Five Reasons Why Infrastructure Sustainability Assessments Fail to Manage Community Risk #1

There has never been more scrutiny of public spending on infrastructure.
The infrastructure sector, governments and public participation practitioners are recognising the rising costs of public opposition to major infrastructure projects. In Australia, we think of Sydney’s WestConnex, Melbourne’s East West Link toll road or Perth’s Freight Link.

The University of Melbourne’s Next Generation Project is examining the public engagement practices that contribute to these delays. The Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia has collaborated to develop the IS International Rating Tool 2.0. Its aim is to influence early design consideration of the key domains of sustainability including expected community outcomes. Our engineering and consulting firms offer Multi-Criteria Analysis (MCA) services in order to capture non-technical performance aspects of a design.

Designers that consider community values expect greater alignment. They expect feedback on how community input influenced their decisions to develop trust. It follows that early engagement can assist in establishing strong relationships that can continue throughout the implementation and operational stages of projects.

So, what’s still going wrong? What pieces of the jigsaw are missing from sustainability assessment and MCA processes that would protect vulnerable sectors of the community? How can design teams secure the support of those with the power to halt these projects? What is hindering the iterative use of social impact assessment as the human-centred design tool it is meant to be?

We share observations on leading practice in a series of five short posts.

Reason #1: Failure to include a diversity of world views

Even before Richard Thaler’s Nobel Prize raised awareness of behavioural economics and irrationality in our decision-making, infrastructure design teams were increasingly prepared to identify and deal openly with collective bias.

A popular tool to deal with uncertainty and bias is Multicriteria Analysis (MCA). It can help people make decisions by:

  • bringing structure to difficult decisions
  • facilitating deliberation and shared understanding
  • dealing with large amounts of complex information in a consistent way
  • making sense of a mixture of quantitative and qualitative data
  • distinguishing between facts and opinion and making judgement calls explicit
  • consciously surfacing trade-offs between objectives
  • generating a sense of common purpose, momentum or agreement

MCA can be used to:

  • identify a single most preferred option
  • rank options
  • short-list a limited number of options for subsequent detailed assessment, or
  • rule out options that will be unacceptable

But MCA is no silver bullet. The use of MCA can be counter-productive if the voices of affected communities are not well-integrated into the process.

There are a number of approaches under the umbrella of MCA but what nearly all have in common is a performance matrix in which each row describes an option and each column describes the performance of that option against a set of criteria. All approaches place emphasis on the judgement of the study team in establishing objectives and criteria, assigning relative importance or weights, and deliberating on the performance of each option against the objective and its criteria.

But there is no normative model of how to make multi-criteria choices that is without critics. MCA is a socio-technical process. People, not models, make decisions and the outputs of MCA cannot substitute for good process design, the inclusion of appropriate stakeholders and the consideration of effects on communities. Design teams need to do much more to include the voices of the most vulnerable sections of the community that are affected by or could benefit from such infrastructure.

Design teams that successfully involve communities in project development add to community vibrancy and empowerment. Not involving community representatives can have serious long-term negative impacts on a community’s economic, environmental and social outcomes.

Designers face a dilemma when trying to understand and deal with host communities and key stakeholders – particularly those that represent a perceived threat to their project. Their failure to get it right can be costly in terms of public controversy and delayed or abandoned projects – to say nothing of damaged careers, reputations and relationships. When it is not practical to directly incorporate these voices, then we should be seeing better-quality social impact research and the inclusion of a more targeted set of stakeholders that can act as well-informed proxies.

Planners and public participation specialists rarely make an evaluation of a consultation process public. When they do, the question of how successfully minority community voices were heard during a process and what influence this input had on key decisions is not prominant. Intentionally or not, this approach can disadvantage minority perspectives in the community and work against the inclusion of a diversity of experience.

Key point #1:
If we recognise MCA as a socio-technical process, we must recognise that the voices an MCA process excludes (and the limitations of procedural techniques that result from this exclusion) will affect the modelling outcomes. Deficits can be compounded if decision models are treated as infallible rather than a way of making sense of a large amount of complex information to be tested against collective experience and judgement. Improved stakeholder identification and issues mapping will mitigate against this risk.