The assumption problem: How new insights from social data are giving greenfield developers the edge

Authentic local identity is the key to making places that people love and feel connected to, especially in brand new communities. How can we get past demographic assumptions and develop a new way to establish what truly matters to people?

The greenfield development boom in Australia has provided home buyers with attractive housing at affordable prices with some of the highest rates of open green space in the country. Rapid population growth has required a rapid response, but with that has come methods of development based on generalisations and assumptions about locations and residents that are no longer serving us as an industry, nor the communities we’re building.

While useful in the short-term, we believe that target demographics and marketing personas are not effective predictors of people’s behaviour when it comes to place, and greenfield development is a long-term game. Reliance on census data and demographic profiling has inadvertently created a restricted view of a community’s identity, missing the true value of a place and limiting the latent potential for vibrancy, authenticity, wellbeing, and authentic growth towards maturation.

Design for user experience, not census data

New studies, including our own, are revealing how places that look similar on the surface from a demographic perspective, are actually masking the deep range of values, activities, and identities that are reflected in how local people truly connect to place.

Demographic analysis is often overly reductive, and we find that Neighbourhoods with the same “demographics” often offer completely different social life.
— Jessica Christiansen-Franks

Community potential is restricted by a static view of identity

Today the industry is spending much time focussing on creating places that foster strong, resilient communities, but we know this doesn’t happen from day one. The trick to “getting it right” is in tracking a neighbourhood’s evolution over time to ensure that watch the local identity take seed and grow. But failing to focus on building a local identity that is relevant and authentic can lead to significant long term problems; social isolation, disengaged youth, and under-utilised facilities are just a few examples. So as planners and developers, we must reconsider the evolution of these places over time to ensure they continue on a successful trajectory for self-sustaining wellbeing. 

The answer could be getting instagram’d, or foursquare’d right now. At Neighbourlytics we use these unconventional data feeds to help measure local values and behaviour in real time. Rather than rely on feedback surveys riddled by opinion, our system measures and analyses the millions of data points created daily across our neighbourhoods, to quantify the values and behaviours of local people. 
Social data and its technical analysis is here, and it’s providing insights in a way we have never had access to before. Data is already disrupting the property sector, social data the next step and it’s opening the door to making your planning, building, and place branding life easier.

Social data can provide instant insight into the lifestyle of the place. No guessing, no assuming, no dangerously generalised personas.
— Jessica Christiansen-Franks

What this means is, this new type of measurement enables us to design for their user experience rather than their census data, and be much more effective in the process.

Jessica Christiansen-Franks

Passionate about creating liveable, equitable and interesting cities, I have over fifteen years experience working across urban design, placemaking, community development and citizen engagement, and been involved in some of Australia's most complex and notable urban development projects.

In my work as co-founder of Neighbourlytics I am focussing on using big data to provide insights into the unique local identity of neighbourhoods to create places people love and feel connected to.