The team at Copper have waited with bated breath for the today’s first tranche of the UK’s 2021 census data. Why the anticipation? Data underpins our approach and the latest population statistics will impact all of our work, from economic development in the UK’s towns and cities to the size, scale and composition of the communities we engage with in support of some the UK’s largest infrastructure projects.  

The 2021 Census – Two Hundred Years of Change 

Apart from being a core data source for Copper, UK census data is essential for understanding the population, monitoring and predicting change and for planning and delivering key services. Whatever way you look at it, the development of UK infrastructure and UK census data are deeply entwined.  

The first census took place in 1801 and counted a total population of 8.9 million across England and Wales, which is only slightly more than the population of London (8.8 million) according to the latest census figures.  

Today, the population for England and Wales the largest it has ever been, standing at 59,597,300 people (which is an increase of 6.3% over the last decade), and the latest figures show pockets of huge population growth in London including 22.1% percentage increase in population of Tower Hamlets, which is the biggest increase across England and Wales.  

While population statistics continue to change with the passage of time, the design, methodology and implementation of the census has changed with the times too – which is something we can learn from in infrastructure.  

Data collection of this size and scale is seldom easy, and the 2021 census was set against a backdrop not seen for a century. Faced with the challenge of balancing data collection with public health and safety, the 2021 census became the first of its kind– the UK’s inaugural digital-first census.  

Participants were encouraged to respond online using mobile phones, laptops, PCs and tablets. To facilitate this support the Office of National Statistics offered extensive user assistance including online support, help by email, social media, text message and a webchat facility.  

Aside from data collection, the 2021 census was also strong on equality, diversity and inclusion, something that Copper champions both internally and externally.  

The 2021 census included new voluntary questions on sexual orientation and gender identity for people aged 16 years and over, and it was the first census to count same-sex marriages and same-sex civil partnerships (following the introduction of new legislation in 2014 and 2019).   

The 2021 Census – More Than Statistics 

So apart from being the most accurate source of data, which will shape projections and predictions of the UK for a decade – what else can we learn from the 2021 census?  

Digital-first, not digital only  

We’re proud to have paved the way in delivering the UK’s first compliant digital-first consultation for the London Resort. Since then, we’ve seen a move across our industry to put greater emphasis on digital consultation, but we’re cautious that this approach doesn’t replace townhalls, relationship building and other important tools within the consultation arsenal.  

Amid the drive to provide digital access to consultation materials, there are things we can do better to improve the digital-first consultation experience. Using a combination of data and digital we can differentiate elements of the consultation process including:  

  • the way in which we collect consultation data; 
  • the type of content we produce; and  
  • the way in which we deliver content.  

By working in this way, we can increase participation and engagement and still deliver compliant consultation 

EDI(II) – Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Infrastructure 

Equality, diversity and inclusion is integral to Copper’s way of working and company culture. We have modified our questionnaires so that they are more inclusive of gender and identity, and we think about how we can be more diverse and inclusive in the content we produce for various audiences. 

The latest census data will provide a new benchmark to measure from regarding sexual orientation and gender identity and we must use this data to inform our strategies and content for the audiences we engage with.  

Final Thoughts 

Considering the amount of data we produce as an industry, we still haven’t quite tapped into utilising the potential that data holds for projects we support through comms and engagement, now and in the future. Despite lagging behind other industries in our use and application of data, we know there’s an appetite and ambition to catch-up – and we’re excited to work with partners and clients to move our industry forward. 

Alongside voter registration data and party membership files, census data is one of fundamental datasets that drives targeting and voter outreach in election campaigns and referenda. In many instances, the projects we work on take the form of mini-referenda with pockets of support and opposition, and often the majority undecided or uninformed.  

By combining census data and other datasets (like the data we collect as part of the consultation process or through other research activities) we can create additional layers of insight which will contribute to a greater understanding of the audiences we engage with now, and help us identify patterns for the projects of the future.