As I try to imagine what community consultation might have looked like a few decades ago, tools that come to mind include: telephone trees, posted letters, print advertising, type-written statements, and town-hall meetings to inform and engage community members. Many of these same tools are still in use today, but they are quickly being offset or modified through innovations in online communication. Research and information sharing have moved from the library to the computer and now the smart-phone. ‘Face-to-face’ meetings can occur virtually with teleconferencing technology. How people interact in their day-to-day lives is fundamentally changing with the advent of a multitude of social media platforms. What do such tools and our increasingly online lifestyles mean for community engagement?

Community engagement and other forms of public consultation are a key best-practice element in many areas of decision making, meant to inform and include the input of those who stand to be affected by the processes and results of decisions made. Through the ClimateActionWR partnership, Sustainable Waterloo Region, REEP Green Solutions, the Region of Waterloo, and area municipalities are working to develop a community Climate Action Plan for Waterloo Region. A core value of this process is meaningful community engagement, which is being achieved through:

These activities serve to inform and elicit the input of community members as we collectively plan how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Waterloo Region, in light of climate concerns. A number of these community engagement activities are conducted with the aid of online tools, from the task forces’ private wiki community, to the use of Eventbrite for registration for the Community Forum, to upcoming online voting on art contest submissions, and our ongoing Twitter and Facebook presence and online discussion board.

Online tools offer great opportunities: to potentially reach more, different people, in different ways; to use time and resources more efficiently; to allow for flexibility in when, where, and how people may choose to be involved; to provide a container for collected wisdom and good information; and to furnish recognition. There are also potential pitfalls and uncertainties. What if we miss key segments of the population that are not online? How do we capture people’s attention in an increasingly busy online environment? Will interacting online lose sense of place that is so important in communities? How will we know what our potential participants need from the engagement process? What if we build it and no one comes?

So, how do we best use the tools available to us in an ever evolving online environment to meaningfully engage community members? As Online Engagement Coordinator for ClimateActionWR, I’ve encountered successes as well as challenges in using online tools for community engagement. On the positive side, recent weeks have seen tweets from the @ClimateActionWR account re-tweeted by local municipal accounts, major players in the local sustainability community, and passionate residents. This sort of transmission gives our messages a different visibility and audience than they would have had through traditional print or more formal communications. On the other hand, we are still exploring how to best use the online discussion board to elicit input on draft elements of the Action Plan. Despite a few ardent contributors to date, participation has been slow-coming.

Online tools will no-doubt continue to evolve, bringing potential new approaches and opportunities for broad, diverse, meaningful community engagement. I believe the challenges of online engagement can be offset through persistent reflection, adaptability, and a focus on the human relationships at the core of engagement. One hopes that online engagement only enriches opportunities for community participation and positive change. I look forward to seeing how this process unfolds as ClimateActionWR moves through the steps of developing and implementing a Climate Action Plan for our community.