Future of Digital Engagement – Keeping the Conversation Going During the Lockdown and Beyond

[:en]As a result of the lockdown, we’re all stuck at home – many of us glued to our various digital devices.  For most of us, never before have we learnt to use so many new digital tools in such a short space of time.  The social isolating measures have even turned those of us (and I speak for myself here) who have previously been digital Luddites into semi-pros.  Although I’m not going out, I’ve had some great parties linking up with friends from all corners of the world.

In the past, we may have been reticent to turn to digital forms of engagement.  But now with the very quick upskilling of many in the community, is this the opportunity to effectively engage with a wider demographic digitally?

At Grasshopper Communications over the last month, we have been exploring the full range of digital engagement tools now available and how to build these into our wider campaigns, including online meetings, super surveys and virtual exhibitions.

To broaden out this dialogue and hear the experience of others, we recently hosted the ‘virtual’ Cynnal Cymru Coffee Club on the Future of Digital Engagement discussing the importance of keeping the conversation going during the lockdown, as well as exploring whether this will change the way we engage in the future.

From our involvement in the regeneration and development sector, we feel it is vital that community consultations should be able to continue (with a digital focus) to enable essential new homes and infrastructure to be built and to support the economic recovery. With this in mind, the Welsh Government has issued guidance to enable Local Planning Authorities (LPA’s) to hold Planning Committees remotely and the Royal Town Planning Institute’s recent interview with the Head of Planning in Wales demonstrates that planning services are continuing.  The Welsh Government is still reviewing the situation regarding pre-application consultation requirements.

The development sector has raised concerns around public engagement during COVID-19, particularly regarding potential negative PR and reputational implications if perceived to have limited empathy or respect for communities during the crisis.

The Cynnal Cymru discussion highlighted some innovative digital engagement case studies that have already been put into action since lockdown.  For example, Icreate, provider of CGIs and 3D flythrough animations, showcased their virtual online experience of Brentford Football Stadium.  Similarly, Arup has been using its own Virtual Engage Digital exhibition platform which allows the public to access information, view maps and drawings, watch flythroughs and share feedback.

Sustrans are equally adopting digital tools for planning active travel.  Their online community mapping toolkit allows anyone to identify perceived barriers to walking and cycling within a study area and add new routes.

Commonplace, an online engagement platform is responding to the COVID-19 emergency by offering their platform to Local Authorities and community groups to act as a central point where community views can be collected.

The issue of engagement for housing associations was discussed, and how many residents are now getting their information in different ways, with many turning to social media forums for example.  The challenge of engaging with older residents, such as those living in sheltered accommodation, was also raised as a key challenge, but one that had also presented many opportunities for the future, such as enabling access to food orders and services online.

Those ‘virtually’ attending felt that there were significant opportunities to capitalise on the benefits of the lockdown with many turning to virtual staff and client meetings, resulting in significant cost as well as carbon savings.  This surely raised many questions about the future of how we work.

The overriding opinion was that the current situation offered a chance to do things differently, with the potential of using innovative digital engagement tools in addition to traditional tools such as paper newsletters delivered to people’s homes.  In the short-term, whilst there may community sensitivities and PR challenges to consider and address during the lockdown, it was felt it is important to keep the conversation going to aid the economic recovery. If you would like to join in the debate about digital engagement, join the Digital Community Engagement group on LinkedIn.



This article has been written by Hannah Dineen, Associate Director at Grasshopper Communications as part of our weekly Cynnal Coffee Club conversations, to share learning and explore positive actions we can take forward to ensure a more resilient and sustainable future.[:]

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