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Accelerating digitisation for an improved stakeholder engagement experience

The urbanisation of our global population is expected to continue according to the World Health Organisation, and Geospatial & Digital Delivery Consultant at Aurecon Callum Smith believes that streamlined visualisation solutions is the way forward to more effectively engage with stakeholders when designing urban infrastructure to accommodate our expanding cities.

According to a 2017 United Nations report, 55 per cent of the global population currently reside in urban areas and this is predicted to increase to 68 per cent by 2050. This will place an exponential reliance on ageing municipal infrastructure.

Governments, asset owners and operators and developers need to adapt quickly in order to sustainably fast-track developments, with adequate spatial planning, to ensure that new, updated or better urban infrastructure becomes available for swelling urban populations.

Moreover, the New Zealand Government has recently committed an investment of $12bn in infrastructure. Priority areas include transport, health, and decarbonisation of current assets across the country. Whilst this presents resourcing and programme challenges, the investment provides certainty surrounding the future pipeline of infrastructure projects, allowing the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industries to more comfortably invest in efficiency-improving technologies such as accelerated digitisation.

Digitisation for stakeholder engagement

Essential to the planning of any major infrastructure project is active stakeholder and community engagement during the concept phase to ensure the right objectives are achieved. Ongoing consultation is also important during the delivery phase to ensure continued stakeholder and community buy-in.

Advanced visualisation, such as virtual reality or augmented reality applications, can be applied to engage with stakeholders to obtain feedback and buy-in for large infrastructure projects. However, due to budget constraints, traditional stakeholder engagement with visualisation would normally only allow one visualisation application as a blanket solution for all stakeholders.

As part of his masters’ research, Geospatial and Digital Delivery Consultant, Callum Smith, researched how a modular and automated approach to advanced digital visualisation could be used to enhance stakeholder engagement, improve engineering design processes and accelerate infrastructure development. This would be achieved by developing a workflow that could produce multiple visualisation applications in the same or less amount of time than that of traditional means takes to produce one.

Engineering industry professionals with backgrounds in a variety of technical areas including stakeholder engagement, visualisation, digital engineering and geospatial science, were interviewed during Smith’s research. They were asked if the development of automated visualisation tools could improve stakeholder engagement throughout the infrastructure development lifecycle.

Survey respondents agreed that visualisation outputs that respond to the different needs of stakeholder groups could lead to improved stakeholder engagement and a more efficient engineering design process, and that these could have a lasting and positive impact on infrastructure development.

The need for an efficient visualisation workflow

One of Smith’s motivations as part of his masters research was his practical experience in tailoring visualisation outputs for major engineering projects, enabling meaningful and efficient stakeholder engagement.

However, Callum started to wonder if this repetitive task of aggregating and converting data could be automated and provide a more seamless approach to producing advanced visualisations for all stakeholders. His research investigates an automated geoprocessing workflow that offers a range of visualisation outputs that can be deployed on major infrastructure developments to support stakeholder engagement.

Callum wanted to investigate the opportunity to accelerate the production of virtual reality, augmented reality and visualisation outputs for more meaningful and efficient stakeholder engagement. The reality is that not every stakeholder group for a large infrastructure project has the same needs or level of digital capability.

Rather than relying on a blanket visualisation solution for all stakeholders, Callum designed a geoprocessing workflow that outputs different visualisation applications from the same set of input data. The result is tailored visualisation applications to suit different stakeholder needs.

The geoprocessing workflow collects or harvests digital project data to produce multiple visual outputs, which enables project leaders to more efficiently and effectively engage with disparate audiences of public and industry stakeholders. Traditionally, this project data is complex and needs to be simplified so that it was easily understandable by all stakeholder groups. This was a consideration which Callum needed to keep in mind throughout his research.

The geoprocessing workflow was prototyped as an easy-to-use application with a ‘drag and drop’ interface accessible via a weblink using a georeferenced digital information model as the input. The user then specifies how much contextual data needs to be generated and selects the desired visualisation output/s. The digital workbench processes the data and models and then outputs tailored visualisation applications to suit different stakeholder groups.

The four different visualisation outputs investigated by Smith were a virtual reality environment, augmented reality application, ArcGIS online web scene and a Minecraft (gamification) world:

  • Virtual reality (VR) environment: Immersive sensory experience that digitally simulates a remote environment
  • Augmented reality application: An application where 3D models are directly projected onto physical objects or environments, sometimes using audio and touch sensors, and glasses or headsets
  • ArcGIS online web scene: Geographic information system (GIS) output for viewing the contextual engineering data alongside the engineering and architectural design model
  • Minecraft/Gamification: A game-simulated application to encourage interactive engagement based on building or discovery

Smith’s interview respondents overwhelmingly agreed that this geoprocessing workflow would have a positive impact on stakeholder engagement for infrastructure development. Respondents agreed that the value of this geoprocessing workflow was a more streamlined process and tailored approach to digitisation which facilitated better results for our clients.

This geoprocessing workflow will have a positive impact on the engineering design processes and therefore infrastructure development

Geoprocessing workflow chart

Smith’s research was exploratory in nature and considered several large infrastructure projects as case studies for the workflow process validation.

Application on a bus and rail interchange in New Zealand

Puhinui Interchange in New Zealand is to become a major bus and rail interchange to enhance public transport connectivity to and from Auckland Airport and the surrounding areas.

Smith was part of the Aurecon team that worked with Jasmax Architects on the interchange design for Auckland Transport.

He used Puhinui Interchange as a theoretical test case for his geoprocessing workflow. The functionality of the workflow was tested on the digital information model developed for the Puhinui Interchange.

This produced positive results in the form of the four visualisation outputs with overwhelmingly positive feedback from Smith’s survey respondents. They noted that the flexibility offered by the geoprocessing workflow would be an asset on future infrastructure projects and enable visualisation of engineering designs in a way that effectively engages a range of stakeholders and integrates their perspectives into design reviews.

Remembering that stakeholders may become end-users

While people are considered stakeholders during the process of infrastructure development, many (such as residents or local business owners) will become the end users of that infrastructure once it’s built.

AEC firms are always on the lookout for digital approaches that ensure engineering solutions produce the right outcomes and are as efficient as possible. The geoprocessing workflow identified in Smith’s research facilitates the output of different visualisation experiences to improve engagement with all stakeholder groups.

The global megatrend of urbanisation is creating huge demand for private and public-sector infrastructure development, and investment in major projects is only likely to increase. A workflow that enables better engagement with stakeholders, elicits their perspectives and incorporates their feedback into engineering designs will be of benefit to infrastructure development.

The approach of using accelerated visualisation approaches to clearly explain the project in a visual way helps to gather stakeholder perspectives, accelerate stakeholder buy-in, and enhance the overall stakeholder experience.

Smith concludes that streamlined visualisation solutions can rapidly transform the way that large infrastructure project teams engage with stakeholders. He believes that we should embrace streamlined visualisation solutions and apply it in ways that benefit people, projects and places now and into the future.

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About the author

Callum Smith is a geospatial consultant with Aurecon. He finds new ways to implement geospatial solutions on infrastructure projects as well as integrating GIS with digital engineering and engineering designs. He’s constantly finding innovative ways to improve digital delivery and capability on projects from a geospatial, visualisation and data management perspective.

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