20 July 2023

Can you tell us a little about Participation Factory and your work?

So the role of Participation Factory is to provide a service that is lacking for many in the public sphere. Often, our clients, like institutions, cities, municipalities, regional governments, etc, are lacking the specific knowhow and skills in terms of participation projects and participatory processes. So when or if they identify a project that would need to have this participation layer to it, and they realise they don’t have the capacity to do it themselves, that’s when they call us. We represent and provide the specific expertise they need at that point.

My main role in that process is project management, which is a bit like being an account manager. Since our core team of experts is small, we do most of the work related to individual projects together. But even though we design processes with the whole team, there’s always one person who is responsible for a project. I would say over the two years since I started, I’ve worked on like 18 to 20 projects. Some are long term and others are one off projects that are usually done really quickly in like a month or so.

Each project is also fundamentally different, in terms of both size and the type of work. Sometimes it’s more about desktop work and sometimes it’s really about going into the community and working with people directly.

What’s an example of one of the shorter participation projects you’ve been involved with?

One example of a short term project is from a smaller city in the Czech Republic called Plzeň, where they had a project to do with public space renovation. They wanted to renovate the riverbanks so they asked an architecture studio to design the space. The moment where we joined was when the drafts of the architectural designs were about to be presented to the public. The City Hall wanted to gain some feedback on these drafts and find out from people what things they liked or didn’t like and maybe identify more key aspects of the space.

So we designed a public meeting on the grounds of those riverbanks, where we worked with the public outside, on location. We brought maps so they could see the whole area and identify points they think are problematic or where they think that there’s some potential. The architects who first presented their draft of their projects were also there, and people could give direct feedback. It was a short afternoon, in total about 2 hours. People gathered, sat around tables with the maps, asked the architects questions, and then went for a walk around those riverbanks with the architects to actually see the exact places where they wanted to design something. It was about giving the people ownership of the project.

It was then accompanied with an online survey through Google forms, which was up for two weeks, and about 150 people filled in the questionnaire, which was basically questions about how they spend time at the riverbanks, the biggest potential of the banks, the biggest problem, etc. It was fairly simple, but the outcome was great data for not only the city, but for the architects themselves.

And what about one of the longer ones?

An example of a longer term project relates to the Czech Ministry of Transportation’s plan to build high-speed rail running through the country. It might be economically good for the Czech Republic, but of course it was not really welcomed by the people who are living in the smaller villages where the high speed rail would run. It would go through these villages, but not stop there. So this project has been on the table for a couple of years now. It still hasn’t started, but more and more people are actually against it because the Ministry of Transportation wasn’t so active in engaging all of these villages and asking them for their input. So a number of the individual municipalities were really upset and we got approached by a group who joined together so they can have a bigger voice when talking to the authorities.

They asked us if we could maybe help them talk to the citizens and gather some feedback, because of course you can’t say, “okay, everybody just hates it and we don’t want it here.” It’s also not really a solution because it’s going to be built at some point. The question is how it’s going to be built and what compensations are going to be offered for those villages. So we actually started working on this project in February 2022. And the first thing we did was interview the mayors of these municipalities, who are in this joint group, to ask them about their biggest concerns regarding the high-speed rail. We also asked if they would be open to engaging their citizens and doing participatory projects? Then we went out into the field and did public meetings in like seven or eight of these villages.

The next thing we plan on doing is focus groups with local farmers. Because they are going to be affected by the railway as well and their farms are how they make their living. So it’s at one point kind of funny because sometimes we all feel like we’re doing the job of the government, and at the same time it’s great, because you can see how you’re actually making an impact.

Why the analogue focus with participation projects?

I think one reason is the context. When we say ‘participation’ in Czech, everyone automatically imagines a public meeting. So that’s a format that people are used to. They know it. It’s something they’re not scared of, or sometimes they are, but still less scared than they are of digital tools. We also figured in the smaller case, that it makes more sense to do it analogue because we can work in the exact area – right there along the riverbanks. You kind of create this sense of ownership much easier that way, because you’re with the people on the exact space which is going to be transformed and they can actually have a say in this transformation. So I think in the Czech Republic and from our experience, more people like the analog formats because they are just more used to that.

Additionally there’s the fact that, for the governments or municipal governments, it’s less costly. If they’re not using a tool or civic tech already, then it’s an additional cost to buy that new tool and start utilising it. We of course offer those options for governments – that of combining both methods, offline and online. But they are reluctant because they don’t have the experience with it.

In the Czech Republic, many of the people who come to a public meeting or engage in participatory processes are elderly, because they have the time. Young people are just too busy and the elderly are not afraid to raise their voices. There are other reasons of course. In the cities it’s more common, where there’s more young people, but still not that widespread. If a city is using a civic tech tool, it’s usually just for communication.

I mean, it’s all really about how the whole social fabric of society in the Czech Republic is re-working. It’s a really unique atmosphere here. Of course you have the communist past when no one could say anything. And then people slowly learn to actually engage and raise their voices if they don’t like something. It’s a slow process. It’s also strange because I would expect young people, on the contrary, to be more active because they have the freedom now. But for some reason it’s the other way round.

Of course we can never predict who is going to come to a public meeting. You never know. It’s always a challenge. But one thing we do every time in terms of online tools is have the option of an online meeting. So if we do a public meeting in person, then a week after that we always try to do at least one online as well.

In what situations would you say the value of digital tools increases?

I think it’s definitely the case that the use case of digital tools scales with the project. Like for instance, with this high speed rail you cover a huge space. And for us, as a small team, it would be really difficult to go to every single municipality and do a public meeting in every single one of them. So in the future, I would imagine that the utilisation of a civic tech tool is something that would be very much needed. Also, because I can imagine that something like high speed rail is going to interfere with the landscape and layout of the whole space, I would imagine some mapping and visualisation tools or something like that would be very crucial. That way you can gather feedback from the people on what they think.

But usually from our experience, it’s still very important to actually talk to people in person. I don’t think that you would want to totally substitute that with a single civic tech tool because sometimes you just really need to go there, show your face and create this sense of care.

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