Community Engagement Innovation for Infrastructure Projects

July 27th, 2018

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the inaugural National Community Engagement in Infrastructure Forum conference. (We also sponsored and helped organise the conference – a nice opportunity to give back to the profession I have been working in for the last couple of decades.)

I spoke on the topic of innovation in relation to data management and reporting – topics dear to my heart. Below is a little summary of some of the key discussion points I raised in my presentation.

Why Innovate?

To solve persistent or complex problems. Creating something completely new, or using new and current resources in a more innovative way. Ofcourse it also helps ensure that you are keeping up with the times, and staying a step ahead of the pack.

Innovation is really all about doing something better than it’s already being done.

What Drives Innovation in Community Engagement?

  • Changing community expectations
  • Government regulations
  • Technological advancements

We looked at how much has changed with the technology around managing and implementing a community engagement program, in particular for infrastructure projects.

Community Engagement Innovation for Infrastructure Projects

Changing government regulations and standards are also driving change. In particular the new GDPR privacy legislation that was introduced in the European Union has some significant implications for consultation processes (Read our e-book on this topic if you’d like to know more).

And last but by no means least, is the enabling force of changing community expectations. While community expectations have risen dramatically over the last 20-30 years, as information has become more accessible via the internet, social media, and more. However, there has also been a recent decrease in the level of trust the community has for it’s government and political processes – and I wonder if that creates a decline in the expectations the community has of engagement processes. At the same time we have seen dramatic increases in the size of the communications/community relations/engagement teams working on infrastructure projects, and the size of  budgets that are being spent on engagement. Has that resulted in the narrowing of the gap between expectation and what we deliver?

Challenges – areas that need innovation

  • Evaluation – We still don’t have any Industry Benchmarks. As a result most projects are still measuring the number of complaints (and coming up with very ‘creative’ definitions of complaints). We need to be measuring and reporting on outcomes and meaningful measures of the engagement process that go beyond the basic number counts.
  • Efficiency – how to manage large scale consultation programs better. We need software systems and tools that ‘do more of the work’ for us (this was the challenge that led to us creating our new software Simply Stakeholders!)
  • How to deliver personalised service that is not just transactional
  • Skill shortage as a result of the boom in infrastructure projects – what tools can we give young professionals in this area that can better equip them to run robust engagement and consultation processes, and provide reporting at a meaningful level?

Emerging Points of Innovation

We looked at some emerging areas of innovation in community engagement, in particular some solutions around:

  • Artificial intelligence/machine learning
  • Participation at a greater scale
  • Virtual reality

My Innovation Journey

My journey with innovation in the Community Engagement and technology space started with the following challenges I observed in my work as a stakeholder engagement practitioner and consultant:

Challenge: Get information to the decision makers in formats they can work with
Extract more value out of the data that big consultation and engagement programs generate
Demonstrate transparency in how feedback influences the decisions

From that starting point I began to investigate qualitative analysis, and Darzin Stakeholder Management software was the result.

Recently we’ve been investigating artificial intelligence and machine learning to see how we could apply that to stakeholder management. We experimented with chatbots a couple of years ago and decided that natural language processing was not yet advanced enough for them to be of much use (yet!) in the community engagement space.

Our recent exploration of new advances with artificial intelligence has resulted in us creating a new stakeholder management solution called Simply Stakeholders – an elegantly simple solution. Read more about it here.

No doubt the innovation journey will continue, led in part by our clients and in part by our natural curiosity and desire to ‘do better’.