Global consulting engineering expert Aurecon communication and stakeholder engagement global lead Kylie Cochrane posits that it is time that the project approval and community consultation process step squarely into the digital age, for the benefit of all.
She indicates that, for project owners, community consultation is a critical and valuable part of the overall project approval process. However, it is time-consuming and project developers all have stories about the impact of approvals and consultation on their project viability. Delays, appeals and redesigns all add time and cost, which can stifle investment and stall economic buoyancy.
She emphasises that, with economies “nervously” navigating their way through the post global financial crisis fallout, added time and costs are the last things that are needed in a world that is desperate for new infrastructure.
However, she acknowledges that, on the other hand, most people may not want a “monstrosity” built right next to them; they do not want something imposed onto their neighbourhood and affecting their quality of life. She indicates that, usually, people want to be asked what they think, and then to be given the opportunity to provide their opinion on whether alternatives exist.
“The process of consultation and the world of digital social media seem to be two sides of a coin that are, at face value, inexorably at odds. But does it have to be that way. In an age of big data, selfies, tweets and immersive visualisation, could digital engagement bridge the gap between divided opinions or at the very least, move the dial on timelines so that the future arrives quicker than expected?”
Cochrane hypothesises regarding whether the advent of all things digital could streamline engagement. She wonders, if community engagement went from analogue to digital, approvals could be fast-tracked, opinions synthesised faster, and project approval accelerated.
He informs that smart project owners and governments are realising that digital strategies can supplement the traditional consultation process, with potentially game changing results.
Cochrane says, with the digital era rewriting our points of connection, the average individual is now empowered to have an equal say in the creation of a shared space. She points to the upgrade of Wynyard Station in Sydney, Australia, as an example. Using a custom smartphone app to communicate with its time-poor and tech-savvy audience, the app offered its users a glimpse into the future look and feel of the station during the design phase.
She enthuses that, not only did the app generate public support, it also resolved security concerns and allowed the team to regularly communicate with a large audience through push notifications.
Moreover, she says, taken a step further, photo realistic visualisations can now be produced in a matter of days using powerful gaming engines. These would give a project’s end-user (the community) virtual ‘driveability’ of a project model long before construction.
Cochrane also highlights the opportunities presented by safety hazard education. She points to Ausgrid’s vegetation management community relations programme, which found a way of turning a lesson on vegetation management into a virtual game of arson. Using augmented reality (AR) helped the project team to demonstrate that precaution should be taken when planting trees around power lines.
Through AR goggles, participants were able to ‘see’ a virtual tree and virtual powerline in the ‘real world’. Another participant then moved specifically designed markers linked to these virtual elements, setting the virtual tree on fire if placed too close to the virtual powerline. The game was a success – translating a simple message about safety through activity-based engagement.