A tram overpass in Adelaide had been stalled for a year. Why? Because the community couldn’t visualise the impact of the new overpass on their environment, and therefore wouldn’t support the project. 3d Rendering, endless expensive photoshopped drawings, handsome architectural sketches and engineering plans – all to no avail as the social license was withheld.
Winning the ambiguous and unofficial ‘social license’ can be as important as the environmental, safety and functionality conditions in many projects. And sometimes it is even more important.
When it goes wrong, and you’re unable to get the social license, we see an increase in complaints and projects stalled. The bigger the community dissatisfaction, the more intense the reactions become – to the point of people marching in the streets.
The fear of community anxiety, resistance to change, and backlash has been noted in recent COAG cities reports as an inhibitor to some projects. Even though the projects may be critical for productivity and urban quality, they are just too hard to get off the ground.
Public servants also want to avoid unhappy communities and stakeholders. It is the bureaucrat who receives the complaints from ministers and mayors, and is asked to respond promptly. Each response can take many days, as they try to explain how the situation will exactly play out from the objector’s viewpoint. This can be tedious and unsatisfactory work.
Our educated population wants to know what is going on in their environment, and they expect best practice. This is not just a NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) phenomena – it is a growing social conscience of what is good planning and design, and outcomes for the city, state or locality.
And why should the population trust the ‘experts’? Poorly-executed buildings and infrastructure have depressed areas for generations, created ghettos, encouraged crime, and even caused deaths. Over the last 50 years we’ve seen trams removed from cities, a failure in social housing, riversides destroyed by roadways, and a mentality of the city as a machine.
As our population ages, and if they ever get to retire, the ‘non-experts’ (residents) will become even more engaged in projects, planning and design in their vicinity. Therefore, in future, we can expect the social license to be even harder to win, and the bar to rise. Perhaps this is an opportunity for crowd-sourcing in city planning.
But how do you gain the social license from a community? Often we see the engineer personality at community events with impenetrable plans and an inability to socially engage, the architect defending the glory of their monument from selected viewpoints, and the army of wordsmiths with a pile of reports and brochures.
There is often a complete lack of trust, and sometimes of respect, between communities and experts. We all know how much the information is presented in its ‘best light’ – the 50 revisions of the brochure full of weasel words.
One of the keys is to enable complete, open transparency. To allow people to see how a new project will directly influence their life and environment. And to do this in the most easy way. Why should it be hard? Why should they need to sift through hundreds of pages or assimilate abstract drawings in their head?
They want to know – how will this new road look from my back door? How will it affect the sidewalk, or the park where I walk my dog? What if it rains? How does it integrate with other facilities? Will it add or remove value for the local area? Will my neighbourhood be better for the change?
In order to win the social license, you need the community and the stakeholders to be convinced that they are completely aware of the environmental change – from every experience and perspective of interest.
When we provide full visibility, even when the most drastic changes are being proposed to people’s previously sedentary life, people buy-in to the project. Take away the razzle dazzle of the over-manipulated information, and make it open and immersive. And remove the need to convert and interpret abstract plans and drawings.
Across thousands of experiences with community members and other stakeholders, including industry professionals, we see the light bulb go on, anxiety and worry vanish and the immediate realisation of understanding. People despise not being able to understand something – it makes them anxious. So the sooner you can truly create understanding, the sooner you can win the social license.
A neighbourhood planning process in Brisbane was pleasantly surprised when community members said, “Yes, you should really bulldoze our houses along this transport corridor and put big buildings here. It is the right thing to do for the place, even though we have lived here for decades.”
When projects and plans are transparently revealed in a simple and easy manner in a virtual replication, anxieties are eliminated, people become calm, and objectors become evangelists. Residents aren’t intentionally hindering your work – they just need to understand. And the easiest way to do this is through seeing how all the pieces fit together, clearly and simply.