The what and why of participation

Participation can help solve the biggest challenges the development industry faces — if it can be better and more widely understood and appreciated. The fragmented and inconsistent approach to participation across planning, consultation and approvals, paired with the outdated decision-making approach for design and product development, often ensures there is little to no meaningful account of the wants and needs of the end participants and their surrounding community.

Yet it is a commonly agreed by experts and laypeople alike that the primary product of our industry, the places and spaces we live, work, socialise and play in, have a significant impact on our productivity, health and outlook on life. Add to this that from a traditional marketing perspective we know that the best products come from finding out upfront what the consumer wants, continuing to involve them during the development process and monitoring their satisfaction post-purchase.  So the case for greater participation from both an economic and social perspective seems clear, but how to define it is often a much more vexed question.

The academic literature on participation, both specific to our industry and more generally, is equally extensive and diverse, however, it can often confuse and obscure what are the more fundamental issues we need to be concerned with.

Starting with its simplest form, participation can be described as…

“The practice of actively taking part in something” or “the act of sharing in the activities of a group.”

From a slightly more social scientific perspective, it is...

“Involvement in social, commercial and political processes” or “multiple voices being engaged in information sharing and decision making.”

But regardless of the angle that you view participation from there are several common features to all definitions and it takes one or any combination of three forms:


and each participant’s involvement will have the following elements:

  • It is voluntary in its nature
  • It is motivated by purpose
  • It involves taking action
  • It is connected to a bigger picture

To understand participation we must therefore understand both the individual and the bigger mechanisms of society as a whole along with the interplays that exist between them.

When we get this right then there are three core themes of associated benefits that come through strongly for the participant:

  • An immediate or “in-the-moment” experience that is such a vital factor in attracting people to the spaces and places we are creating
  • The longer-term personal development and sense of purpose that arises when people truly feel valued and that they have an impact on their society
  • The physical and emotional well-being that comes from inclusivity and the cumulative effect of a lot of small actions having a big impact

All of which sit at the heart of a thriving society.

So how do we like to define participation:

“We believe participation is about engagement and activity with our places and spaces…

…collaborating, contributing and taking responsibility for their evolvement…

…in an organic way that produces benefits for all who interact there…

…creating a true sense of ownership and belonging to something bigger.”

Start here and we believe all of us are on our way helping our participants to thrive.

Written by David Stevens – Co-owner, Conductor  

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The Thrive Series is a series of talks, interviews and workshops examining the core elements of thriving societies.

Our ambition is to connect with like-minded participants and lead the charge to transform attitudes and practices in the delivery of spaces and places.

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