29 Jul 2021

10 Questions with Commonplace

By Olivia Wasson

Over the past 18 months many of us have found ourselves spending more time at home and in our neighbourhoods than ever before. As perhaps a positive unintended consequence of the pandemic, this has led to an increase in people’s engagement with their local communities. “That’s really what Commonplace is about.” says Mike Saunders, CEO and Co-founder of Commonplace, who features in this month’s portfolio series ‘10 questions with…’ “It’s about connecting people to the place that they live, work or play, in order for them to be part of the discussion about making it a better place.”

While recent events may have increased people’s focus on their local areas, Mike saw the opportunity to use technology to connect communities nearly ten years ago. Joining BGV’s programme in 2013 helped their small team focus on framing their ambition to ‘set up conversations about places’ by attaching it to the problem of ‘technocratic urban planning’ – resulting in Commonplace – an online engagement platform. 

Commonplace now works with nearly a third of local authorities around the country, and recently won three awards, in as many months, for their work in community engagement. 

Here Mike talks about where it all started, what he’s learned along the way, and how their solution helped to save 42,000 additional years of human life in just one project.

 

 

The following conversation has been edited. You can watch the full interview here.

 

Where did the idea for Commonplace come from? 

I’ve had a bit of a smorgasbord of a career. I was originally trained as a software engineer. Since then I’ve flitted between lots of different roles. But they’ve all had an element of using technology to get lots of people to do stuff together. From broadcasting, to system science, and crowdsourcing. 

When I was working at Kew Gardens, I was running their digital and communications for about five years. There were two big projects I was working on, one was a citizen science project with primary school kids, getting them to record and upload information about what flowers they found in their school grounds. The other was a planning project which I was involved in because of the communications side. The planning project was a complete car crash because I’d never had any experience of urban planning at all.  In particular, there was a lack of thinking about the community and how the community interacted. 

I had this brainwave, because we were using technology to crowdsource stuff for the citizen science project, and we could apply the citizen science technology to the planning problem. And the idea of Commonplace was born. 

Amazingly, that’s kind of what we’re still doing. We’re crowdsourcing community needs, community views, and aspirations, and using that information for urban planning.

 

What do you hope Commonplace will change?

In the last 18 months or so, there’s been a change because of the pandemic. As people spend more time at home, they’ve become more connected to the neighbourhood; wanting to understand what happens in their community, how it works, and what benefits and value they can get out of being part of that. 

That’s really what Commonplace is about. It’s about connecting people to the place that they live, work or play, in order for them to be part of the discussion about making it a better place. Because we’re using technology we have the ability to do that in every place. We have a very broad ambition to help people do that wherever they live, whether that be in a town, in a very, very rural situation, or indeed overseas.

 

Who are you hoping Commonplace will help?  

We had quite a broad ambition when we first started out, which was to set up conversations about places. We quickly realised that we needed a real problem, to attach that to, a problem to solve. Being on the Bethnal Green Ventures accelerator really helped refine and hone that, which was amazing. 

The problem that we started solving, and still solving to a large extent is around planning. Urban planning as a process is very structured and quite technocratic. It often shuts the communities out. We’re trying to help those who are responsible for change, to make it happen in a way that’s inclusive of those using the space, and the communities who live there. And in the process, help them to make changes that create happier, healthier, more sustainable, more equitable places. 

Most of the time we’re working with local authorities, we also work with property developers, housing associations and infrastructure providers. A lot of what we do is about generating more trust in the process, making it more inclusive, creating a set of tools that help break down barriers. And through doing that, we help the communities themselves to be more involved, and actually work together. A lot of it is about their own collaboration as a community, as well as their communication with other local authorities or developers to influence the place and make it better for them.

 

What makes Commonplace different from anything else out there?

When you look at planning and neighbourhoods, there’s the traditional survey approach. So filling out a form online and being asked lots of technical questions, which you don’t necessarily understand the language of, let alone any of the answers to.  At the other end, there are companies like nextdoor.com, which is a local social media network. There’s lots of value being part of these networks, but the problem is that a lot of the conversations are very transactional.

Commonplace fills the gap in between them. And that gap is about a constructive and social conversation. We have a social element through the way that people can interact on Commonplace. This conversation creates a collective understanding of the community’s needs and how the community feels, and genuinely results in a collective voice that has an influence on the future of the place.

 

Are there any success stories you can share about your impact to date?

We’ve got hundreds of customers now, and each one of them uses Commonplace in a very different way. From relatively small-scale changes to citywide programmes that happen over a number of years. 

We’ve just won two awards with Leeds City Council, one award for planning and one for sustainable transport. This was all about our work with Leeds around COVID and the changes they wanted to make in order to make the city better, during and after the pandemic. They had a very ambitious vision that Leeds should be a place where you don’t need to own a car to live. We’ve seen great short-term impact from this project. 

Another interesting and really impactful story is around Waltham Forest where we helped the forest council on a series of engagements around their Mini Holland scheme, which was transforming the Borough to be more walking and cycling friendly. We were involved in that programme for three or four years, right from the early stage conversations through to delivery and evaluation. I think we helped the Borough to do a much broader engagement and provide a deeper set of questions, for a longer period of time. This helped them to be able to deliver the project quicker than they perhaps otherwise would have been able to do. 

The outcome has been exceptional and quite extraordinary. The biggest outcome of the project is that the air quality of Waltham Forest has improved dramatically as a result.  It’s gone from a Borough that was very traffic laden, to a Borough which now has many people walking and cycling. The council did a study with a university, which showed that the improvements in air quality, just from this programme, would result in 42,000 additional years of human life in the Borough. We can’t take credit for that, of course, but being involved in the process, and helping the speed and effectiveness of the delivery for a project with that kind of outcome feels really special.

 

What has been the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn in running a startup?

I’ve done a few startup things before and had some experience of a similar journey. Some of the things I’ve brought from that into this journey, were the need for tenacity, and the understanding that this is a long haul. It’s never going to be something that’s a short process, you’re going to be in it for some considerable time, and you really need to commit yourself to it. 

The thing I’ve found the hardest, and the most interesting, is the importance and difficulty of creating a strong, purpose-driven culture. It’s something  you have to work at every day, and you can’t set it from the centre or from the top – it has to be something that everybody in the company owns. As you’re growing and taking on more people, you have to think about how they’re motivated, how you can lead them effectively, what leadership actually means, and how things change as you expand. 

We’ve expanded considerably over the last 18 months, and doing all of that remotely is a whole other dimension of culture and change which is really difficult, but also really interesting.

 

What do you think is the most important quality in a co-founder or teammate? 

This is so critical to the success of small companies and growing companies. There’s the  obvious things like complimentary skills. I’ve certainly been lucky enough to find people who have skills and experience that I don’t. Putting those things together gives you a broader understanding and collective ability. However, I think the most important thing is around trust and around communication. 

Of course, if you’re looking for someone new to join your team, it’s difficult to know whether you’re going to trust them until you’ve tried!  But knowing how your teammates are going to behave, being able to have open and frank conversations with them, and to move on, and take that communication constructively is so important, because that’s happening constantly. You can only really do that if you have a trusted and open relationship with somebody.

 

Aside from Commonplace, are there any other tech for good companies you admire?

​​Yeah, lots!  One of the great things is that they’re springing up all the time, not least through BGV’s network.

I think there’s probably two who I’d point to. One of which is Fairphone, who was one of the early BGV companies. I think it’s a very inspiring idea, and in some ways an obvious idea, but one that they’ve executed really well. 

The other one, which was to some extent an inspiration for commonplace, is a company called Ushahidi. They do crowdsourced mapping that was originally designed for monitoring crises and human rights issues. It originally grew out of the Haiti earthquake eleven years ago. Since then, it’s been used in many other scenarios. For example, during the outbreaks of violence in Kenya, and monitoring food banks in Albuquerque. So it’s really inspiring. It uses an approach to crowdsourcing on maps, which is one of the things that we have taken, and used in a completely different setting on Commonplace.

 

If someone wanted to find out more about community engagement, and why it’s important, where would you signpost them? 

There’s lots of different places where you can go to find out more, including many organisations who are based physically in local communities. That might be a Residents Association, or a Facebook group that’s already set up and having discussions around the local community. 

On Commonplace, you can find out quite a lot, as we’re now working with about a third of local authorities around the country. If you go into the Commonplace website, you can search the areas that we already cover. You can also suggest other areas where we should be. 

What’s great about community engagement is that there’s an offline and an online opportunity. And one of the things we’re particularly interested in, is joining those up. 

 

What’s next for you and Commonplace, and how can people help? 

We’re continuing with our growth mission in the UK – we would like to be in a position to be able to offer a Commonplace to everybody, everywhere in the UK. 

We’re doing that mainly at the moment through working with local councils and working with housing providers. And we’re developing our platform rapidly. We’ve got some really exciting stuff coming out around using  AI to do more detailed text analysis, more visual tools, 3D mapping, and more social tools as well. There’s a lot we’ve got in our product roadmap, and in the development of our partnerships, and working with customers. 

People can help by thinking about what’s going on in their area. If there’s a Commonplace that’s already running, please do take part.  You can do this on your phone and it takes a few seconds to contribute, say what you think about your area, and share the ideas that you have for improving it. If there’s not already a Commonplace set up in your area, then let us know. We’d love to see if we can get one going.

 

You can keep up to date with everything Commonplace is doing on their website. They’re also LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.