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How to Keep Even the Most Disgruntled Neighbors Happy


Keeping a project’s program on track is crucial, which is why managing community engagement effectively is so important. As Kylie Cochrane, Aurecon’s Managing Principal, Communication and Stakeholder Engagement, tells Jobsite, community outrage is capable of derailing both a project’s workflow and its site.

There are many ways community members can express their disgruntlement about a major infrastructure or general construction project, she explains. They range from civil disobedience including on-site protests, interrupting workers on site or at the company office to making complaints to local authorities or government agencies. People can also resort to stirring up emotion around a project through letters to newspapers, organising protests aimed at the end client, or attempting to involve a politician in their cause.

All of these actions can and do disrupt schedules and can have cost impacts as well, Cochrane says.

Another reason effective community engagement matters is the team on site need to be able to concentrate on their roles. Therefore,  it is important to have dedicated people specifically managing the engagement task.

“Women and men working on site have a job to do that does not include having to deal with angry people,” says Cochrane.

“Women and men working on site have a job to do that does not include having to deal with angry people,” says Cochrane.

Cochrane says it is important to recognise that with any project, there is a community of people, residents and local businesses amongst them, that will be impacted. Since this is the case, there needs to be a channel for them to have a conversation with the project team.

A good starting point is coming from the perspective that “we should be building infrastructure that lives with the community, rather than infrastructure the community has to live with.”

Framing the goals of engagement this way can be as simple as accepting that there might be good reasons people in the affected community want works or at least particularly disruptive works, undertaken only within specific hours.

There may be a local who needs the driveway free so they can get an elderly parent to the hospital in case of an emergency. Another may have a newborn and need two hours of quiet respite a day. There might be an HSC student nearby who needs a quiet period from 3pm-6pm to study.

“It is important to be humane about a project and consider how people live and work in the area,” Cochrane says. “I often say to project teams, ‘pretend you are building this next door to your grandmother or parents-in-law’.”

The key is to be courteous, respectful and aware.

She says that when teams are holding a meeting about the project to have the conversations with affected neighbours, they can present options. For instance, they can either do noisy or disruptive works in a compressed timeframe of one month, or they can spread those works over a few months by scheduling a couple of hours of disruptive works each day for that entire period.

“If you have a meeting [like that], nine out of ten times you get an outcome that makes sense for everyone,” she says. “If you involve impacted communities in these decisions, then you are not going to get as many complaints.”

It helps to identify which activities are critical path ones and which can be tackled with greater flexibility to address community needs and concerns.

The benefit of managing an ongoing dialogue is that it builds a project’s social capital. This is something you can bank on, Cochrane says, so that when or if things go wrong, there is more tolerance in the community for the extra noise, extended timeframe, or other complication.

The benefit of managing an ongoing dialogue is that it builds a project’s social capital.

It is the element of surprise which is “most likely to get people’s backs up,” Cochrane says.

Aurecon has been finding new and innovative ways to utilise digital technologies to improve community engagement.

One example was a bridge project in a tourist town in regional New South Wales, where an old bridge with one lane each way had reached the end of its functional life and was also proving to be a congestion point during the peak tourist season in January.

Outside of that peak, the majority of residents were young families and retirees with professional backgrounds. Cochrane says the popular wisdom was that retirees don’t like using digital media, but Aurecon proved that wrong.

One of the issues the community had was they were unable to visualise the new bridge and were concerned about its aesthetic implications. Conventional images and renders were not enabling them to “see” the bridge well enough, Cochrane explains. So the engagement team used virtual reality to create a visualisation in the form of a 3D film that showed the new bridge in situ. When locals donned the VR glasses, they could experience how the bridge would look in 3D and with a 360-degree perspective.

“That really helped the community, and the fear it would stand out was laid to rest,” Cochrane says. The community recognised it would actually be a positive visual asset for the town.

Another recent project where digital tools have been invaluable is on a major station upgrade in Sydney’s CBD. Around 100,000 people use the station every day—and the engagement needed to consistently communicate with users about changes to station access and operations during works.

One of the complications of the project is the work site “kept moving” throughout the program. Depending on which part of the station was the focus of works, there were multiple sites at any given time all with varying works timeframes ranging from 24 hours to a number of weeks.

Access and wayfinding were also constantly changing as a result.

Traditional methods, such as posters, brochures, signage and staff using loud hailers, were considered. However, the team recognised that using VR technology could be a powerful tool, by giving people a view of how the station would actually look at different stages.

The team also developed an app that enabled messages about work locations and access arrangements to be sent almost on an individual basis.

Those who downloaded the app would receive a message as the train approached the platform alerting them to the access and wayfinding arrangements for that specific date and time.

The initiative leveraged the one thing all the station users had in common—a phone and use of the station itself.

Cochrane says that the team received great feedback from users.

The initiative leveraged the one thing all the station users had in common—a phone and use of the station itself.

Digital technology was also used to meet the needs of staff and visitors of the Blind Society, who has an office near the station.

A 3D printer was used to create 3D models of the three key stages of works, so they could become familiar with the changes through a tactile experience. Both the VR and the 3D modelling were built from the BIM model developed for the project’s engineering and construction.

Cochrane says it did not take significant resources to translate the BIM model into the engagement tools.

According to Cochrane, one of the great advantages of digital approaches is they can “overcome tribalism.” Traditional reference groups and stakeholder engagement processes, such as meetings, while they have their place still, may not be accessible and inclusive enough.

“A reference group needs to be one of many tools,” Cochrane says. “Digital tools give additional elements and take away many barriers.”

They enable users to use them at their own discretion, so engagement happens at times that suit them. Moreover, they can also be developed in a manner that makes them easy to use, Cochrane says.

Aurecon has, for example, been using a “swipEngage” digital research tool on some projects.

Based on the functionality of the dating app Tinder, it can be accessed from a mobile or tablet and presents users with up to a dozen questions they answer by swiping left or right.

“A reference group needs to be one of many tools,” Cochrane says. “Digital tools give additional elements and take away many barriers.”

The whole process takes about three to five minutes, Cochrane says.

The swipe and tap method is combined with the use of emojis so users can “rate” answers or aspects of the survey. Cochrane points out that this also makes the process more accessible for those with low levels of literacy or those for whom English is not their primary language.

There is also a role for platform-based digital tools in engagement, such as Facebook, Twitter and project websites.

“A good social media strategy is critical to today’s engagement practice,” Cochrane says. “Our communities use social media, so we don’t have a choice. We need to have a presence there.”

Where social media attracts critical or negative comments, Cochrane says she finds the best approach is to tackle the facts but not the emotion.

“By this, I mean correct anything that is factually incorrect, but don’t debate the philosophy of a project.”


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