The wisdom of the crowds? Meaning-making, public engagement, and infrastructure

An engagement process about our vision for the future highlights differences in perception and meaning. Depending on the issue, these differences can be anything from a fascinating to dangerous.

An engagement process about our vision for the future highlights differences in perception and meaning. Depending on the issue, these differences can be anything from fascinating and harmless, to dangerous for our future.

Earlier in the week I came across this article about a survey that attempts to quantify the difference in opinions between American republicans and democrats on some of the big issues. And, as its headline succinctly says, “It’s official, climate change is now more divisive than abortion.”

Interestingly, the poll also gathered information on the source of news media consumed, and says this: “the results do suggest that people who consume less science-based news will be more likely to dismiss or distrust science” [As an aside: I firmly believe that as part of one’s personal development, they should consider going on an Information Diet.]

Sure, I’m Canadian, and I live in Canada. We’ve got different politics and media than our American neighbours – but we’re certainly not immune to sensationalized or biased media or polarization on issues.

So our media contributes to shaping how we think. Not surprising. What does this have to do with public infrastructure? Lots. Increasingly, organizations building infrastructure are incorporating public participation into project planning processes. This is becoming recognized as best practice around the world, especially in areas where infrastructure projects are packaged for sale to investors. (Daniel Wiener, Chairman of Global Infrastructure Basel stated at the Resilient Cities conference last week that the single greatest indicator that an infrastructure project was sustainable was that stakeholders had been involved in an inclusive planning process. Almost every other speaker I saw at the conference somehow stated that public participation is a critical factor in climate change adaptation).

Great! People have a chance to shape their future, their built environment and influence what services are delivered to them and how. But what is shaping how we (as members of the public) think? How does this show up when we’re involved in public participation processes? And how are we (as city-builders) thinking about those influences when planning public participation for our projects? Even the most deliberative, empowering and involved of public participation processes still treat the engagement as a relatively short term, time-bound process. Information is provided; options may be deliberated. But when it comes to contentious issues, people are quite good at only taking from provided information what conforms with their current thinking. And debate often stands to only crystallize polarization rather than open minds and build new understanding. So whatever meaning making we took into the process of participation is arguably more important than the information provided during the process.

So – although public participation in the planning of infrastructure projects is a great step forward, the true potential of these processes to imagine infrastructure in a way that generates significantly greater value for all forms of life (local and global; today and tomorrow), are only as good as a group’s ability to be open to new information, think critically, and truly participate in generating the actual outcomes – the ones that impact them directly, and others.

This is a matter of citizenship, not just participation. As a start, we might wish to think about the individual processes of public engagement as opportunities for something more than getting input or making a single decision. What is the potential of public participation processes to generate citizenship?

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