Why Does Stakeholder Engagement Need to Change?

EightyTwenty is Partisan’s regular, fortnightly breakfast event for business leaders and professionals connected to the built environment.

This time, the discussion focused on stakeholder engagement and whether it needs to change to help build a more inclusively prosperous society.

In any project, there will be stakeholders, some directly associated with it, and others, external to it, but who can still influence its outcome.

While the idea of stakeholder engagement is well-established, it can only be truly effective if it is meaningful.

There are various issues connected to this:

  • How early in the thinking and conceptual stage of a process should stakeholder engagement occur?
  • In what way can this engagement bridge the gap between people’s different professional and cultural standpoints?

Thinking Time

Stakeholder engagement should, ideally, help create the necessary momentum behind a development to drive it forward.

The risk, however, is that in looking to generate this momentum, designers, developers and others compress the thinking stage of the project.

Taking the time before setting off in a particular direction is important in establishing a firm foundation, allowing ideas to breathe.

Engaging stakeholders at this stage should help define and refine objectives, clarify the overall purpose of a project and set the tone for further engagement.

This also allows valuable space for developing concepts that are not overly prescribed in advance, or confined by existing models or products.

Conformity can bring its own set of risks, if a project fails to capture imaginations and falls short of its intended outcomes.

Empathy in Design Thinking

An important aspect of the engagement process is interpretation. Stakeholders express themselves in a variety of dialects and languages, from academic to commercial, and from grassroots concerns to high aspirations.

The key to successfully interpreting and getting to grips with a range of stakeholder views and concerns is empathy.

Seeing the world through someone else’s eyes is extremely helpful in gaining a good understanding of their needs, both emotional and physical.

Empathy is the first stage of the design process.

Empathic research focuses on people’s motivations and thoughts. It is an essential component in design thinking to build awareness who you are designing for. What are the difficulties they face? What are their latent desires and needs?

It makes sense that designers and developers apply this approach to stakeholder engagement. 

For example, where a development will have an impact on its surrounding neighbourhood, positively engaging and listening to external stakeholders who are residents is essential. And it is useful to do this before people form their opinions based only on rumour or hearsay.

Why Average is Inadequate

In an age of mass consumerism, often the temptation is to try and apply a one-size fits all approach to designing solutions.

This has extended to the built environment, and the results have not always been positive. The UK built some 440,000 high rise flats between 1945 and 1975, in core, high-density estates.

Grenfell Tower came towards the end of this mass housing boom, in 1974.

Designing solutions based on outmoded concepts of average needs is un-empathic and an inadequate response to how people live and work in a modern, changing society.

A mixed economy requires a mixed approach to designing and developing solutions in the built environment.

This mixed approach will only work if there is a clear understanding of the needs of different end users, neighbourhoods and cultures, both commercial and domestic.

Opportunities for Understanding

Communication can build bridges between different worldviews. Empathy matters when it comes to developing projects which will have a positive impact on people’s lives and the wider economy.

Effective stakeholder engagement should be a vehicle for enabling these kinds of developments.

Our Guests This Time

The guests at this Partisan Eighty Twenty breakfast event were:

Ian Chadwick, Wellbeing Places
David Chilton, Rowlinson
Neil Currie, Woolgar Hunter
Dr Sarah Fitton, Independent Consultant
Nick Moss, Sixtwo Architects
David Roberts, igloo Regeneration
Richard Roe, Trafford Council
Andrew Hall, Hall & Co. Property

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