For C&SE leader Belinda Coleman, 3 key themes emerged from ARA's Light Rail 2019 about the benefits of an integrated engagement strategy.


Engagement, digital tools, and fresh perspectives – key takeaways from Light Rail 2019

At the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) Light Rail 2019 conference, key issues such as the importance of communication and early engagement of customers, stakeholders, and governments were considered by a panel of industry experts.

For Belinda Coleman, Aurecon’s Queensland and Northern Territory Lead for Communication and Stakeholder Engagement, three key themes emerged about the benefits of an integrated engagement strategy.

1. The earlier the better

The consensus across all panel members and delegates was that the earlier we commence conversations with our stakeholders and customer groups, the higher chance we have of bringing them with us on the journey of change, building trust and maintaining our social licence. The risk associated with not doing so, or leaving engagement to later in the process, can often result in the derailing of projects which can cause delays, cost blowouts, and sometimes even project cancellations due to community outrage.

Customers and community members will generally travel the full change cycle of sentiment when they are impacted by infrastructure projects. This is characterised by early scepticism, enthusiasm, frustration, confidence, and eventually adoption. However, if not managed well, projects can find their customers and community members stuck in a cycle of frustration, negatively impacting timelines and a project’s bottom line.

By undertaking early benchmarking through a social impact assessment, a communication strategy that derives the best cut-through for your project can be achieved. This includes allowing you a deeper understanding of your target audience and knowledge of critical elements such as which communication channels they turn to for facts and information, and importantly what their key concerns and pain points might be. This understanding allows you to deliver outstanding results such as those achieved by Aurecon and NSW Roads and Maritime Services on the Batemans Bay Bridge Replacement Project.

2. Digital delivers

Advances in digital technology mean that we have fantastic tools at our disposal to better communicate and engage with our audiences. This opens a raft of channels to engage with specific needs groups, different demographics and allows us to communicate a project’s vision in a more accessible way.

They say a picture tells a thousand words. Combining digital tools that utilise your projects’ existing designs, such as augmented reality or 360-degree video, and traditional communication tools for engagement, such as flyers, web content and surveys can allow stakeholders to experience infrastructure in ways they never have before. The impact of this immersive approach was seen during the construction of the Wynyard Station upgrade in Sydney where Aurecon, as part of the NovoRail Alliance, developed the award winning NovoView App. This app was part of an integrated communication and engagement strategy that ensured continued communication with commuters, business owners and community members and allowed Sydney’s second busiest station to remain operational throughout the construction process. 

And the benefits are significant: reduced risk; faster approval; fewer cost blowouts; increased positive profile for the project; and potentially even the emergence of community advocates.

Whether to communicate and gain feedback on draft designs, to consult with stakeholders throughout construction or to assist and educate end-users upon project completion, a whole of project solution is always going to result in a more positively engaged community, reducing risk for a project and resulting in a better outcome for all. While it can often be daunting to start communication and engagement so early on, use of digital tools and careful messaging will help manage community and customer expectations.

Aurecon’s Communication and Stakeholder Engagement specialists work side-by-side with our digital advisory and engineering counterparts to ensure a cohesive and well-integrated project solution for the projects that we work on. Our approach is unique, and has been recognised as industry leading being the recipient of five awards at the 2018 International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) Core Values Awards and an additional two awards at the 2018 Consult Australia Awards for Excellence.

3. Sometimes a hurdle is just a matter of perception

The final takeaway is that perceived constraints should always be challenged. Old school approaches based on how things have always been done miss the opportunity to create better outcomes – financially, socially, environmentally. An advantage of early engagement using fresh thinking like Aurecon’s User Centred Design approach is that we can provide useful insights to how your end users will ultimately interact with the product that could help inform the design decisions and build a better product overall.

At Aurecon our talented team of Communication and Digital superstars work alongside our innovative Engineering specialists to engage differently and bring our clients’ ideas to life.

It’s important for practitioners and experts in the transport industry to be involved in seminars and conferences like this one organised by ARA, which encourage and facilitate discussions on how the stakeholders can be served better.

About the Author

Belinda Coleman is Aurecon's QLD/NT Lead for Communication and Stakeholder Engagement. A recognised expert in her field, she has successfully developed, implemented, and evaluated stakeholder engagement strategies within fast-paced and complex environments. Her global experience covers not-for-profit organisations and the government, infrastructure, construction, health, and education sectors.

Originally published as LinkedIn Pulse, “Early engagement and major infrastructure – tools, timing and other takeaways” by Belinda Coleman.

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