Netnography in urban design and architecture

Many urban design and architectural firms today employ the anthropology practice of ethnographic research; essentially talking to and engaging with humans. This practice is incredibly valuable in understanding how humans move, engage and participate in urban areas. From residential to public buildings and spaces. This is often accompanied by public engagement sessions and sometimes, design thinking exercises. Architects and urban designers are ever more human-centric in their project design goals. Surveys are sometimes a part of the research as well, and while helpful, they can be challenging to design to deliver the desired insights.

There’s an alternative and it’s known as Netnographic research or netnography.

What is netnography

The concept of netnography is a portmanteau combining “internet” with “ethnography” and was coined by the anthropologist Robert Kozinets in the mid-90’s who was studying online fan discussions about Star Trek. Netnography is looking at human interactions in contemporary digital communications contexts. In other words, ethnographic research that is highly interpretive and qualitative in nature, that adapts traditional ethnographic research to online communities.

In our case, we conduct our research in open, public online spaces such as public Facebook groups and posts, forums such as Reddit, Twitter, Instagram and more. Ethical research is critical to good netnographic methods, thus we are always in compliance wth privacy laws and the terms and conditions of the platforms being researched.

Netnography in urban design and architecture

Especially in cities and increasingly in rural areas, citizens talk about their neighbourhoods and communities. Whether it be through the passive discussion of events and activities to take part in or direct commentary on large public and private development projects. Through netnography, the researcher is a passive observer and thus able to gain insights in a raw, more realistic context that may not be available or attainable through surveys where participants may attempt to answer survey questions based on what they think the surveyor wants to here.

For urban designers and architects, such research can lead to powerful insights about a community. From how people move in an area to preferred gathering places, community activities and citizen concerns. In the case of retailers, restaurants and hotels and large public projects, such insights can help in the early design consideration phases. For projects that may impact communities in a significant way, this can help identity potential landmines or unique opportunities that can help advance a project faster.

Advantages of netnographic research

This form of research has significant advantages over traditional methods such as surveys online or by phone and focus groups, which can be timely and very expensive. Some of the advantages are;

  • Lower cost than traditional methods (sometimes by up to 40%)
  • Much faster as this research can be done at any time period and evolve as the research is conducted
  • Retroactive in nature; one can go back sometimes over a decade or more to uncover trends
  • Comparative in nature; so a project in one city can be compared to others with no geographic limitation

Overall, netnographic research is more efficient, highly adaptable and able to trend historically. For urban designers and architects, this can have a distinct advantage in providing truly human-centric insights at the early stage of a project and as it progresses.

To date, practice lead and design anthropologist, Giles Crouch has completed over 250 netnographic research projects from major brands through to tourism and retail projects.

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