What’s the business case for community engagement?

Research Project Name

Alignment for Impact

What We Did

We audited best practices for community engagement across a spectrum of industries, including design and construction. Our goal was to measure its importance—and effectiveness—as part of an integrated design process. We surveyed a cross section of professionals involved in community-related work to understand how community engagement fits into their design process today, and what advantages that engagement brings—from achieving social impact or meeting corporate social responsibility goals, to improved business or community outcomes.

We also interviewed design professionals, not-for-profit organizations, community development groups, and academic institutions to seek a wider range of precedents and experience with community engagement. Our findings focused on a comparative analysis of engagement strategies, and the identification of best practices and recommendations.

The Context

Design and construction projects, by their very nature, bring immense opportunity to positively impact their communities and provide far-reaching benefits. As individuals, organizations, and businesses today continue to place significant value in social responsibility, engaging the community in these projects is an opportunity not only to gather important insight directly from a project’s end-users, but also to improve acceptance, commitment, and overall project success. Today, however, community engagement is too often treated as a nice-to-have—and when it happens, it is too often part of a pro bono strategy to assuage community stakeholders.

The Results

Community engagement can provide significant economic, environmental, and social impact, and should be considered an integral part of the design and development process. By integrating engagement strategies into the goals of every design project, we can begin to better align the built environment with business and community outcomes. To achieve this, design services must evolve to include a broader range of stakeholders in collaborative decision making.

The full potential to leverage community engagement has not been fully recognized or incorporated in the design process. Our research uncovered significant, burgeoning interest, as well as a range of engagement toolkits and best practices geared toward social impact across the industry. Better engagement can promote meaningful, impactful design by broadening the dialogue to include key stakeholders, ultimately revealing mutually beneficial or unrecognized design opportunities.

Engaging the community improves decision making. By aligning diverse stakeholder and user voices, designers and clients can make more informed decisions to align project goals, community needs, and user expectations. This information proves relevant at all stages of real estate development, from master planning to move-in, and is critical to identifying areas in the community that hold the greatest opportunity for intervention.

Involvement in the design process also improves acceptance. Designing with the community, rather than for it, makes end-users and stakeholders more likely to feel ownership of, and connection to, a final product. Particularly for projects where the users or customers represent a broader community, involvement can deliver significant returns in terms of ultimate project success.

What This Means

Communicate the value of engagement. The importance of community engagement, and its ability to improve project outcomes, must be better communicated to our clients and industry. The more we engage the community, and document its impact on our project work, the better.

Create a diverse stakeholder group. Engaging a diverse set of stakeholders enables a robust, informed design solution. For the community, the result is a product better aligned with their needs and interests; for the client, acceptance and alignment with community goals improves overall chances of success.

Use input to target investment. Soliciting and documenting community input informs decision making and helps identify opportunities for maximum impact. Use this information to align resources to optimize community benefit through design and real estate investments.

What’s Next?

We must draw on our diverse skillsets as architects, designers, planners, and strategists to identify and maximize social impact benefits related to real estate investments. This requires developing and expanding multidisciplinary capabilities to strategically advise clients and communities about real estate and the built environment, and continuing to pilot social impact tools and methods.

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Maddy Burke-Vigeland, Katrina Barney, Nina Charnotskaia, Jon Corish, Lauren Hibner, Christopher Miller, Tom Milavec

Year Completed