Skip to Main Content

October 2023

Digital public participation, the complicated ways that technology platforms both help and challenge planners

This Case Study is based on an article that appeared in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of OPPI’s Y Magazine. Read the full article online.
You can read full issues of Y Magazine anytime online.


Did you know that COVID played a critical role in the increase of technology being used in the planning process? During COVID, digital tools became essential to maintaining a democratic public engagement process including the execution of mandatory public meetings. 

As community engagement is returning to more in-person events, it presents important questions about how the profession should strike a balance between in-person and online community meetings as well as how digital tools will impact community participation in the planning process. According to an environmental scan conducted in Fall 2022, 63 per cent of 32 Canadian municipal governments indicated they used a “hybrid meeting model” with broadcast technology platforms such as Zoom and Webex. Also, digital platforms are increasingly being used as an opportunity for more interactive public participation and engagement activities. For example, using functions such as polls, surveys, interactive maps, discussion boards with communications channels such as email and newsletters extends traditional in person engagement to more community groups.  

However, as the use of digital tools in community engagement increases, there is also an impact on the quality and inclusivity of participation in final decision making. For example, though digital tools might make it easer for some community groups to participate (e.g., young people), it may also make it harder for other groups such as the elderly, people facing accessibility challenges, or those without access to internet. Also, digital tools may make community participation more transactional as entries to an online discussion group may not hold the same weight in decision making as attendance for an in-person townhall meeting. These potential negative impacts exemplify why planners more than ever need to carefully assess the design and adoption of specific digital tools to ensure they empower more of the public rather than restrict community groups.  

Digital tools not only change how communities give feedback but also change the way planners analyze and manage the volume of community feedback they recieve. For example, planners need to understand the programming of automation systems being used to sort data as biases are often embedded in the coding of these systems. While automation is perceived to be efficient it can have negative impacts on equity deserving and marginalized communities.  

As planners continue to struggle with building trust and sustainable meaningful relationships with community members, it’s clear that digital tools need to be critically evaluated before being implemented in the process. 

If you have further questions about the impacts of technology in the planning profession, please reach out to OPPI members, Pamela Robinson and Morgan Boyco, or the University of Waterloo’s Associate Professor in Geography and Environment Management, Peter Johnson or check out the full article online.