How does fact cross a sea of fiction?

Garth Rowland Garth Rowland
Principal, Buildings Structures
Melissa Creber Melissa Creber
NSW Lead (acting), Communication & Stakeholder Engagement
9 November 2021
5 min read

Instant coffee, fast food, Alexa, overnight success. And now, instant experts – thanks to the throne on which social media and Google searches are firmly seated. An instant or armchair expert is quite the misnomer, as becoming an expert (from the Latin expertus, meaning ‘to experience’) requires something that many people are not willing to give... time. Lots of it.

We are an instant gratification species who want everything now and are used to getting it too. And yet for all our ‘instant-ness,’ we are painfully lacking mindfulness. Attention spans are so short today that information is scoffed down in tasty one-liner click bait headlines, the rest of the article partially digested at best.

It’s like we’re feeding on intellectual junk-food and expecting fit and agile minds to pop out on the other side. With just a quick Google search, a likeminded following on Facebook can now potentially discredit real experts who have studied and dedicated their careers to a particular field.

The question of what is true and false and how we discern between the two is an existential one. But it’s a question that begs for an answer as the line between fact and fiction gets blurrier by the minute.

In a world where almost everyone has the power to say and share whatever they want (whether it’s true or not), we are seeing every kind of strangeness carving out its own little place in the sun. Hypotheses, doctrines, ideologies, philosophies, theories and conspiracies. Which are which?

Healthy debate is the lifeblood of critical thinking. The ability to contemplate a topic or situation from multiple angles shows a certain intellectual and emotional maturity; it’s even fun to do and helps us drive better decisions. But there is a stark difference between expertise and opinion, and each should not be mistaken for the other. Conspiracy theories, formed by doubts and skepticism, must be addressed especially when it concerns the safety of humanity and when it halts invaluable progress.

How can engineers, scientists and technical experts steer their intended messages across when our modern world changes more rapidly than we have time to map it out? With over 4.72 billion internet users in the world, how can we make sure the message we want to convey is correctly received and not derailed into an online rabbit hole with the first ill-informed tweet?

First impressions last

When it comes to new engineering projects, experts tend to discuss everything in great detail – from planning, financing, material and construction techniques. And more often than not, stakeholder engagement and community consultation are seen as the responsibilities (or problems) of the communication officer and only becomes an add on later in the project.

However, it is becoming increasingly clear that genuine community engagement needs to form part of the engineer’s design process. To a great degree, the rise of social media is demanding this. Without effective communication from the outset, negative perceptions of a new project can spread quicker than you can grab your tinfoil hat. And if you lose control of the narrative, it can be near impossible to right the ship.

After a 50-year battle, the French government abandoned its plans for a new Nantes airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes in the face of ongoing fierce public opposition. Engagement is not just a side-issue. Failure to obtain buy-in before digging in has delayed or scrapped projects all over the world. In Australia alone, delays, cancellations and ‘mothballing’ due to community pressure has costed more than $30 billion over the past decade.

First impressions last and it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to remove stigma, both real and perceived. London’s “wobbly bridge” is such an example. The Millennium Bridge was so nicknamed after unexpected lateral vibration caused the bridge to wobble so badly that pedestrians literally fell over as they tried to cross it. It was closed for two years for modifications costing about $8.9 million. The fact that it hasn’t wobbled in almost twenty years is seemingly irrelevant – the name stuck.

Closer to home, Frank Gehry’s building for the University of Technology Sydney Business School was introduced at the opening by Australia’s then Governor General Peter Cosgrove as “the most beautiful squashed brown paper bag I’ve ever seen” and the moniker has stuck even if many like the design.

Reinforcement

A first impression or certain perception can be further exacerbated by the phenomenon of confirmation bias, which can be dangerous especially if we get off on the wrong foot. Our beliefs are often strengthened by favouring information that upholds them, while at the same time tending to ignore information that challenges them. And with a globally connected social media world, finding someone to agree with your point of view is alarmingly easy no matter the view.

Confirmation bias not only impacts how we gather information, but also how we interpret and recall information. It also doesn’t only affect our personal beliefs. Professionals like doctors can misdiagnose because they jump to a particular hypothesis and will seek to confirm that diagnosis while overlooking evidence that shows the contrary. And if doctors can become susceptible, the inferences for the general population are large.

Social media has made it possible for everyone to have their opinions and beliefs affirmed no matter how fringe or bizarre they might be. Comprehensive and near unanimous scientific support of climate change has not swayed some of the most ardent deniers, let alone the flat earthers among us devoted to a theory which is inconceivable to most. It has therefore become imperative for engineers and experts to be able to forecast alternate views and theories in a manner that dissipates the risk before it becomes a reality.

For engineers, designing beams and columns is easy, but communicating can be hard. When purpose is not communicated properly, good design would not be enough for most people, no matter how genius it is. It is one part of a larger narrative and how that story is communicated is imperative for the success of the project.

We still want experts

The designer, engineer and advisory experts of the future will need to be well-rounded professionals who can think beyond their technical disciplines. It has been shown that people don’t think their way to logical solutions but rather feel their way to reason and that emotions constitute the foundation on which almost all decisions are made.

Engineers will have to learn how to connect with hearts as well as heads, working with their experienced engagement colleagues to make the complex simple when communicating with their intended customers, users, and communities.

At the end of the day, it is trust that needs to be cultivated. And new research shows that empathy is the quickest and best way to do this. When designing for the community, the community’s needs – articulated by them not inferred by us – should not only come before technical aspects, they should be integrated in the process.

Understanding where resistance and hesitations are coming from is a critical part of community and stakeholder engagement. It opens a dialogue between experts and end users, and allows them to co-create solutions together leading to better outcomes for all.

Communities shouldn’t only get sold an idea of a project after it has been planned and discussed, their voice should be respected and form part of the design process. After all, they may bring a unique perspective that technical experts don't have. People don’t lose trust in truth; they lose trust in people. So, let’s restore that trust and co-create a design that balances engineering with people’s lived experience by bridging the communication gap between the two.

Click here to subscribe to Just Imagine.

Garth Rowland
Written by
Garth Rowland

Garth enjoys spending time with his wife and three kids and staying active through hiking, running and family rides.

Melissa Creber
Written by
Melissa Creber

Melissa is curious by nature, lives in Sydney, and loves reading and travel. She’ll be the first to admit that she probably spends too much time on social media.


Unfortunately, you are using a web browser that Aurecon does not support.

Please change your browser to one of the options below to improve your experience.

Supported browsers: