When it comes to consultation and engagement exercises, the unfortunate truth is that not everyone with a view on local issues will show up to meetings or complete questionnaires. Many people lack the time or resources to participate in consultation exercises, while others may not see themselves as having anything relevant to contribute. This can mean some groups are over-represented while others are underrepresented.
Consultation and participation exercises are hard work. They impose time, knowledge and resource burdens on people. The Data Civics team at the Edinburgh Futures Institute, led by Chancellor’s Fellow Liz McFall, has been experimenting with projects designed to recognise and work around these issues.
One set of projects focuses on how internet and social media platforms contribute to ‘digital placemaking’. Researchers have been watching the role internet platforms, from TripAdvisor to AirBnB and social media platforms, play in urban transformation since the early 2010s. Platforms help create a ‘buzz,’ turning venues and streets into destinations, even speeding up the gentrification of some urban areas. Places, including residential streets, that had been unremarkable become ‘instagrammable’.
But there is more to digital placemaking than creating instagrammable looks. In the research team’s first project during the peak of the pandemic in 2020, they discovered the role Instagram was playing for some local independent businesses changed dramatically. The Covid Arcadia project traced how the material changes retailers made to their premises so they could continue trading were also reflected in changes to their ‘digital premises’ on Instagram. In the early days of lockdown, Instagram went from being a useful marketing tool to a vital means of communication between local businesses and their customers. Accounts began sharing information, support and resources as retailers used the platform to explain the challenges they were facing and the changes they were making to their services, products, opening hours and modes of delivery. More than mere ‘shop fronts’, Instagram feeds became a way of building community and even projecting the atmosphere of the shop into digital space, with some businesses producing new kinds of content for the platform, such as commissioning artists and poets, launching competitions and cross-promoting events.
Tackling online inequality
Instagram fuelled ‘pivots’ were common in Edinburgh’s hospitality sector and worked well for some businesses, but they were far from universal. The coffee shops, restaurants, pubs, patisseries, hairdressers, plant shops, bookshops and boutiques with Instagram followings skew toward younger, more affluent, more ‘online’ consumers. Outlets in multiply-deprived, outlying parts of the city were much less likely to have strong digital footprints. Understanding why some organisations have more digital visibility and more resilience is significant for placemaking and urban regeneration efforts more broadly.
Community and arts organisations face very different sorts of challenges than retailers, but they also recognise the opportunity digital platforms present to improve their visibility and networking capabilities. All sorts of local organisations and places, from community centres to local parks, beaches and even bus-stops, have been experimenting with Twitter and Instagram accounts for several years. As lively and creative as some of these accounts are, they tend not to have the sustained digital presence and networked visibility that the most successful local businesses have developed. A predominantly residential area like Granton, understandably, has fewer community, arts and retail venues than an area like Leith, but those that do exist can benefit from enhancing their digital footprints, becoming more ‘discoverable’, searchable and networked. The research team has been working on co-producing toolkits with local organisations to develop their digital footprints in ways that fit their social missions.
Supporting local acceleration
Covid Arcadia was supported by Edinburgh Futures Institute’s Design Lab and this was key to developing its potential for local impact. Through EFI’s commitment to co-production and cross-sector collaboration, researchers had the chance to share their initial findings and meet external partners. Discussions with the Granton Waterfront Development team at the City of Edinburgh Council and community organisations including Granton:Hub and Edinburgh Palette led to the project Supporting Local Acceleration through data-driven participatory engagement funded by the ESRC in 2021.
Digital placemaking has an important role to play in community support and representation but these are not challenges that can be met by internet platforms alone. The Data Civics team also works directly with partners in the community to build capacity for participatory and deliberative democracy to support sustainable local policy innovation partnerships. The team’s aim in developing both digital and participatory methods is to narrow the gap in representation in placemaking initiatives and policies.