Engineers must stop simply consulting with the public about infrastructure projects and start to properly engage with affected communities. That was the message from the latest ICE Strategy Session: The Value of Community Engagement on Infrastructure Projects.
“I feel passionate about bringing real value to communities worldwide, but when I started working for design consultancies, I found out that interacting with the public is often seen as an obstacle to the project,” said Stantec civil engineer Monika Szczyrba. “The perception is that it results in delays and bad press. In fact, it is usually the opposite.
"I have been learning how empowering it can be to place communities at the heart of our projects and decision-making,” she added. “If your purpose is to serve the communities as best as you can, how can you do that without fully understanding the impact on the public?”
Arcadis director for resilient cities and ICE Vice President, Anusha Shah also believes engineers must change their approach. “When we are planning and designing infrastructure, we consult with the public, but that is very transactional – and it is not the same as engaging,” she said at the Strategy Session. “Usually we have already done 20% or 30% of the design by then, so we are not really proactively engaging with them. We are not treating them as equal partners.”
Watch the session again below
Strategy Session 10 Nov 2020 from ICE Group on Vimeo.
Monika Szczyrba told the 900 online audience that community engagement is no longer an option, but is essential in order to deliver projects within time and budget. “We need to get away from the mindset that the public present a risk to the project and take them with us from the start to help develop the solution,” she said.
Szczyrba also emphasised that affected communities have a lot of knowledge and creativity that can be harnessed to solve problems and innovate.
Shah agreed. “We need to give them respect and use their expertise,” she said. “They have so much knowledge of the local area – far more than any infrastructure professional.”
University College London professor of environmental engineering Sarah Bell has been undertaking a project called “Bottom-up infrastructure”, aimed at creating a new paradigm for infrastructure provision based on direct engagement of communities in engineering design and decision-making. “The motivation for the project was resilience,” she told the
Strategy Session. “As engineers, we talk a lot about infrastructure resilience; and at the same time, people talk about community resilience [for example, how quickly a community can recover after a flood]. But these are separate conversations.
“I was interested in whether we can bring these two together, and if we do, do we get enhanced resilience for our infrastructure?”
As deputy lead flood warden for the Yorkshire village of Fishlake, Peter Trimingham is only too aware of the interaction between infrastructure and community resilience. The village was severely flooded in November 2019 when the River Don burst its banks.
He said the flood wardens had tried to raise some of the issues that led to the flooding over many years, adding: “Why do we have to have a disaster before we’re listened to?”
Bell added: “People speak up constantly, but the only time someone listens is when something really bad happens.”
She said community engagement is equally possible – and essential – on large nationally significant infrastructure projects as it is on local schemes. In these situations, local communities often get the negative impact of the infrastructure – a new road or railway – but without any of the benefit.
“We tend to think that this large infrastructure project is in the national interest, and the fact that these local communities have to live with it is price we have to pay. But it’s not the price we pay – it’s the price people in very particular areas have to pay,” said Bell. “We need to get those people involved in the decision-making and give them some power.”
ICE Principles for Community Engagement with Engineering
The Community of Practice has proposed a draft statement of Principles for Community Engagement with Engineering. These were launched at the strategy session, seeking feedback from engineers, community members and other interested stakeholders.
For further information on these draft principles, please visit the blog by Professor Sarah Bell on Engaging Communities: A role for engineers?
Join the ICE Community of Practice for Community Engagement
If you are interested in getting involved and connecting with ICE’s growing network of engineers and professionals collaborating to build on our engagement skills, please contact: [email protected]