Imagine with me for a moment. We are miners looking for gold. We have heard stories of a huge mother lode in the nearby hills, but we have no idea of its specific location. It could take us a long time, if not our entire lives, to find that mother lode – if it really actually exists at all.
Let me suggest that as transportation communicators, we are miners and that the elusive “public engagement” is the gold we seek. We have heard that the nearby local community is where we need to look, but actually finding true public engagement could take us a long time.
Finally, imagine with me one more time. What if we were able to get the gold mine to not only find us, but multiply around us? What if we re-imagine the idea of public engagement completely in a way that is more closely aligned with how corporations conduct product testing? It certainly would make looking for the gold so much easier.
An interesting New York Times story published this week describes how corporations of all kinds are using social media to “crowdsource” all consumer information, from what flavors of chips to manufacture to what kinds of products should be stocked on store shelves.
Transportation public engagement is really not that different from product development. We want to know what people think about a sidewalk design, or how a nearby wetlands should be managed during project construction? We might want to know whether there should be certain kinds of aesthetic treatments or pedestrian and cycling enhancements for the new highway project? Whatever the question, we are seeking answers from a specific set of users, uniquely qualified to comment on some aspect of the transportation system we are about to impact in some way.
Crowdsourcing is a strategy that seeks information from a specific audience. You are outsourcing a task – the color of a new car, for instance – to the “cloud” of users that might actually want to buy your car. Crowdsource participants are motivated to share either because they are entertained and like something. Or, crowdsource participants are motivated by a sense of community building – making something better. Those are folks you want to find.
I certainly do not suggest canceling all your public open houses. But what if you and your project team sat down and listed the “decisions” with which you wanted help from the public? And then, what if you developed a plan that used social media tools to generate crowd-sourced feedback in the same way a shoe designer might offer different designs to its customers? It’s marketing. It’s focus groups strategy. It’s what you do now, but with a different goal.
We could spend our lives searching for the mother lode. Out there, in the hills, it rests just waiting for us to find it. We could wander around with our trusty pack mule. Or, we could re-energize, and re-think what we are doing. Perhaps we can envision a world where the gold finds us.