Developing community engagement tools and processes through Future Earth

John Robinson
University of British Columbia, Canada

Recent years have seen a strong upsurge in participatory processes of citizen engagement. These processes serve multiple functions, ranging from the bottom to the top of Arnstein’s well-known ladder of citizen participation (Arnstein, 1969) but one useful typology is suggested by Stirling (2006; based on Fiorino, 1989; see also the discussion in Bendor et al., 2012), who describes three rationales for such processes: (i) normative (citizens have the right to participate); (ii) substantive (such participation improves the quality of decisions, and (iii) instrumental (it provides increased legitimacy for the eventual decisions).

While recognizing the importance of the first two rationales, I would like to focus here on the third rationale, and suggest that new developments in participatory process methods, coupled with technological developments, have made possible a scale of engagement with citizens that has not previously been possible, and that offers the potential for much more politically significant forms of public engagement and citizen dialogue. Based on my involvement in the Future Earth Urban Platform discussion, I think that such a focus could expand Platform activities in ways that would improve its political salience and its intellectual contribution.

In a recent synthesis report on seven social mobilization research projects funded by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS) in British Columbia, Canada, Sheppard et al. (2015) note:

In general, the PICS research findings support those currently emphasized in the social mobilization literature, but go beyond other findings in several new areas, based on evaluation of real-world engagement processes, innovative digital and visual media, and processes for mobilization on community energy issues. The key findings show that social mobilization on climate change can be fostered successfully at multiple levels, from catalyzing dialogue within communities, to changing awareness over the space of a few hours, and actually achieving significant energy savings and carbon emission reductions for collective groups of people over the course of a few months to 2 years. Various research projects did document the success of social mobilization in terms of rich social engagement, increased understanding of local implications of climate change, and in some cases, multiple co-benefits of climate action.

These findings suggest that participatory processes of community engagement can be powerful tools for social mobilization around critical public policy issues like urban sustainability, and can engage different audiences using multiple channels of engagement. Taken together, these findings offer the possibility of developing engagement processes that involve politically significant fractions of the populations of cities in explorations of desirable futures for their community. I would therefore like to propose that a possible flagship project for the Future Earth Urban Platform would be development of interactive multi-channel engagement tools and processes that will enable engagement with hundreds of thousands of citizens of several cities in the Global North and South, to explore sustainable futures for their city.

Key characteristics of such processes would be: (i) a focus on desirable futures, building on extensive experience with participatory backcasting approaches (Robinson 1982, 2003; Dreborg, 1996; Holmberg and Robert, 2000; Höjer and Mattsson, 2000; Quist and Vergragt, 2006; Kok, et al., 2011; Robinson, et al., 2011), and (ii) the co-development of scenarios of desirable futures by the researchers and the citizens participating in the scenario process, based on recent work in the area of researcher/stakeholder collaboration (Robinson and Tansey, 2006; Shaw et al., 2009; Cutts, et al., 2011; Lang et al., 2012; Polk 2014), which points to the central importance of processes of co-production of knowledge:

Co-production is an umbrella term that refers to collaborative approaches to knowledge production that draw upon interactive and participatory research methods for societal problem-solving. In other words, co-production is a research approach that creates new knowledge by combining different sources of knowledge to increase the social relevance of the knowledge produced for policy/practice action and for new academic practices. (Mistra Urban Futures 2015)

Such approaches are in turn highly consistent with what might be called a procedural approach to sustainability (Robinson, 2003; 2004; Robinson and Tansey, 2006; cf. Miller, 2013), which argues that sustainability is an essentially contested concept, which can be usefully thought of as the emergent property of discussions about what kind of work we want to live in, informed, but not determined, by scientific input.

The development of community engagement processes of the kind proposed here would be relatively straightforward. Some of the key requirements would be:

  • Accessible and available data on demographic, economic, social and environmental conditions and trends in each city involved; and,
  • Expertise required to create the scenario generation tools and processes that could support such a project. (At the level of generality envisioned here, simple accounting framework models would be sufficient; with considerable focus on interface design. There exist commercially available platforms that provide such tools and processes. One example is the Metroquest platform (, which is listed here just as proof of concept; there are many other possibilities.)

In the spirit of co-production, and to make the engagement processes more successful, it would be important to create multi-stakeholder processes to plan and implement the community engagement processes. Sample participants would be:

  • Representatives from the respective city governments;
  • Key advisors from the private, NGO and public sectors;
  • Research teams in each city with expertise in participatory community engagement, landscape visualization, interface design, urban modelling, and urban sustainability; and,
  • Citizens as primary participants in scenario construction/evaluation process

There are many possible substantive foci for such processes. From the point of view of the Future Earth Urban Platform, the overarching theme of most relevance would be Urban Options for and Limits to a Transformation towards Sustainability, a variation on Future Earth’s theme, “Transformations toward Sustainability”. Linkage of the scenarios to the newly emerging UN Sustainable Development Goals could provide some structure to the content of the scenarios, a greater possibility of comparison of results between cities, and allow explicit connections to other relevant research in the field, and work on science/policy linkages.

The time frame of the backcasting scenarios should be at least 40 years. This allows time for capital stock turn-over (critical for achieving significant change). It has also been found to be a time period that project participants can identify with (it is within the working life of one’s children) (Robinson et al., 2006).

The work proposed here offers the potential of building on a considerable amount of previous work, but extending it in ways that are both exciting from a research point of view, and also potentially significant in terms of societal impact.

This latter factor suggests that a key aspect of the work proposed here has to do with the assessment of the societal impacts of such participatory backcasting processes. There has been considerable work done on articulating criteria for assessing the societal impacts of various forms of such research (e.g., Baldwin et al., 2000; Kasemir et al., 2003; Currie et al., 2005; Robinson and Tansey, 2006; Blackstock et al., 2007; Walter et al., 2007; Quinlan et al., 2008; Donovan, 2008Meagher et al., 2011; Talwar et al., 2011; Bell et al., 2011). One recent attempt (Wiek et al., 2014) proposed the following set of evaluation criteria:

Table 1: Framework of effect categories for solution-oriented participatory sustainability research

Network effects

  • Networks created/expanded
  • Community created/expanded
  • Trust
  • Distributed knowledge
  • Accountability

Enhanced capacity

  • Acquired knowledge\understanding
  • Improved research capacity
  • Use of technologies
  • Anticipatory competence

Usable Products

  • Technologies
  • Products (goods)
  • publications

Other frameworks are of course possible; the point is that a core component of the research would be to build in an explicit evaluation framework.

The proposal made in this post would add a dimension to the Future Earth Urban Platform that is implied in much of the work on citizen participation that would be undertaken under the platform, but not yet an explicit part of the discussions I have seen. That is, such an approach represents a logical extension of an extensive history of citizen engagement on urban sustainability issues. Adding this dimensions would not only produce work at the forefront of the theoretical and methodological issues surrounding public engagement processes, but also offer the possibility of connecting with real world decision-making processes at a scale that may result in significant impacts on those processes. I believe the Future Earth Urban Platform offers a highly appropriate place for such work to be done.

John Robinson

Dr. John Robinson is Associate Provost, Sustainability, and Executive Director of the University of British Colombia’s (UBC) Sustainability Initiative.  He is also Professor in UBC’s Institute of Resources, Environment & Sustainability, and in the Department of Geography.

Header Image: Vancouver, Canada.  Credit: karamysh/


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