Civic participation in urban development has gained attention in recent years. Decision-makers are beginning to recognize the value of insights from active citizens. This makes sense, as citizens are the ones who experience the outcomes of those decisions. People who use public spaces, infrastructure, and urban services daily know best what could be improved.

An example from the Nordic countries demonstrates this well. In certain cities, planners wait to use the trodden snow during winter to learn how people walk between spaces to inform new pedestrian paths. The use of “desire paths” to inform planning means pedestrians get tracks based on the most-used routes. The approach also helps to maximize the use of resources on the paths that walkers prefer.

Through the COVID-19 pandemic, public access to services and processes through online portals became much more common. Although we still need to acknowledge the ‘digital divide’ in access to the internet and devices, the overall potential for online participation has increased. This shift presents an exciting opportunity to ensure that progressive approaches to participation guide the development of future engagement.

Participation is not a one-size-fits-all process, and many different approaches have developed over time. Sherry Arnstein’s ladder of participation remains one of the most relevant measures of engagement. On one end of the spectrum, people feel that they have a say in a decision without actually having one. They may be informed of a predetermined plan or consulted with a choice that they can vote “yes” or “no” on without actually affecting its content. These forms are low-impact and tokenistic. On the other end of the spectrum are empowering forms of participation. Co-creation belongs to the empowering varieties of participation. In these approaches, citizens participate in the project from an early stage. The flow of information is not one-directional from the decision-makers down to the participants. Instead, decision-makers establish a dialogue through which participants have the opportunity to use their knowledge to shape outcomes.

Sherry Arnstein’s ladder of participation

In general, empowering forms of participation require more time and effort. This is because having a meaningful collaboration between decision-makers and participants involves building trust and a good working relationship. In confronting significant challenges that affect all parts of the population, such as climate change, this process is imperative. Involving people in decision-making helps spread awareness, gain fresh perspectives and promote active citizenship and behavioral change. Climate change affects places and people in different ways and extents. In meeting the challenges, we will need to understand better how people live and the obstacles they encounter and work collaboratively to overcome them. Experts and political leaders have an essential role, but engagement with other stakeholders can significantly improve their effectiveness.

Climate change is a global issue, and everyone will experience its effects. The impacts will be harshest for marginalized communities and those living in particularly vulnerable ecosystems. To accelerate climate adaptation and mitigation, collective local actions with diverse stakeholders are needed that amount to a global effort. Every action has an essential role, from behavioral change to renewable energy transitions. Active participation processes help discover new knowledge and innovation, spread awareness, and bring people on board.

However, integrating a participation process into a large project can be a challenge. A long-term co-creation strategy is an integral component of the EU-Funded project RethinkAction. Below are three critical principles for integrating a successful and meaningful co-creation process at a large scale.

  1. Start Recruitment and Engagement Early If a project is to be genuinely co-creative, the engagement process must start early and inform the project’s design. This requirement means that the strategy needs to be defined and stakeholders identified. Relevant stakeholders should include any individual or group affected or knowledgeable about the location or topic—for example, universities, Non-Profit Organizations, local businesses, and active citizens. In early interactions, one should determine how the project can provide value to the different groups and use this to inform the engagement approach.
  2. Use Innovative Methods Collaboration does not need to be a boring or one-dimensional process. Visual and design methods such as interactive mapping and personas can foster more inclusive and creative engagement. Especially in projects around a scientific topic, such as climate change, all attendees must first receive the information they need to engage in the project through a clear introduction.
  3. Design a Sustained and not ‘Once-Off’ process In the past, participation has often been a once-off event. For example, the chance to vote for or against a new development already has a fixed plan. Or the guaranteed surge in engagement happens in the run-up to or shortly after elections. For engagement and co-creation to be of value, they need to take place over a prolonged period, preferably with the same actors leading the process. This means that trust can be built between parties, stakeholders can get more familiar with the topic and detailed analysis can be conducted.
  4. Empower Participants Co-creative projects inherently challenge existing power dynamics. By recognizing the value of the participants’ contributions, they gain more influence in the decisions that affect them. This shift elevates the process from one of consultation to collaboration. Recognizing value means communicating clearly how the inputs from participants are used in the project. It also means being open to various inputs, including ‘tacit’ knowledge that participants may have gained through personal experience instead of formal education. Co-creation also needs to provide people with a safe and empowering environment that makes the voices of all being heard without any regards to gender, race, disability, economic condition or sexual orientation. For this reason, the facilitation of co-creation activities should always be sensitive to local social dynamics.
  5. Make the Outcomes Transparent After participating in the formative stages, the engagement process should not end immediately for stakeholders. If it does, it can mean that participants do not see the value of committing their time to the process. This has far-reaching adverse consequences for the organization leading the strategy and future researchers and organizations who may want to work with the same stakeholders. Both on an ethical and pragmatic level, it is essential that participation outcomes are shared with participants. They have the right to understand how their contributions were integrated into the project.

These are some of the principles that are guiding the RethinkAction engagement strategy. The RethinkAction project aims to build a cross-sectoral and user-friendly online decision-making platform to promote climate change awareness and action. Click on the following links if you would like to find out more about the project or subscribe to the newsletter for more exciting updates.