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Changing cities through your fingertips

How web-based networking platforms are shaping our understanding of new age public participation

by Guest Contributor
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Web-based networking platforms or as we vaguely refer to social media platforms exercise an unprecedented influence on us. These platforms have given us cheaper, faster, and easier methods to connect and communicate with whoever we want to. What many of us wouldn’t have believed a decade ago is that these platforms would not just be limited to social networking. They would become an extended path for people to connect with decision-making bodies. These applications provide a platform to disseminate information in the simplest ways possible to the public in the form of videos, images, texts, and discussion forums. Every person with internet access and an account of these applications is free to express her concerns, ideas, objections, and suggestions surpassing all geographical and administrative barriers. At the same time, the increasing presence of planning agencies and other decision-making bodies in the digital space compels us to think about the emerging citizen connect in the digital space.

Although the definition of Public Participation may vary, its necessity in planning is widely accepted in practice and academia. All planning activities affect their stakeholders directly and indirectly with irreversible results and hence understanding their thoughts, suggestions, and concerns becomes crucial for any planning project, scheme, or policy. The idea of holding public objections/suggestions meetings for land use modifications, consultation, and review meetings for spatial plans, etc.- all value this underlying principle. The involvement of stakeholders in decision-making increases the likelihood of support for the plan and policy.

With the growing indulgence of people to express themselves ‘online’ over offline modes, digital space has started gathering importance over physical space. There are various reasons identified for it- the most important ones are visibility and accountability.

People feel that their opinions are more visible and accounted for through an online portal or social media app rather than in-person written requests and complaints. Their ideas gain visibility and are picked up by others too. It saves their time, and resources, and offers a promising response from the agencies.

Particularly from a planning and governance perspective, the idea of Digital Public Participation presents a skewed idea of participation as we understand it. Currently, the digital reach and spread of web-based networking platforms are not very well established (at least in India). Although with the pandemic, the internet-reach increased manifold and spread not only in the urban areas but in rural too. One might argue that the current statistics do not allow us to use such platforms for justifiable public participation practices. But at the same time, a physical public participation exercise like a public gathering has its challenges with no method being able to achieve the desired aspects. The will to participate among its stakeholder is another concern. This also leads us to another question – What are the standards that would qualify digital platforms as a mode of public participation?

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There is already an unacknowledged influence of we-based (or digital) media platforms on planning activities. Digital media platforms have many users who express their opinion on the platforms including various planning issues. A recent example of this idea is the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Amendment of 2020. The draft was released for objection/suggestions around the nationwide lockdown period where practically nothing was being done in physical mode. Environmentalist and academia shared their concerns and appealed for extensions on similar grounds of insufficient public involvement. What was noteworthy was that this movement gained momentum online on social media apps – particularly Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. This gathered support for the amendment modifications, leading to the ministry receiving thousands of suggestions and objections which wouldn’t have been the case if there was no involvement of digital platforms. It was commendable to see the general public getting involved and not just the usual stakeholders like environmentalists, NGOs, and academia. Another question to think about is how would we measure this participation that happened in a digital space- A like? A share? A retweet? A comment? Quantification of this impact would become important with the technology being more and more involved in our cities and urban planning.

This also hints to us about the new technical skills and resources required to assess this digital participation and be prepared for the increasing shift from offline to online public engagement. Currently, the agencies outsource the maintenance of their social media handles to marketing and PR agencies. The understanding of participation for such agencies is limited to engagement and content – completely undermining the true potential of such initiatives. Planners in the organizations and academia also need to come up with the innovative idea of involving digital opinion in their decision-making.

Research on digital public participation in India is indicative and qualitative. The role and nature of public participation on such platforms, the dynamics of data sharing between the people, the agency, and these third-party platforms, and assessment methods of participation are some of the immediate areas of research in present times. Going forward, we as planners and policymakers must rethink how we perceive public participation and involvement of people in the decision-making through this new digital space. It becomes important for us to define the standards of digital public participation in planning and carry them forward.

About the author

Ishita Saraswat: A physical planner and urban enthusiast who like to explore the interrelation of spaces and people with keen interest in urban policies, public participation and urban sociology, and their impact on human lives, and vice versa.

This article was published in the Planning Times Magazine Issue- 02, July 2022.

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