THE BLOG

Connecting People to Build Better Places

25/05/2016 16:35 | Updated 25 May 2016

At Commonplace we believe that great places are not primarily about buildings - but about people, and how engaged they are: with each other; and with decision makers.

So we built Commonplace, a series of web tools that bring together the views and knowledge of the community with the people who make decisions about our environment - property developers; local governments; social housing providers; transport providers; community groups and business groups. We've built tech for good for better places.

"Buy land", American author Mark Twain is reputed to have said, "they're not making it any more". The investment advice is good and well, but this geological truth also means that land use is highly contested in most societies as we see an ever-growing movement of people to cities.

In cities, the value of land is directly linked to place, and great places are not only defined by location, but also by how desirable it is to live there. Property developers now talk about 'place-making' as part of their investment strategy.

But it turns out that place-making is difficult, and at the heart of the problem is engagement. It's expensive, time consuming and very hard work to engage in any meaningful way with lots of people in a local community. And even then, you normally only get to the same section of the community.

Young people for example, are almost impossible to get to attend a neighbourhood meeting. Using online tools however, it is possible to engage people much more deeply and comprehensively, for a significantly lower cost. You get meaningful data analysis in real-time, meaning that you can adapt what you do and how you invest your resources. It reduces risks for property developers; but also for local government (who ensure a high quality of consultation); and local residents (who have their voices heard).

Really smart cities make decisions in partnership with their citizens - even the toughest and most controversial ones. In fact, the more controversial, the greater the need for an inclusive, transparent conversation. Smaller, local decisions - where to place a pedestrian crossing, for example - also benefit from having a wide input from different types of road users.

One such Commonplace consultation in Islington, London attracted 120 ideas on how to best place and design a local crossing. At the other end of the scale, Commonplace has been used by another Local Authority to consult with thousands of people on how best to improve quality of life by investing in cycling and walking.

It started with children. Mike, our CEO and founder, was designing applications for children to explore plants and flowers around where they live. A dinner conversation in 2013 led to a new idea: enable everyone to explore what is happening around them - and express their view. Commonplace was born - and has received fantastic support from social investors, public and angels. With 50 customers, 61,000 users, and over 1M beneficiaries, Commonplace is having a major impact in the United Kingdom, and has recently launched in the US, in the city of Boulder Colorado.

Our vision is of creating better places through collective open insight. All Commonplace consultations take place in open websites - anyone can see what others are saying (though comments are always anonymised). If you are starting a neighbourhood plan for an existing community, or building a brand new neighbourhood, or just want people to tell you what they love and what needs fixing - Commonplace brings the views and knowledge of the community to one place. People near and far can participate when they want using a web app to register their views; but equally, Commonplace supports more intimate discussions - face-to-face interviews; public meetings and even paper forms. All the data is fed into one database.

The reach, convenience and transparency of Commonplace are transformational. When an authority allows everyone to see opinions, some of which may be unfavourable, it builds trust. When it makes plans in response to comments that are there to be seen, it is operating in the open and is accountable. No plan will please everyone - at least not at once. But the process of managing expectations and explaining priorities is simpler and more credible if it is based on an open consultation.

Traditional political systems of elected representative democracy (if you are lucky enough to live in a democracy) need to be informed by the real-time buzz of the Internet and social collaboration tools, without becoming hostage to the loudest voices. That's what we aim to accomplish. From a business perspective, our social mission is hardwired to how we operate. To succeed we have to build tools that widen local engagement. Our success in getting more people involved is a clear signal that we offer a trusted toolkit for 21st Century placemaking - and also underpins our commercial success.

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