Designers and researchers Nick Gant and Joe Palmer on community-led planning and the engaging power of creative making
Making lies at the heart of how Nick Gant and Joe Palmer think of places. As co-founders respectively of social design agency Community21 and digital community engagement group Block Builders, their down-to-earth yet future-focused approach blurs the boundaries between the physical and the virtual. Using digital tools and hands-on crafts, their work engages people in both planning future communities and improving existing ones. Local Legends caught up with them at their Place Maker Space in Brighton to talk about real community engagement, material and digital cultures, and how to jump-start dialogue using Minecraft ™.
Nick, tell us about your background and your role here in Brighton.
I've been interested for some years in social and sustainable design and making. I'm now a member of staff at the University of Brighton, and I set up the MA Sustainable Design course here with a colleague, Jonathan Chapman.
I also co-founded Community21, which is a social design agency situated in the School of Architecture and Design. It provides a professionalised ‘entity’ that uses 21st century methods aimed at enabling sustainable community development. We provide a link between diverse communities and the research and development capital of the university.
Our role is to do two things: to provide external organisations with added value, research and creative work, and a social purpose; and to develop high-level research that brings students into these kinds of activities.
What inspired you to start Community21?
I used to be a parish councillor. I was the youngest parish councillor in East and West Sussex - the average age in the county then was apparently 73!
I loved to talk about the issues that were emerging in my work with organisations, local authorities, public service organisations and charities. We started to explore the research questions that came out of it: the problems and opportunities that arise out of grassroots community engagement. Statutory planning developments and things like neighbourhood planning were supposed to shift the processes around civic participation in planning – but these processes need tools. We initially built Community21 to facilitate further community engagement in community-led planning by providing internet-enabled tools and peer-to-peer learning devices. These make grassroots planning easier and more inclusive.
Most of the documentation that comes out of civil service organisations supporting local level planning talks about frontlining the ‘vision’ for your community. But no one tells you what vision is, or how to get there. How do you really take a community through a creative process that isn't simply ticking boxes? So we have co-designed tools and methods that support creative capacity in communities and especially disenfranchised or marginalized groups.
We've done about four projects now, starting to look at different activities and methods. We raise research questions that we can develop a creative response to, and then provide tools and methodological development to make that engagement useful and meaningful for people. Then we publish our tools openly online.
And Joe, how did you become involved?
I come from a making background, and did Design and Craft at the University of Brighton as my BA. In my third year, there was a project through Community21 called Young Digital Citizenship, about making young people active citizens through digital technology. They were looking at different tools to use, and I came across Minecraft™. I was initially intrigued by the way it encouraged players to co-create on a large scale and thought this feature of it could apply to planning. We put together a workshop with a group of young people based around the Lewes Phoenix Industrial Estate. The workshop revealed how readily children could contribute ideas and opinions into a Minecraft™model of the Phoenix Industrial estate. After university, I set up BlockBuilders with my colleague, Megan Leckie, that uses Minecraft™ to engage young people in the past, present and future of their local area.
What do you see as the connection between digital and physical in your work?
Joe: We’ve used Geospatial data to model the real world in Minecraft™. This means our Minecraft™ models are exact replicas of the real world - for example, we've modelled the whole of Brighton in Minecraft. The reason we do this is because we create a model of the real world that’s easy to edit and change. It's a way of ‘re-grounding’ the digital world in a real-life process; it allows kids or anyone to come in and make changes to that new world.
But there's also something about the immediacy of the digital world. We're constantly trying to make it harder and put real life limits on it - so it’s not so easy to come in and destroy the place! It's about making it as realistic as possible: realistic in the sense of trying to get them to think through decisions and explore the new futures that they create.
Nick: For me, Joe’s process is very close to physical making anyway. From the Community21 point of view, I’m not sure we would necessarily make the distinction between digital and physical. It’s about blurring the boundary and engaging people in notions of creative expression and construction.
For example, one of the other organisations that Joe and I have worked with is called Exploring Senses. They often start by getting young people to make expressive representations of their ideas for the community in cardboard. Then these physical objects are scanned using iPads, and this data can be taken into Minecraft and other 3d platforms and that BlockBuilders programme to make back into physical outputs. These things have been made physically, scanned digitally, imported into a digital platform, edited virtually and then spat back out physically by a 3D printer.
Approaches like Joe's are a fantastic way to address young people using tools that they understand and can participate in - tools that have a social dimension.
It makes perfect sense as a way to engage young people. What do you think they can bring to community planning that maybe other groups can't?
Joe: Rather than what they bring, we’ve found that having young people there really changes the atmosphere. They're very good at collaborating and working together, especially through gaming technologies. It tends to lead to a more collaborative process. It's particularly interesting to bring children in, as they can neutralise controversy in a way that actually means people can feed in more proactively.
Nick: It's an obvious thing to put young people together, but it's also exploring what that really means.
There’s a process that we started back in 2009 to address an issue we’d identified. When you ask young people what they would like in the community in the future, it's an abstract question that even adults struggle with. Their default answer was to treat it like a shopping list. They would say ‘skate park’. We've got examples of where we've been to two or three villages and we've got universal feedback of the kids saying that. So the question becomes: how do you facilitate deeper, more reflective thinking?
We did a project with Action in Rural Sussex community council in a village called Heathfield, which is the biggest parish in the country. We started to explore young people working with older people to look back 50 years and then look ahead 50 years. We used ageing apps as a way to get them to imagine their lives in the future and then tell a story. Here's one example: "I want there to be more job opportunities for the youths, like working in companies. Also, there should be more green energy and more ways to speak." So it works by taking them out of their own personal experiences and helping them to imagine life through different pictures.
Let’s talk a bit about the process you use across different projects. What’s your discovery process? How do you try to understand what the issues are?
Joe: We use Minecraft™ in quite a different way, where we'll model a real place and then run an activity called called Treasure and Trash. It’s a Community21 activity where we get kids to identify the things they like about the area and the things that need improving. It's a really good way to get people talking.
From there, they come up with ideas, perhaps to solve the issues or improve the benefits. We'll get them to model these ideas in Minecraft, so that the actual process of making it is a way of refining it. Once it’s a ‘real’ thing in the virtual game, we're able to show how it changes a community.
Nick: Joe and Megan got the BlockBuilders to build a town in a virtual representation. It’s something you wouldn't imagine that young people would have the discipline and the rigour to do, but they did it with real attention and care. I think it's something about the way the system mediates a group of people: they're in the same room, but they're not in the same room. They're in a separate place where they're both anonymous and a group. An odd proxy society emerges that allows seven-year-olds and 14-year-olds to work together - which is pretty unheard of! It’s a collaborative vision. What Minecraft™ helps to support is the notion of working together to build something.
It creates a platform for collective visions.
Nick: Yes, and the starting point for planning is the relationship between the people of the community and the people who ultimately have to make the decisions, whether they’re a developer or the neighbourhood planning team or the local council. That relationship often gets stuck. A lot of engagement activities are fantastic at promoting initial interest, but what they also do is raise a huge amount of expectation. It's about trying to close that loop without getting antagonistic.
On the subject of storytelling - do you think narrative plays other roles? Are you getting people to think perhaps more imaginatively?
Joe: We like using themes. We get a theme and then we let them write their own narratives around that theme. We did one workshop which was based around play, and how play works on an urban scale. The kids were designing different things to play with, and also telling us how to use them - and actually showing us in the game as well.
Nick: For me, what's good about the thematic approach is that it’s quite broad, but it has enough idiosyncrasy to it to engage other people in a narrative that feels meaningful. On another neighbourhood plan we’re involved with, we're collecting 10-word stories from the community and turning them into prints. It's quite a simple process, but it makes those things an embedded part of the culture of that community.
The themes are often also driven by the developer or the district authority. So they’re a point of interface. They help to bridge without losing the peculiarities and the special nature of place.
We’ve found it’s a key aspect of placemaking, to connect something that is quite personal up to something that is much bigger - at the level of, say, a developer.
Nick: Somebody could tell you a story of something that happened to them and that could provoke further ideas around health, or wellbeing, or security. It allows you to make those connections to the headline issues that developers and architects have to try and address.
Again, that polarisation between communities and developers often happens in planning. It's an immediate distrust between the stakeholder parties. You can't even get into a grown-up conversation about how you address some of those issues in a meaningful way. We have got to think about tools that broker that and mediate empathy and shift towards common interests and values.
Recently, we have a software development that will allow community mapping. It’s something we've built into Community21 as an open GIS. (Graphic Information System) We're even looking at taking away the familiar view of the Google image of your place, and asking people to draw a map collectively. These making methods disarm some of that immediate distrust and show that actually, in most of our ideas, we are often singing from the same hymn sheet. You could even find a local authority, community and a developer might have the same ideas and values when they are developed anonymously So our processes would seek to facilitate these common values – whilst remaining engaging to use.
One of the interesting aspects to your work is the way in which you bring things that are at an urban scale down to a human scale. Is that about giving people something that represents a vision and allowing them to hold it in their hands?
Nick: It comes back to the notion of craft. What makers can do is reveal the connection between the magic of craft and real physical things. It’s about making those physical things meaningful.
I'm very interested in the politic of quality in craft and making. I don't think anyone wants to make anything rubbish. Everyone wants to make things that are beautiful and compelling and powerful. It’s often assumed in community-driven design that that won’t be the case and community creativity is somehow aesthetically or technically inferior – but contemporary tools and processes can help to make-making more democratic and ensure outputs are pleasing and convincing.
What’s interesting about maker spaces is that the tools allow a level of accessibility and immediacy through grassroots community access to technologies and making methods.
This environment at Community 21 is set up to provide making opportunities through organisations like Joe's and others. People are not making spice racks or robots. We're making things that relate to what the city could be in the future.
Joe and I went to art colleges, and at some point we were given an artistic licence, where our creative ideas were apparently totally valid. The rest of the world didn't. They somehow got on a different train. But actually a lot of these tools provide lay people with the opportunity to make compelling things.
If people make compelling things that have real meaning, it's personally satisfying. If that can be deployed in a way that promotes urban development, we’re going well. But it could be applied to a whole range of things at community level.
That approach to meaning is interesting. That's the rationale behind thinking about narrative — to put meaning back to what you’re designing. You’re saying you don't need to a designer necessarily to do that.
But there is also a danger with meaning-making in that it can be exploited as well. Other times it does a good job of trying to reflect people’s meaning back up in a way that is perhaps subversive or coercive.
Again I suppose it is intermediary’s role in trying to balance that out. Giving the people that need to develop a place the ability to find a coherent or meaningful strategy for it — and asking people on the ground what they need whilst not becoming cynical or reflecting back a vision that lacks authenticity.
Can that feed back into professional planning?
Joe: We've had a few examples of that. We did a project with developer Crest Nicholson as part of their project in Cambridge about three years ago where the kids pitched their idea to the developer. The kids were looking at developing a park area on the Cambridge football ground, and came up with multiple ideas and one of those was for a lit path that ran around it to make it safer. It resonated with the developer because the kids had actually designed it. They had drawings of how it was all going to work, and how it was all going to be powered.
With the Lewes County Town neighbourhood plan, in the workshops that we ran, we engaged around 160 children. [The planners] went on to form five key themes in the neighbourhood plan that all came from the kids’ ideas. So sometimes it manifests in physical built things, and sometimes it manifests in how the process forms and the identity of a plan.
Urban planning, of course, often takes a long time to detail and implement! How do you think the kinds of community planning tools you use could be extended throughout the life of a development?
Nick: That's a key point. We've been working with the city council here on an urban design framework, which would form local level supplementary design policies. It's complicated. But this is why I think the making comes in, because there's an opportunity for us to engage in the landscape, and put things in place that allow that conversation to continue through active processes of engaged community making, in and about place.
In the Lewes project, we made individual videos that told stories about various elements of the kids’ ideas. We got asked to present them back to the neighbourhood planning team and to Nick Clegg, who was the Deputy Prime Minister then. This to me is an interesting idea of a legacy. A couple of our AHRC-connected community events are looking at how digital storytelling could be repositioned into a public format.
Can digital tools also support the evolution of a place as it changes - as its story evolves?
Joe: I'm interested in that. I've been offered a funded PhD to look at how you could have a digital model that could be used by professionals and the public alike to develop a sense of place. It's essentially utilising tools the professionals use currently - so like Minecraft, but more grown-up! A constantly evolving model that sits between the public and the architects, that remains a resource throughout the whole process.
Nick: There's a lot of literature around how 3D modelling and things like that do provide a quality interaction, where people can start to see things emerge. Joe's work adds a mediation where the public begin to participate in the fabrication and the ongoing redevelopment of those things. It’s the notion that a developer's view of the place is the starting point - where the game starts. That’s potentially really powerful.
That’s an interesting point; do you think, then, that this digital world can help to track or measure the value that storytelling is adding to placemaking?
Joe: You can actually capture the storytelling process through different apps. You can also measure in more traditional ways, such as showing the numbers of people who turned up to the workshops.
Nick: Because it’s digital, it's a simple notion that you can create a vision and share it with X amount of people. It’s quantifiable and robust - ‘X amount of people like this’ is the obvious one. But equally, you can follow people’s views on things. It's a credible way to track.
What’s interesting about augmented reality is that data about people's explorations and ideas, their shifting and changing cultural perceptions, could be deposited or embedded in the place and readable on smart phones in a way that's accessible and measurable. You could be in a space and have that legacy of people's involvement there. It’s potentially powerful in terms of measuring the value of investment: where things have come from and who made the ideas. To look back and say, "500 people came together one day and you can see where their idea came from” - we can make that tangible with these methods.
Finally, if you were to give one piece of advice to placemakers, what would it be?
Nick: I think it's finding methods that make it very easy for people to explore diverse ways to think creatively about place. Looking for those trigger points to get something that's more meaningful, rather than getting fixed into polarised behaviour.
Joe: I reckon just make it as fun, messy and approachable as possible. If you make it easy to use, you will engage a wider range of people.