Aurecon’s Kylie Cochrane talks to Roads & Infrastructure Magazine about the role of social media and digital technology in community and stakeholder engagement on infrastructure projects and how this has changed the dynamic of project delivery.
The aftermath of the Florida Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in the US in February saw a massive youth presence take part in the nation-wide March for Our Lives gun control rallies.
The Washington D.C rally on 24 March was estimated to have drawn nearly 200,000 protesters, according to news reports at the time, with another nearly 800 estimated marches being held concurrently across the nation.
In an article published the next day, The New Yorker stated: “Regardless of its long-term effects, the March for Our Lives is the first major statement by Americans born after 1999, who have presented a new template for protest”. That new template is social media.
According to data from consumer insights firm Crimson Hexagon, on the day of March for Our Lives people tweeted #MarchForOurLives nearly 4 million times.
Even before the march, the rallying cry was evident through social media on National Walkout Day in 14 March – a day for students to leave the classroom to protest. Crimson Hexagon data found that National Walkout Day generated a total of 1.3 million social posts the day of the event.
Social media showed it isn’t just a tool to disseminate information, but also a platform to evoke action, unity, and subsequently, change.
For Kylie Cochrane, Global Lead for Communication and Stakeholder Engagement at Aurecon, the advent of social media and other digital platforms have certainly changed an array of aspects of society as a whole, particularly around engagement and communication.
“I’ve got a theory called the Social Triangle – every single region and country fits into this theory,” she states. “Think about a triangle with three different points and each one represents a key idea that relates to a society. The first is politics, political leaders, policies; the second is religion, spirituality, religious discourse; and the third is community. People define community in terms of people – friends and family – or in terms of place – my house, my street, my town.”
Ms. Cochrane explains that, under her theory, these three points make up a society. However, recent events and their amplification through digital mediums and social media have seen the dynamics of this model shift.
“Every single country or region has gone through political turmoil in the past decade, so there is a level of distrust and concern with authority,” she explains.
“You then look at religious institutions, which have seen more people break away from them in the past five years,” she says. “Even in Australia, according to the latest Census data, there were a large number of people in response to a question about religion who said they haven’t walked away from faith, but they have walked away from their religious institution.
“Really, what we then have left for the majority of our society is the third point, which is community. What we have left to identify with is our sense of people and place and that has had a large impact, particularly on infrastructure in its broader sense.”
Social media and other digital mediums have become integral communications platforms for governments and businesses to engage with the community, particularly through infrastructure projects and service delivery.
Ms. Cochrane says the uptake of such mediums has had a significant impact on how infrastructure is delivered. She talks to Roads & Infrastructure Magazine about the role of social media and digital technology in project community and stakeholder engagement and how this has changed the dynamics of infrastructure project delivery.
“When we look at any infrastructure projects across Australia and New Zealand it’s met with cynicism and distrust – people are automatically wary and sometimes it can be met with level of outrage,” Ms. Cochrane asserts.
She says the general consensus as to how people vent these frustrations is socially, and through social media, which has seen incremental change in communications approaches on infrastructure projects.
It’s no longer a case of writing a letter to a government, but a quick post on social media. To adapt to this, governments and organisations have had to embrace the digital platform to address public concerns or comments directly and immediately
“Five years ago, social media on government projects wasn’t common. Today, I can’t think of a single infrastructure project – whether roads or rail or other linear infrastructure – that doesn’t have social media activity around it.”
Whether it is someone directly affected by a project because of its proximity to their house, an individual whose commute is affected by work or even a general interested party, this conversation is taking place increasingly online.
“These different impacts have combined to change the way we need to respond to community outrage and to consult on projects in real-time,” Ms. Cochrane says.
“It makes my job challenging and exciting at the same time,” she says, citing the balancing act that takes place between social media immediacy and providing full-depth community information and public engagement.
Ms. Cochrane says social media provides a 24-hour cycle of accessible information for users, and the expectations of that immediacy create a totally different issue for government and businesses delivering infrastructure projects and services.
“If stakeholders don’t get responses from the communications team within 24 hours now, that’s not normal – a response needs to be well within that timeframe,” she says. “Is it reasonable for someone to expect a response on the weekend? If the service is provided on the weekend then a response is definitely expected in that timeframe.
“That immediacy has created a real expectation,” she adds. “Long gone are the days when you could send out just a newsletter as the only way to consult.”
Ms. Cochrane says there are people still attending town hall meetings, which can be flawed as the loudest voices are often the only ones heard.
“It’s not the best way to hear a depth and breadth of opinion, but I do still consider information sessions necessary because there’s still a need in the community for people to come out and look someone in the eye and ask them questions,” she says.
“These kinds of sessions have revived in popularity, and it’s still really important to have them. The people coming to these are those who have the time or have made the time.”
However, those not actively engaged in the conversation may be the precise people project teams need to get a hold of. “The challenge is finding ways to reach people effectively. It’s not unusual to come across an individual who lives a couple of blocks away from the work and might not even be aware of the project,” Ms. Cochrane says.
“People are busy these days – it can be hard to reach people through the noise of life, and the challenge is finding ways through that and overcoming those obstacles.”
She says this is a good reason for why social media, with its commonality among society, and its reach, is an effective tool that needs to be harnessed effectively and innovatively for infrastructure project delivery. However, using social and digital mediums in this way is not without its challenges.
“How we can connect with the impacted community and look at combining traditional and digital communication and engagement approaches is the challenge.”
A challenge and an opportunity
The 2017 Sensis Social Media report finds that almost eight in 10 Australians (79 per cent) now use social media, with 59 per cent of people accessing it every day or most days. Facebook is the most popular platform, with 94 per cent of social media users on it. Instagram is close behind at 46 per cent, while Snapchat and Twitter follow at 40 and 32 per cent, respectively.
While the market for social media engagement is there for those behind the steering wheel for infrastructure projects to embrace, but Ms. Cochrane says there is still hesitance over its use.
“I think there is still some concern about the level of control. Obviously with traditional practices, such as a newsletter, you can control the medium. There’s no two-way exchange. Even if there is, it’s controlled,” she explains.
“Whereas with social media – it’s got that level of immediacy and we also have a massive audience. Combined, that means governments and councils who are used to controlling the message are hesitant to embrace it and have a level of concern. Really, the one way around that is to use the technology and learn from those experiences.”
She says there are great examples to learn from, but her own experience has proved that the best way to engage on social media is by dealing with facts and information. “If not, it can enter into a war of emotions very quickly,” she adds.
Likewise, understanding the platform – whether it be Twitter, Facebook or Instagram – and their relevant markets, holds significance in using social media on such projects. “I would say to adopt them appropriately, organisations need to understand the different markets for the different platforms,” Ms. Cochrane says.
A good example is the Wynyard Station Upgrade where engineering and infrastructure advisory firm Aurecon used social media as well as augmented reality to effectively engage and inform the community on the upgrade of Sydney’s Wynyard Station.
Keeping construction on track
Aurecon was part of Novo Rail – an alliance also including Transport for NSW, Laing O’Rourke and RCR Infrastructure contracted to deliver a major upgrade to Wynyard Station in Sydney.
The challenge? The station had to remain operational over the duration of the construction works.
Complicating the matter is the fact the station sees more than 110,000 pedestrian movements daily.
Ms. Cochrane says Aurecon saw the situation as both a challenge and an opportunity. In particular, an opportunity to incorporate a mix of traditional consultation tools and innovative digital initiatives into its engagement approach with the public.
The strategy included a comprehensive approach to how the project team engaged with the public, most notably though a dedicated smart phone app – NovoView –and augmented reality (AR) technology.
NovoView served as tool to communicate with a wide audience. Free to download on the Apple and Google Play stores and promoted through social media and advertised by traditional means, the app was a means of direct communication with the public on construction activities.
Because of the constraints of not closing the station for the upgrades, the redevelopment was delivered by way of what Ms. Cochrane calls ‘mini construction sites’, ranging from 20-metre by 20-metre sites to 1-metre by 5-metre designated sites.
“We would move the sites around quite a lot too – they were done in a way they would only be there for a day or even a couple of hours before they moved,” she says.
“Through the app, we could message an individual who usually gets off their train at a say, platform 2, and let them know they would have to take a different direction to exit the station due to the work,” she says.
“We got some really interesting feedback about that. The ‘personalised’ service was a big factor, it wasn’t personalised but individuals felt that level of detail was personalised,” she says. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a level of engagement like we’ve had before – it’s unprecedented.”
The NovoView app also incorporated AR into its design, which allowed the users to view the final design of the station by viewing the site through their phones. Through the AR technology, the users were able to view their existing environment through a tablet or smart phone with the new infrastructure superimposed over top.
“People were really curious about the construction itself, and the app allowed people to see the view the construction site on their phones and see what the station will look like,” Ms. Cochrane says.
She adds that the AR technology also allowed groups such as Guide Dogs Australia to develop support material and training guides for its members ahead of the stations re-opening.
“I think tools like AR and virtual reality really help people experience the service that is being delivered and accurately see what the project will look like,” Ms. Cochrane says, adding that such concepts help to create unique connections with the public, but also builds a deeper understanding of how the community reacts and interacts with infrastructure projects.
Changing the game
Ms. Cochrane says Australia is close to the front of the pack on the global scale in terms of government and councils embracing these kinds of digital mediums and social media in stakeholder engagement.
“There are other great examples of that overseas where the councils and government have engaged their people in a really successful way, but Australia is definitely up there,” she says.
The future for Australia is bright, she asserts, with many opportunities to improve the way in which government and companies communicate their messages to the public on projects, particularly through new digital trends aside from conventional social media platforms.
“There are lots of things happening out there. Immersive technology is really cool where you can put something on and look at different viewpoints, which comes under the concept of gamification.”
Ms. Cochrane says gamification is basically applying the elements of video games to technology used for other applications – stakeholder engagement in this case.
Aurecon, for instance, has created a swipe-style engineering app – based on the Tinder concept – basically adopting an idea that social media users are familiar with and adapting it for engagement purposes.
“We can use that technology to talk to people about different parts of construction and explain how it works in an accessible way,” she says. “It’s about taking the technologies that people use on a daily basis and using them for different things. How can we incorporate that into how we engage with the community? How we can tap into what people actually use and know well and use it in a different way?”
Aiding this adoption of new digital trends and stakeholder engagement processes is also how the industry sector is shifting its mindset towards infrastructure itself, according to Ms. Cochrane.
“Industry is moving towards engagement in a very different way. The focus these days is very much on how infrastructure projects can live within a community, rather than the community putting up with infrastructure projects.”
The mentality has changed, she states, adding that projects are increasingly – and appropriately – designed with the end user front of mind. “Obviously the locals are the ones that are going to drive on these roads in the first place, they know what are the easiest ways to get around the city and where things need to be improved. It’s all about the people who use the infrastructure,” she says.
“It’s about acknowledging local expertise and combining that with engineering expertise. We then create better projects and infrastructure that really works.”