directly involved in the decision-making process. This involves building relationships with the community, understanding their needs and preferences, and working together to develop design concepts.
Some architectural design projects may even go beyond the Partnership rung and reach the Delegated Power (Level 7) or Citizen Control (Level 8) rungs of the ladder, where the community has actual decision-making power over the design process and the use of the building or space.
However, these types of projects are relatively rare in the field of architecture.
At WeCreate Studio we take a consultative and partnership approach in design and strive to constantly hit the Partnership rung (Level 6) in all our building projects. We enjoy the community engagement process and value the feedback that stakeholders and user community provide.
Nothing gives us more satisfaction than to hear from users that the spaces we design bring them joy and fond memories.
Is There a Future for Participatory Design in Singapore?
Participatory design has been gaining momentum in Singapore in recent years, with more architects, planners, and government agencies recognizing the value of engaging with communities in the design process.
There are established design studios in Singapore that play their part in promoting participatory design (at Level 6 Partnership rung 😊).
One such studio is Participate in Design, which engages and empowers their clients in implementing participatory projects, involving itself in the planning of neighbourhood spaces, public spaces, interior spaces for community use, and public art installations.
The studio also designs specific processes, methods, and tools of engagement, to ensure that voices from the community are translated into tangible outcomes.
One other player is Shophouse & Co, a placemaking studio that helps clients create active and loveable places for people to live, work, and play. The company does this by first developing sustainable placemaking strategies and then bringing communities together through their creative programmes to collaboratively reimagine urban private and public spaces.
Lastly, COLOURS specialises in collaborative public space design, working with clients to facilitate community dialogues that produce user-centric designs. It aims to design urban community spaces through community participation to empower the community and raise the sense of ownership felt by communities by involving them in the design process.
The Singapore government has also led by example in recent years, playing an active role to promote a sense of community ownership through initiatives such as ‘Our Singapore Fund’, which provides funding for community-led projects that aim to improve public spaces and amenities. Successful applicants stand to receive up to a maximum of $20,000 per project to support initiatives that build more socially inclusive communities, bring the community together, and promote the Singapore spirit.
With stakeholders from both private and public sectors pulling their weight and working the ground, coupled with a growing awareness of the importance of sustainable and inclusive design in Singapore, the future of participatory design in Singapore looks promising.
Through continued emphasis on such community engagement driven design processes in our practice, WeCreate aims to play our part in creating more liveable, sustainable, and vibrant neighbourhoods and communities for Singapore and in places beyond our shores.
If you have a social design project that requires community engagement, feel free to contact us to discuss your ideas. We are always happy to provide our suggestions, views, and expertise for projects that can leave a long-term and lasting impact on communities.