Beyond Participation: A reflection

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Beyond Participation was an International Conference hosted by the Irish Architecture Foundation to explore the concept and possibilities of participation as a practice for social change. Diarmaid Lawlor, A&DS Director of Place, reflects on the theme and the conference. 

Opening ‘Beyond Participation’, Hana Loftus reflected that almost every generation suggests the idea of community engagement as if they were the first to think of it. It is an idea re-packaged, re-told, regularly discussed. But does it work, what are the benefits and how is it practiced?

What is participation?

The ‘Value and Role of Citizen Engagement’ sets outs some challenges around the ideas of participation and engagement as processes to change the world around us. First, it is assumed that participation in itself is a good thing. Notions of participation and empowerment are ‘warmly persuasive’. They ‘evoke a comforting mutuality, a warm and reassuring consensus, ringing with the satisfaction of everyone pulling together to pursue a set of common goals for the wellbeing of all’. The report argues that there are real dangers is relying on hope and good feeling around these processes, with no empirical evidence of benefits. It is not that participation doesn’t have benefits. It is that we don’t set them out clearly, and robustly. We need to go Beyond Participation as wooly concept, and build more coherence in the narratives around its benefits and practice.

A useful starting point is to address the meaning of engagement and participation, terms often used interchangeably. The ‘Value and Role of Citizen Engagement’ suggests that these processes ‘refer to a broad range of activities which involve people in the structures and institutions of democracy or in activities which are related to civil society – such as community groups, non-profits and informal associations’. The use of these processes is often directed towards a social mission. And they tend to have some common characteristics which include:

  • Participation is voluntary. Process can be incentivized, not coerced.
  • Action is a two way activity. Participants aren’t passive recipients.
  • Common purpose

Benefits of participation?

It is also useful to reflect on the ‘why’ of participation. Core to this is how we see the citizen. In Mannheim, the city governance approach is based on a shift in the view of citizen from ‘consumer to participant’. The city believes that the ambition to realise the UN Sustainable Development Goals can only be achieved as a partnership between state, and citizen and business. This view of the citizen is based on the principle of sharing power and responsibility, for which a variety of processes are necessary to engage different people ways in the different levels of decision making.

Accepting this position around the citizen, and the citizen’s role in shaping society, suggests particular benefits around participation. These include:

  • citizens have specific knowledge of the challenges they face that no one else can claim. Tapping into these insights can drive innovation
  • citizens can be the source of innovative ideas. The purpose of participation is to uncover ideas.
  • citizen engagement can support divergent thinking, new ways of tackling old problems, and new complexities, wicked problems.
  • Citizen participation in solutions can are often accepted as more legitimate

Reservations about participation

‘Senses of Place: Learning Towns’ is a Scottish initiative which explored the processes of participation by citizens and collaboration by decision makers in places as ways of generating innovative approaches to social challenges. It identified a situation that for many people, participation seems like a good idea. Often, three specific reservations are voiced around the process:


  • Isn’t there a danger of raising unrealistic expectations?

Yes there is, if you ask people what specific solutions they want built rather than what needs and hopes they want satisfied.  It is not unrealistic to have an expectation that people will be listened to about the aspirations they have for the places they want to live in.  We want our communities to have high aspirations and we expect the places we create to help turn them into reality..


  • Why should experienced professionals listen to inexperienced amateurs?

Because it’s their place.  Because they will have to live their lives in what the professionals create.  Because they are the world class experts about their own lives.  And, because the alternative – don’t try to understand or engage with the people who will use your design – is not a credible, responsible way to make great places.


  • Won’t participation cost more and take longer?

It depends on the problem and the timing of participation. Complex problems need new ways of doing things, and new relationships. The key cost is the cost of not engaging insights around problems and possibilities. Meaningful early participation at the briefing stage leads to benefits across the lifecycle of a project. Any process done badly at the wrong time is a problem.

Beyond cosy consensus?

Building the conditions for effective participation, which clearly understand benefits, and work with authentic citizen focused processes require clarity on what participation is, a set of contexts, a set of skills for engagement, a mindset to work with and through complexity, timing and collective leadership. We can describe the process. It needs allies over advocates. Not everyone needs to be a believer, just play a role in making change happen. This is about moving ‘beyond’ warm fuzzy feelings of consensus. As Create Ireland observe:

“Hana Loftus @hatprojects points to an important feature of participatory practice – participation is not a flattening of dissent #beyondparticipation

From participation to collaboration?

Lilet Breddels of Archis dwelled on the ‘beyond’ part of ‘Beyond Participation’. For her. ‘beyond’ suggests that there is already some doubt that invites you to look further than a particular idea or practice. ‘Beyond’ suggests exploring possibilities, articulating consequences, being present in shaping situations beyond initial conversations. ‘Beyond’ though comes with problems. Looking beyond something can mean skirting over issues, avoiding challenges. We need both a helicopter view of possibilities and deep dig of contexts to mean authentic change happen she argues. Part of this is about understanding the different channels of communication to different audiences to invite the taking of responsibilities.

‘Senses of Place: Learning Towns’ suggests that collaboration is an inevitable part of providing the best services possible using the overall resources available and all the assets we have on the ground.  Effective collaboration needs effective information, scientific data and the data of lived experiences. By looking at a whole place we can support whole lives – putting citizens at the heart of economically sustainable communities.  By asking the simple question – what can we do with what we’ve got – and dovetailing our priorities, we stand a better chance of better outcomes for any given level of resources.

Participation and accountability

Stefan Laxness of Forensic Architecture explored the idea of accountability around information. He explored how different sides of a problem share a common understanding of facts to enable informed decisions, and appropriate accountability on all sides. The Forensic approach of using the tools and techniques of architectural drawing, spatial thinking, modelling, synthesis, and visual representation to support platforms that make the complex clear for all audiences in society is a powerful tool for democracy. The Forensic Architecture approach is to generally never work for government, so that the space outside of government allows for a trust to be found and represented. Their aim is to ensure that ‘when Government looks at you, you can look back at them’ with robust, clear and transparent data on situations, decisions and actions.

@ForensicArchi they work to reappropriate forensic practice, to turn the forensic gaze back toward the State.. A practice of counter forensics”

An interesting part of the Forensic Architecture approach relates to the issue of knowledge itself. There are three radically different ways to know something. First, cognitively. This is rational thought. You see, you understand, you describe. Second, experientially. You experience with the senses. Third is to make something, constructed or creational knowledge. They are all valid, but work best in different contexts. A problem can exist though is we assume one is better than the other. If we assume rational approaches to knowledge are best, we deny the validity of other ways of knowing things. This denial is a theme picked up by Killian Doherty of the Field Office in discussing work in Africa. The impact of western colonization is clear in the architectures of places in Africa near major natural resources which have been mined, processed and sold by international conglomerates. Modernism is represented in rational international planning, which ignores, displaces and denies the knowledge of primitive and native communities and settlements. The Forensic Architecture approach to reconstructing the contexts of bombings, attacks and conflicts is to use published data, spatial data, testimonies from witnesses and people who experienced the conflict, and social media. In other words, their process uses a variety of data sources, created in a variety of ways to create an authentic version of what actually happened. They draw on all the ways to know something.

This issue of using the different ways of knowing something came up particularly in one section of Stefan Laxness’s presentation discussing a bombing situation in the Middle East. Witness testimony gave a particular account of the prison, how it received light at different times of the day, how sound moved, what the air as like. The digital model created from spatial data, simulating the environmental conditions of the site told a different story. The accounts of the same place, experienced and digital, did not align. Something was wrong. Perhaps it was the testimony, perhaps there was a data glitch. Testing and scrutiny showed that the digital model had been aligned to the wrong co-ordinates. The corrected model demonstrated, exactly, the data of the testimonies. The lived experience, and the storytelling of that experience carried great detail and robustness. Building the knowledge of what happened using all this data demonstrated the commitment to a participative process of building knowledge.

Participation and renewal

Ana Jara and Lucinda Correia of Artéria set out a love letter to Lisbon. The city is unique in its topography and the typologies of building, streets and spaces to create a distinctive urban condition. It is a place where turns and folds in the landscape create modest but significant pivotal points in the life of communities. It is a place of deep communities, within which there are stories of how people have lived, and could live. The problem in Lisbon is to make visual the stories that are no longer seen, the skills no longer seen, the ways of living no longer seen. The challenge is to turn stories into action. The Arteria process is to co-create Manifestos for change with communities, create stories of change that drive many micro actions. They see the city as a network of resident associations, a network of networks. Mapping the networks, who is in the network, where the networks are, what the networks can do can change the ways we see the city; people see the micro action, municipalities see the map of the macro condition.

The focus for Ana and Lucinda is to show the city, to enable rehabilitation of the city, to re-make the city to fit to the needs of community. Visualising who is the city is a key element of shaping what is the city. A similar theme on visualizing stories, identities and enabling different cities is present in Killian Doherty’s work, mapping the presence of different tribes, recalling their former territories and current distributions. There seems to be something about this process of mapping and visualizing which is about unearthing the way the world is, as opposed to the way we are told it is supposed to be. And there is something about both the leadership to do this visualizing, to work with people, to give voice, as there is in the rigour, science and accuracy of the representation. This accuracy is built with the data of research, testimony, walks, and tracing the spatial contexts of stories. Accurate practice is built on accurate knowledge. Knowledge and identities interact to create the politics of place. Building a visual map is one practice. Demonstrating the map to power interests and highlighting inequalities is a practice in itself.

Action and sustainability

For Alex de Rijke of dRMM the action that comes from participation and engagement with social histories, memories, nostalgia and ambition can enable bold architectural moves. In Hastings, the pier project builds a platform of possibilities instead of a density of built space with little purpose. The idea of the modern pier as a place to create experiences is consistent with its history. The big achievement of the pier project was to realise a rebuilding of the pier, with the community and for the community to take ownership. This almost emotional, hereculean achievement is a mark in the consciousness of the community, enable by a pragmatic and poetic approach to building. Yet, the achievement to make is being challenged by the problem of sustaining. The project now needs money, support, investment. De Rijke highlights the challenge of transformation, particularly in the life of community. The big idea that galvanises activism, and a coming together of people needs to make way for a different kind of community organizing across the full life of the project. This transformation isn’t easy. It is part of the challenge of sustaining public space, a challenge experienced by communities and public governance alike.

Participation can make, and sustain. However, sustaining participation across time is challenging, variable and demanding. That is, the essence of space for public life.

Read More: Beyond Participation: 10 Reasons to talk about participation in design and community

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