“we want counter context to make a difference” — alexis krachai, counter contextBack
“I think a lot about this,” says Alexis Krachai, executive director of Counter Context. “But I can’t think of anything that would make us leave Sheffield.”
If any company should be able to come up with reasons to leave its base in Sheffield city centre it’s Counter Context. As consultants to international and multinational clients, they undertake long-term commitments to major projects all over the UK and all over the world, from planning consultations for offshore wind farms, to engaging with communities affected by large scale renewable energy infrastructure, to promoting Britain’s hi-tech innovations at Formula 1 races in Montreal, Budapest, Singapore and Austin, Texas.
Counter Context are always seeing more of the world, but in their offices high above Vicar Lane, it’s the view of Sheffield that draws you to the window.
“I think Sheffield is the quiet one,” says Alexis. “It sits in the corner building up the confidence to shout out, and then when it does, it says something that’s impressive and ambitious.”
Like most major cities Sheffield will have a presence at this year’s MIPIM conference in Cannes, and Counter Context have got together with a number of like-minded Sheffield businesses to ensure there will be a space on the French coast to discuss the city the way it should be discussed: in a bar.
“I’m really interested in finding the right spaces and moments where people can have conversations,” says associate director Simon Collingwood. “And at these events conversations happen and relationships are cultivated in bars and coffee shops. So we’re going to have a bar for Sheffield.
“What I’m really happy about is that it’s not some big, brash place overlooking yachts in the harbour. It’s down an alleyway and just off the beaten track, and there’s something about it that makes it feel like the right sort of venue to be drawing people to, where we can get to know them over a coffee or a beer, and talk to them about Sheffield.”
“When you see things like the signs that point people to The Heart of The City, they’re there because people genuinely do see it like that,” says Alexis. “It’s not a criticism, but I don’t know how you would do that in Manchester – perhaps because it has four or five hearts you could point to. But Sheffield has a solidity to it, a genuine passion. We’re here by fate, by geography and family, but compared to other cities I’ve worked in Sheffield does feel different.”
Counter Context was founded by Alexis’ parents in the early nineties, at a point when growing acceptance of the need to involve communities in the development of the world around them matched up with Alexis’ father’s experiences working on infrastructure projects for British Rail.
Post-war construction efforts transformed Britain to the satisfaction of engineers, but created a landscape untouched by the ergonomic design principles that at the same time were making domestic life more liveable by putting human interactions at the centre of technology so that, say, washing machines could be used without reading a thick manual. The care taken to make ticket machines easy to use only began to spread to making the railways stations around them easy to use around the time Alexis’ family’s spare room became home to a £30 green-screen computer and Counter Context started in business.
The same approach, of identifying and meeting every possible user need in even the largest scale projects, now guides the work Counter Context does out in the places where government policies and multinational projects get real.
“We recognise that we’re not like accountants or lawyers, seen as vital to a scheme going ahead,” says Simon. “We give communications advice, and it’s still a little less clear to some people how that fits in.
“But if you only exist in your own little world working on a scheme, with your own slang and acronyms, at some point you’ll look at the bigger world around you and realise there’s nobody stood with you.”
“WE’RE HERE BY FATE, GEOGRAPHY & FAMILY, BUT COMPARED TO OTHER CITIES SHEFFIELD DOES FEEL DIFFERENT”
Planning rules, and their focus on community involvement, mean it’s no longer possible for developers to take a plan from the drawing board to the building site without encountering the general public along the way; and more developers are realising that by doing things the Counter Context way they can actually gain from opening up their processes and seriously, sincerely involving as many people as possible.
“I’ve had people shout at me, and people can get quite angry, because these are sensitive issues,” says Harriet Knowles, account manager for Counter Context’s consultation projects. “People are attached to their landscapes, to the places they walk the dog every day, and change is very upsetting; I’ve been in meetings with people who have been very upset, as well as angry.
“We try to include those people, so that they can be part of the changes in their area. There are incredibly active people working in local communities, and not only the rural ones; we’re working with a residential community next to an office development in central Manchester, where the local park has a fascinating history. The local people are really the guardians of the park, and they’ve come and shared old photos and local knowledge that has really helped the project, showing us where there might be significant archaeology or where building might be difficult.”
Consultation is not one-way; it’s not about a developer telling people what they think people want to hear. Counter Context approach consultation as a way of telling the truth about something to the people who need to know it, and then listening to their response.
“We talk a lot about openness and honesty,” says Alexis. “You have to be open and honest because in the society we live in people can find out everything anyway – there are no more secrets, and that’s how it should be.
“We go out there and try to set out clearly what a project will look like, and of course we’re positive about it; but we also explain what the impact will be, how that’s going to be managed, and how people can make a difference – a real difference. One thing we always tell clients is not to ask a question if they’re not interested in the answer. Consultation has to be sincere, and give communities the greatest opportunity to have the greatest influence.”
Telling people the right things, in the right way, at the right time, is crucial to demystifying large developments and cutting through gossip and rumour; and doing it in a creative way, through newsletters, films, websites and events, turns a traditionally dry, abrasive process into a compelling experience that encourages conversation. Once people know you’re there and willing to talk and listen, they’re happy to start talking and listening too; and the clients willing to embrace Counter Context’s methods bring their own sincerity, and their own stories, from the technological advances that support Formula 1 and make Britain a hub for hi-tech industries, to the energy impacts of Dong Energy’s offshore wind farms.
“I want to run Counter Context so that we make a difference,” says Alexis. “We’re fortunate that the clients we work with take consultation and communication seriously – they wouldn’t be working with us if they didn’t. It’s important to us that when we pick up the phone to a client, they’re genuinely interested in what we’re doing, and not just ticking a box.
“We work in support of projects that will make a positive impact on our economy and environment. There are different points of view about renewable energy, but I believe an energy recovery facility that keeps 300,000 tonnes of waste out of landfill and uses it to generate electricity has to be a good thing.
“But they can be hugely controversial, and when we worked on the communications for a facility in Staffordshire, we worked on it from 2007 to 2011 – a long process. This Christmas I was in that part of the world and went to see the result; it is a very large building, but it sits comfortably in the landscape. It’s there and it’s quietly doing its thing and has become part of the environment.
“And that’s because, by communicating with the local people over several years, by keeping them involved, we were able to make sure it was done right. And that really is what gets me up in the morning. That’s why we do it.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Sheffield, issue 1