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People enjoy the symposium

What if communicating with your local council was... fun?


How connected are you with your local council? And how much time would you be prepared to put aside from your next weekend to help them prepare their 10-year strategic plan?

For most of us the answers are probably “not much” and… “even less than not much.”

And that’s a massive design challenge.

It’s a challenge that Willoughby Council, in Sydney’s Northern suburbs, was recently grappling with as they prepared to draft a new Community Strategic Plan that would oversee their activities for the coming decade.

So they threw that challenge to ThinkPlace.

Councils like Willoughby must show that they have consulted with their community before drafting strategic plans. Too often in the past, all over Australia, this task has proven too difficult. An information stand in a shopping mall sitting lonely and unattended. A tiny handful of people taking the opportunity to air unhelpful personal grievances.

But at the recent, Building Our Future symposium held in Chatswood there was an entirely different situation.

Organisers sent invitations to people across the local community, asking them to come along for a morning of fun and games (and a free lunch). We even asked them to bring a friend.

People at the symposium

Free activities for kids meant parents could participate, knowing their children were within eyesight. And having the time of their lives.

Almost 100 people, from diverse parts of the local community showed up to take part in a two-hour workshop about the future needs of their community. And they had a great time.

After all, they were just playing a bit of cards.


Kids enjoying their own design challenge
Local councils need new ways to engage with their residents if they are to create policy that reflects and meets their future needs. By using techniques of gamification, ThinkPlace helped make that process fun and rewarding for all involved.

The successful event shows the power of gamification to help tackle complex problems of engagement, particularly in relation to citizen participation in democratic institutions.

“The community members I spoke to all remarked on how much they enjoyed the day, welcomed the opportunity to be involved,” said Willoughby Mayor Gail Giles-Gidney.

How it worked

ThinkPlace designers began the process with large posters at the local library. Over a period of 2 weeks, locals had the opportunity to respond to prompts such as “Write or draw what a prosperous and vibrant future of Willoughby looks like to you…”by scribbling on post it notes and sticking them on the posters.

The best ideas were then used, along with a “thematic synthesis” ThinkPlace designers carried out using material gathered from earlier attempts at community engagement (such as pop-up stalls, school visits and the council’s website) to create a deck of 50 cards based around five main themes.

Each card contained a single goal.

In the day’s first activity small groups were asked to go through the cards and discuss the issues raised. Then they had a placemat holder into which they placed the five cards (and goals) they deemed most important.

These were then stuck on the wall.

ThinPlace card

In the day’s second activity, participants were given a postcard to fill out regarding one of their five goals.

If we want to achieve our goal to….

Then it would be great to see…

“We found that by giving them a really structured, designed card that looked nice, people put a lot more effort into their ideas,” says ThinkPlace designer Rohan Doherty.

“Generally if you just get people to write their ideas any old place the result can be vague or unhelpful. We definitely did not get that.”

These two activities were successful in engaging people from different backgrounds, getting them talking and thinking and flushing out concrete ideas.

Then, in the day’s final activity, each participant was given a number of red dots and asked to wander around the room ‘voting’ for the ideas they liked best by placing a red sticker on them.

The result was a collection of almost 200 ideas, with a clear sense of which ones were valued most highly by a genuine cross-section of the community.

“One of the huge challenges here was diversity and how to reflect it,” Doherty says. “The area the council oversees has been undergoing huge changes in its ethnic makeup in the past 20 years. With large Korean and Chinese populations moving in.

This was an excellent way for council to engage with some of those people in a way that it had sometimes found difficult before.”

The council’s General Manager, Debra Just, said the symposium had been a great success.

“It truly was a team effort that resulted in Council participating in robust, meaningful and useful discussions about the development of our Community Strategic Plan,” she said. 

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