With the variety of stakeholders we all have to liaise with, adding more to the mix may seem like a daunting task on the face of it. However, when it comes to deploying 5G in places, the benefits of speaking to, and building relationships with, your community can be the difference between end user adoption –meaning use case viability – and a project that struggles to achieve practical results.
Community engagement has the power to transform how projects are shown to be, and made, valuable to communities. Yet, capturing multiple and often contradictory voices of citizens, and balancing them with other priorities, can be a challenging process, especially in terms of the large amount of time spent.
To gain insight into the benefits of community engagement, understand how to begin your outreach and ideas of how best to approach it for your project, we spoke to the teams behind the MANY (Mobile Access North Yorkshire) and Liverpool 5G Create projects for their main advice.
Inclusivity: a two-way street
The team behind MANY identified a handful of key principles as a good benchmark for community activity – “engage early and often, be transparent, inclusive, open and honest”.
That inclusivity has to work both ways. Involving a community group or spokesperson means that you have to listen and possibly adapt your approach, more than simply use them for dissemination of information.
Changing an entire project based on pieces of community feedback is of course not practical or realistic, however, the different viewpoints of those ‘on the ground’ who will be using and benefiting from the digital infrastructure should hold weight and the insight of potential end users can be enlightening.
You may uncover issues that the project team hasn’t considered, coming up with alternative solutions and pathways of implementation, or how to best communicate with various groups.
With more people involved, both the Liverpool 5G Create project – which developed a private 5G network for health, social care and education services in selected areas of Liverpool – and the MANY project, that worked to put 5G connectivity infrastructures in place for very rural Yorkshire communities, engaged early and often because of the increased feedback loop from more individuals.
Find your community vehicle
One way to expedite the process is to engage with a community group early, using them as a vehicle for you to communicate and engage with their members.
Consider making contact and liaising with organisations and groups who may be able to act as independent conduits to engage people across the communities you operate in and – hopefully – bring people together.
Furthermore, they could be a key ally to placate tension during key milestones, or changes, using their position to defuse situations. Some people will have pre-existing perceptions about advanced connectivity, while others may want to actively stop deployment. Implementation can be challenging, and having someone ‘on the community’s side’ can be useful as a way to broach discussions.
The community vehicle can act as another voice, unbiased and not representing the council or telco’s point of view. A trusted and neutral party, they can effectively broker and move forward challenging conversations and can be an effective route to ensure everyone can express their views, positions and concerns in a less confrontational setting.
Examples of such groups could be Parish Councils, business or neighbourhood groups, resident associations, or local charitable organisations.
Independent local champions
Alongside partner groups, finding independent advocates of your project, and the drivers behind it, can be a very useful route to opening doors and positive conversations with your community. These may come out of the above community vehicles, or be found separately.
Liverpool 5G Create’s health and social care project found that district nurses covering urban areas were useful supporters, as well as activities coordinators in a care home, who were able to talk on a specific level to the possible end users of healthcare or monitoring devices, alleviating worries.
The power of word of mouth through these individuals, and the widening circles within which they move, can be useful – for example, district nurses were able to share their experience with the technology with team members, patients, families and other parties through their work in the community.
With MANY, they discovered that a local vicar had a background in technology, and through his trusted position in the area, was able to have multiple conversations from an independent point of view. Finding such experience is rare, but there are people out there to connect with. MANY was able to build a relationship with Community First Yorkshire, a third sector organisation, trusted on the ground.
Be aware of the fluid nature of digital poverty
The notion of digital poverty is not static. It moves across the landscape (rural and urban), fluctuating across the month as money comes in and runs out. It is not a one size fits all category, but rather is fluid.
Unfortunately it is very easy to dismiss, if you’ve not experienced it yourself. If you are lucky enough to be always connected, it can be difficult to understand how this all aspects of modern life, from buying things online, paying bills, accessing your bank account or doing homework.
Digital is fast becoming – if not already – a fundamental right, a utility like water or electricity.
With the additional challenges around market infrastructure (and connectivity in homes), there are risks of the empowering nature of digital connectivity becoming a continuation of hollowing out, not levelling up.
Be aware of the circumstances and presence of digital poverty as you work through your project, and communicate this with any partners to enhance community understanding of objectives relating to this.
One example was a school in Yorkshire. In this case, MANY didn’t have direct contact. They provided connectivity to the school, while Chromebooks were given by the local council. The teachers and support staff were great advocates, talking up the benefits to children and families of digital literacy.
However, of the 230 pupils about half had no connectivity at home, even though they had these great tools. The infrastructure at home, and financial challenges of parents or carers (also in the case of elderly or disabled residents), needs to be considered to avoid frustrating and alienating possible end users of 5G technology.
Counterbalancing detractors/loud voices
Regardless of the strength and depth of your local champions, they can act as influencers helping to explain and pacify situations. This is especially prudent during key moments in projects – installing in homes for instance – or (literally) helping to open doors to interviews and case studies.
However, as usually happens ‘they who shout loudest’ get heard. This may be disheartening, when semi-aggressive activity and anti-5G sentiment can threaten to overtake other valid questions or opportunities to build relationships.
This has calmed down since the pandemic, yet Freedom of Information (FOI) requests have stacked up thick and fast, particularly for the Liverpool team. Project lead Ann Williams,
Commissioner & Contracts Manager at Liverpool City Council, recalls how she received 31 in one month. With 20 working days to complete one FOI request, when anti-5G groups send ‘copy and paste messages’ en masse, it can halt a project’s process.
This was in 2108 when anti 5G sentiment was more prolific – however, large numbers of emailed requests continue to come through, copies of the same queries from groups, if not FOIs.
One way to challenge this is to collaborate and build relationships with other projects – it is more than likely you will all have gone through similar, and sharing experiences and learnings can be a valuable exercise. UK5G also has a range of assets and tools that have been developed specifically to help local authorities address anti-5G sentiment.On the more extreme side, be aware that there are some negative factions out there. As Liverpool 5G Create found out, in one instance, a Russian Bot was allegedly behind malicious/negative communication about the use of 5G. Furthermore, the night before one of the in-person community meetings to explain the project, a hooded figure was seen on CCTV causing £40k worth of damage to the venue.
Being aware of these instances, and don’t just assume that you can ignore the issues. Counteracting with cooperative project work and pre-prepared answers, crisis comms, and templated responses, as well as liaison with the police where suitable, is the best advice from the projects we spoken with.
Authority and legitimacy of case studies
Paramount to any community engagement is promoting the benefits of the technology in question – show, don’t tell, how this can have a tangible impact on the community and use real people in relatable situations. Trying to tell a community how beneficial something is, without a compelling, human interest story, may not be the approach to choose.
For instance, show a schoolchild using a device to address increasing grades at school, improving loneliness or job opportunities of a family, or showcasing how a remote medicine dispenser changed someone’s life.
The strength of authority and legitimacy can be best surmised with real people speaking about their experiences, either in interview style, or in an animation or informational format – giving tangible outcomes such as “Before the technology XX, and since then YY”.
However, be conscious of starting early to identify and build bonds with potential case study subjects. In the context of an 18 month project, it can take the majority (c.12 months) to implement, and only the remaining six months to get the case studies so be prepared to act and document early.
Again, show, don’t tell.
For more ideas and examples of how to approach community engagement, see this social science toolkit from the MANY project here.