Project approvals need to step into the digital age
This glimpse of the future was crafted by: Kylie Cochrane

Our current world is more connected than ever before, thanks to the digital highways which under-arch and override our societal landscapes. The Internet and smart technology are laying fresh tracks into uncharted territories. Opportunities abound for streamlining processes and reducing cost. People can be connected and opinions gathered at a fraction of the time, drastically reducing cost and enhancing engagement. With all of this potential, isn’t it about time that the project approval and community consultation process stepped squarely in to the digital age for the benefit of all?

For project owners, community consultation is a critical and valuable part of the overall project approval process. However, it is time-consuming. 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. As our economies nervously navigate their way through the post GFC fallout, added time and cost are the last thing we need in a world that is desperate for new infrastructure.

On the flip side, who wants a monstrosity built next to them? Who wants something imposed on their neighbourhood and its quality of life? Don’t most people want to be asked what they think and be given the opportunity to provide their opinion?

Two sides of a coin that, at face value, seem 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 when it is expected?

Could the advent of all things digital streamline engagement? If community engagement went from analogue to digital – would approvals be fast-tracked; opinions synthesised faster; and project approval accelerated?

Smart project owners and governments are realising that digital strategies can supplement the traditional consultation process, with potentially game changing results.

Apps as multiple stakeholder mobilisers

With digital rewriting our points of connection; the average individual is now empowered to have an equal say in the creation of a shared space. The upgrade of Wynyard Station in Sydney is a case in point. 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. The app not only generated public support; it resolved security concerns and allowed the team to regularly communicate with a large audience via push notifications.

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.

Gaming closes the gap on comms

And whoever knew safety hazard education could be fun? Ausgrid’s vegetation management community relations program 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.

Selfies to draw in new audiences

In addition, let’s not forget the most potent sociological tool of our day: the selfie. A recent survey posing three questions to its participants and asking them to respond with a yes or no, à la selfie style, cutting out cumbersome paper trails and data entry to achieve real-time reporting and reach a formerly excluded group of the population.

Failing to think beyond our former paradigms and neglecting to redesign our community engagement processes, amplified by modern technology, could mean that we are overlooking powerful opportunities for streamlining project socialisation and acceptance. For those stuck in the past, the only game they’ll be playing is one of ‘catch up’ down the line.

What other digital tools have you seen work well in community consultation? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

(Aurecon has launched a new futuristic blog! Called Just Imagine, it provides a glimpse into the future for curious readers, exploring ideas that are probable, possible and for the imagination. This post originally appeared on Aurecon’s Just Imagine blog. Get access to the latest blog posts as soon as they are published by subscribing to the blog.)

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