The project Ar Abair was done with the Institute of Design Innovation, Glasgow to design a comprehensive, inclusive, transparent and accountable system of community consultation for the Hebridean islands through a human centered design approach.
The research focused on understanding the Island life through engagement tools and interviews with different stakeholders including local communities and community owned organization like Storas Uhibist. The project tried to first understand the practice of crofting, a form of land tenure and small-scale community faring, intrinsic to the Scottish Islands. This helped us to learn about the community values and decision making framework which exists in the region and used this learning to inform the new process of consultation.
During the initial interviews, Mr. Angus Campbell, a shell fish farmer in South Uist, expressed concern over the decision making processes in the islands. On asking how he saw the future of the islands, he said- “I don’t know… But maybe I would like that the voice of the community could be heard. I mean, authorities come to consult us regarding many issues, but it seems that in the end we get things so different from what we asked for. I would like to see the opinions reflected in the decisions.”
Confirming the notion, Mr. Neil Ross, the Head of Community Development in Highland and Island enterprise said- “People from throughout Scotland/UK/Europe look at the environment of Islands and recognize how special it is from an ecological/ biodiversity/ environmental point of view. Sometimes, there are external conservation- driven interests for the Islands which some of the local communities don’t fully appreciate in terms of ‘ why should we be the last place of our land?, what if we want broader economic development outcomes that will attract our young people to stay here?’ and so on. They don’t necessarily want to be an environmental/ ecological reservoir. They want something more balanced.”
While doing the secondary research the team came across the Storas Uhibist community windfarm project in the South Uist region which provided a detailed narrative of the traditional community way of life in the islands, how it has evolved over time and also the problems people were facing today. Supported by the Land Reform Act of 2003, in 2006, 850 crofters came together to buy 93,000 acres of land to establish the Storas Uhibist wind farm. Initially faced with problems of planning permission and National Grid Rights, now the Farm has 3 turbines with a generation capacity of 6.9 MW. But the Scottish Govt. lobbyists for environment conservation have called for all Scottish Wild Land to be protected from any development activity including the allocation of wind farms. Mr. Francis, the Chief Executive of Stora’s Uist feels that it will have serious impact of the ability of community to regenerate the local economy. Later on during the field research we realized that the crofting community which went on to establish the Storas Uhibist wind farm did not want any more wind farms in their vicinity because they felt it obstructed the view of the landscape and also affected their mental well being!
By this time we were wondering where was the problem! Was it the communities who were not communicating their needs properly or was it the the stakeholders on the other side (government and other organizations) who were misunderstanding communities’ needs and aspirations. Hence, first we did a detailed research on crofting, a practice intrinsic to the region, to help us understand the structure and functioning mechanisms of the communities in the Hebridian islands. Secondly we conducted interviews and engagement sessions with the communities to understand their views about the consultation processes in the Islands.
During the research it was realized that during the recent Scottish referendum could shed light on the decision making landscape of the country at large and how it manifests in small local communities like that of the Islands. Hence we visited the Grassroots Community Cafe in Oban, a coastal town which has many ferries connecting the mainland to the Islands. The Grassroots Community Cafe cafe in Oban was born out of the Yes campaign during the Scottish referendum and developed into a community organization. In the cafe people brought musical instruments along with them and sang together. In between music and sips of tea, people discussed what was going around in the region, ranging from road repairs to politics. “We are still a Yes-supporting group but we are not as blatantly political as we were during the referendum campaign. However, we are looking at local democracy and we have input from the Green Party and others.” said Kathryn Wilkie, one of the volunteers. This led me to think that probably ideas like democracy sit in parliaments but its in public places like this cafe, that day to day democracy takes shape. This was the point where we extended our research beyond just decision making and also started looking at the broader concept of democracy to get some inspiration. The report called Effective Democracy: Reconnecting with communities, was pivotal in widening our understanding of the ever evolving concept of democracy and the significance of localizing it in Scotland. The report was prepared by Scotland’s first Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy and brought together local government, civic society, and a range of experts to consider what it will take put local democracy at the heart of Scotland’s future. It was commissioned in the wake of the Scottish Referendum to shed light on how democracy is done here in Scotland and weather the way in which its done today should be transformed forever. The report talked that even if Scotland left UK simply repositioning control nationally in Edinburgh will not tackle the complex opportunities and challenges that the communities face. The report said that the shift has to be decisive and far reaching, not a trickle of power to councils, then to communities, all controlled from above. Giving people a real say over what matters to them is the key to revitalizing the whole democratic process. Other similar literature like the ‘Impact through Community’ report by the Highland and Island Enterprise helped us to generate a set of values to guide our field research and keep us on track while proposing solutions.
Research also tried to learn from technology enabled platforms were working towards strengthening democracy for example the change.org which mostly presents the viewpoints of people in terms of numbers to others which contributed in more qualitative manner. Another very important inspiration was the D-CENT project of Nesta.org which is a Europe-wide project to create digital tools for direct democracy and economic empowerment. We also learnt about the potential of various social media platforms in strengthening democracy and which platforms were best for reaching masses (twitter) and which were better for more personal groups (facebook). Analogous inspirations were derived from successful consensus and decision making models like that of the INDABA talks at the Paris Climate Talks or the digital installation called London 2036 which puts you in control of London, painting pictures of many possible futures for the city through data modeling techniques. We also studied in detail the community mapping approach to populate the register of crofts which were found to be far more effective and acceptable than the trigger point concept proposed by the Scottish Government (whereby individual crofters will have to provide maps of their crofts should they need any administrative action taken by the Crofters Commission). All this learning was used to develop engagement tools for the field research in the South Uist region. Although we designed a journal and collage exercises to get a sense of people’s hopes and aspirations, it was the artifacts (below) as conversation starters which played a very important role in generating insights.
Artifacts as Conversation Starters:
Some of the learning from the trip backed up our assumptions regarding the problems in the decision making process in the Islands. However, some insights also challenged our assumptions. For example, before visiting South Uist we were assuming the community values of the Islands as an asset to decision making but after going there we learnt that the same community values can hinder people from expressing individual opinion, if it is different from the rest of the community. John (name changed), a shop owner said that a lot of times people don’t get information about the consultations going on in the region. Community Manager of the Stoas Uist on the other hand said that people always have excuses to not attend the meetings for example, the time and venue was not comfortable for them. She said its not possible to set a time and venue which will be comfortable for all.
Beatrix, whom we met on her croft said that a lot of people are passive in expressing their opinion. Because of the theatrical process of consultation, its always the same two people talking, and their opinion forms the narrative regarding the topic. John also said that their is no accountability. He was talking regarding the Seaweed factory which was about to start in South Uist and promised to bring employment and housing. It was a big investment project but after one year for financial reasons the factory site was shifted to Oban. He said “it was a lot of money which could have been better used for several smaller projects in the region if the communities were consulted properly.” We also got to know about the problems in the timetables of the Calmac Ferry and also the bus service in the region, because either the communities were not consulted or if consulted, the communities did not participate. During the course of our engagements and interviews and engagements itself we tried to make sense of qualitative data and developed prototypes to collect feedback during the research itself. The image below is that of an engagement session with John, the shop owner in South Uist.
The Decision Making Landscape (above) was a concept we prototyped in collaboration with the island communities during our field visit. The concept can be executed both in physical board game format or as a digital gaming app. It helps communities and other stakeholders to map their position and perspectives regarding a particular issue and establish accountability. Besides, the very simple tool can also be used to map potential collaborations between stakeholders on the basis of perspective, geographical proximity. Many more ideas were developed based on the insights derived from the field research. The insights generated could be arranged into four major categories namely communication, organizing, consulting and keeping log. A number of ideas were generated to address problems in one or more categories.
When we were trying to bundle up ideas, we realized they spanned across two key dimensions of online-offline and individual-community. These dimensions emerged due to the fact that the islands have a very large percentage of elderly population and they might find it difficult to access digital platforms. Besides during our field research we discovered the fact that the community pressure might be a hindrance in expressing individual views. Hence, we wanted to combine ideas and come up with a system which facilitates both individual and community expression and can be accessed both online and offline.
The final proposition is a new system of communicating, organizing, consulting and keeping log about the community consultations (refer to graphics at the beginning of the page). Any new consultation which is about to happen should be communicated both through the conventional medium like the notice boards of the Pink Cafe, churches, community halls, co-op and also through the newly introduced Ar-Abair website. Ar-Abair is the local Gaelic language means ‘my say.’ Moreover, the new consultations should also communicated through the Calmac Ferry App and the weather app which are very essential to the islanders and hence they can’t miss the advertisement.
During the consultation meetings, instead of a theatrical process, people sit in groups of five at round tables to discuss the topic at hand. Everyone gets to express their views. Then the representatives of the chosen groups discuss it amongst themselves. If a consensus is not reached the process is repeated. Final decision is put online for people to vote for or against. Its more like an Indaba talk which makes sure that everyone gets to express there views, without undermining the community opinion.
All those people who were not able to attend the consultation sessions because of personal circumstances (distance/timing) can now register to be present online or through phone during the consultation.
Finally the proceedings, results, personal viewpoints and community viewpoints are uploaded on the website. People can anonymously vote against the decision citing a reason. If there are enough votes against the decision, another meeting can be held to discuss the concerns. It creates discussion but it also keeps log of the proceedings and how the project was planned and how is it being delivered. Besides the larger system, the Decision Making Landscape as a physical and digital tool, helps communities, government and organisations to define multiple positions and perspectives, establish accountability of different stakeholders and also help them to map out potential collaborations.