The Voice of the Community in Infrastructure Development

I attended an industry event recently that got me thinking. Aren’t they always supposed to do that?, I hear you say. Well, yes they are really, but not all of them do…..

Anyway, this one got me thinking not because of what some brilliant young engineer was saying, or some greatly experienced infrastructure so-called heavyweight was espousing, nor what some industry player was demonstrating in terms of lessons learnt.

No, what got me thinking, and what resonated with me most strongly throughout the entire day was the most heartfelt of presentations from members of the community.

The two presenters had been directly impacted, and negatively so in the initial stages of an infrastructure project on the ground. This was their neighbourhood, their community, their landscape, their homes, and their lives being directly impacted which to those of us who plan, design and construct infrastructure are just lines on a map or plan.

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They told the tale of this particular project and how they eventually halted works for around 9 months so that they could have their say, and be actively involved in the project. And, as it goes, they developed what seemed to be a fairly decent working relationship with the project proponent in developing a solution that was right for the community, and for the local environment as well as the proponent. But in getting to that there was a lot of angst, a lot of grief in a way and emotional trauma – peoples’ homes and their environs were at stake and there’s a lot of human emotion and connection bound up in those things.

So aside from underlining the point that communities should be consulted and meaningfully engaged early and often in a project, it emphasised that communities are the reason why we construct this infrastructure in the first place and to develop or change infrastructure without their direct involvement is a little bit daft really (and not to mention just a wee bit egotistical to boot!).

And it struck me that we don’t often hear these voices, or witness these presentations at such industry events or conferences. Silly really. Whilst, yes, it is good to share knowledge on what has been done and achieved in recent times from practitioner to practitioner, to have a bit of a chinwag and network with our peers, it’s also important, I think, to consider – nope, to include – the folks that we’re actually planning, designing and constructing this infrastructure for.

Sometimes we can get a little excited by the fantastic work going on – and there is some fantastic work going on around Australia at the moment in infrastructure. But let’s not forget why we’re doing it. It’s not to satisfy our own needs to design and build something (that’s obviously some part of the equation somewhere), nor to bring kudos to our organisations (again, I’m sure that’s some part of the equation).  It’s to provide communities, to provide people just like you and I, with genuinely useful, beneficial and valuable infrastructure that makes things just a little easier, more efficient and improving their quality of life. And to do that we need to include them in our conversations.

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