This article is based on content originally presented at the IAP2 USA conference, with fellow IAP2 Australasia Board member Mandy Davidson.
The cost of community outrage is extensive and tangible. A few months ago, I wrote about research that put a $20 billion figure on it over the last decade. That research has been extended by the Australian National University that says the cost of community outrage (delays, project cancellations, on costs such as salaries, clean-up work and so on) is around $30 billion over the last 12 years across the Australian infrastructure sector. That’s sizeable in anyone’s book and it’s a major reason why government, ministers and the private sector are taking engaging communities seriously. But to do engagement properly, there are some critical trends I’ve observed in recent years which are important to understand.
We live in a different world than a decade or two ago. Communities these days don’t just stand by and allow companies or governments to do things they don’t agree with. There is a lack of trust in big business and in government.
On top of that, today’s communities are more likely to express their outrage and there are plenty more outlets to do this – meaning everyone is now a protestor in some way. This culmination of elements, or trends, means that anyone who turns a blind eye to community will get a nasty surprise on their project in the form of an intense avalanche of outrage, which will have serious implications for projects and the people responsible for them.
Community can de-rail projects, de-rail ministers, topple premiers, cancel projects, and cause huge job losses. This is just the start of the impact that community outrage can have with ire pointed in a certain direction. The community are experts in their local area, they understand their local area and they know what works for them.
Unfortunately, there are countless examples where people are just informed by ‘experts’ that they are getting infrastructure that isn’t consistent with their community, their lived experience, or their environment. Communities’ lived experience is just as important as technical experience. When the lived and technical are brought together, only then can we achieve the best solutions. But to do this well, we must talk to the users, understand their experience and needs and appreciate that they have value to contribute.
The political nature of projects has led to serious distrust. Trust in government has been eroded at every level – federal, state local and for many bureaucrats too. This intense distrust and cynicism of our political leaders makes it incredibly challenging to get the community on side. To do that you have to rebuild trust, you have to acknowledge there are a number of parties who have something to say and should be listened to.
There must also be a willingness to incorporate some of the community ideas into the project. Those doing the engaging must understand quickly where the level of distrust is, because this helps to decide what level of engagement needs to happen and how long that will take.
Community means friends, family, neighbours, city, suburb, land. As people become more cynical and distrustful of political institutions, government and other leaders, they tend to retreat and our communities become more important, they become sanctuaries. The real estate industry has been aware of this for years – we don’t just move to a house, we move to a neighbourhood – to our preferred community place. Placemaking and creating precincts is more prominent and those that are successful are creating a community – because that is what attracts people and what is important to them.
This has now become significant in the engagement process. So, when something threatens that, or is perceived to threaten, we react. And that reaction is significant and full of anger, suspicion and distrust.
Meaning has always been a social motivator, people are moved to action when they feel strongly about something. In the last decade though, we’ve seen this increasingly apply to infrastructure projects. Today’s society find meaning in their locality and with the people around them. It’s important for project owners, governments and senior management to be aware that these people are not just a ‘noisy minority’. People’s lives are busy and full and if they are putting time into ‘being noisy’ and pushing aside other things in their lives to do that, then it means something to them. And that needs to be taken seriously.
Social media has changed the way we seek and share information, creating a place where people can organise, agitate, validate and test ideas. Algorithms feed users’ content relevant to their beliefs which is perpetuating thinking and connecting like-minded people all over the world to share stories and engage in conversation. Everyone involved in building infrastructure needs to be on top of the trends floating through social media so they don’t come as a surprise, and so we can understand how to work with them to bring benefits to projects and communities.
The proliferation of avenues to protest, complain, give feedback means that everyone is now a protestor. In the last 12 months, almost everyone I know has protested, complained, spoken to a local MP or been a keyboard warrior about something.
Rather than ignore it, by engaging with people, finding out their values, concerns, anticipating impacts, looking at ways of mitigating those impacts, bringing them into the process and recognising the value they bring from their lived experience, we can achieve great solutions together. People may still not like the project, or trust the political leaders, but we can at least get to the point where they feel their opinions and concerns are acknowledged.
YIMBYs are the future of community action. They have accepted that the project is happening and want to make it work for their community. It’s increasingly important to work with YIMBYs, if you don’t, they can quickly become detractors. YIMBYs can help to tap into local knowledge, which can be an important piece of the jigsaw, and, in some instances, can enrich modelling and analysis to become best practice.
Rather than intimidating project owners, these trends should instead be viewed as an opportunity to engage community members on major infrastructure. As stakeholders, they can be both influential and insightful, and we must recognise their expectations and prioritise their welfare by including them in the delivery process.
Kylie Cochrane is Aurecon's Global Lead for Communication and Stakeholder Engagement and the International Chair of the International Association of Public Participation Australasia. She has almost 30 years of experience in community and stakeholder engagement, strategic communication and issues management in road, rail, water and social infrastructure.
This article is an adaptation of LinkedIn Pulse by Kylie Cochrane titled, “Top engagement trends - why they are important in major infrastructure”.