In the realm of large, modern infrastructure projects, a designer’s role is evolving from delivering functional outcomes to addressing complex social, environmental, and cultural issues.
(above image: Caulfield to Dandenong Level Crossing Removal Project is an exemplar for achieving multiple community and environmental outcomes beyond the initial scope of removing level crossings. Photo: Peter Clarke.)
Project success hinges on more than concrete and steel or getting people from A to B. It requires a comprehensive understanding of how a project can integrate seamlessly into its surroundings and enrich the lives of those who interface with it – all while protecting and enhancing cultural and environmental values.
In 2023, I undertook a research project to explore how we can qualitatively assess infrastructure projects against the aspects of environmental, community and cultural success. Over 50 projects across Australia and New Zealand were analysed. The projects had all been completed and had been considered to be ‘successful’ against the initial project scope. They covered predominantly the transport and social infrastructure sectors.
With the help of AI analytical tools to crunch the data, the research was able to identify the enigmatic (qualitative) factors that elevate infrastructure projects from functionally successful to socially and environmentally best-in-market. In other words, these factors helped to propel projects from ordinary to extraordinary.
Through the research, six key pillars emerged that defined successful modern infrastructure projects.
Pillar 1: Multiplicity of Purpose
Many of the most successful projects that were analysed had more than a single purpose, audience or use and delivered exceedingly well against environmental, community, and cultural outcomes. Projects that were designed to deliver to more than one brief and that were held to account to deliver on these benefits from scoping to completion were on the top of the pile.
Examples include rail projects that delivered significant urban public realm (see Caulfield to Dandenong Level Crossing Removal Project above), substations that provided community benefits beyond electrical transmission and buildings that provided adjacent environmental uplift.
Pillar 2: Contextual reflection
Next, there were projects that had an ‘outward in’ approach to design and considered social and environmental context rather than just an ‘inward out’ approach. These projects went beyond simply acknowledging context through detailing of the design and used social and environmental context to help shape and improve project outcomes.
Examples included pedestrian bridges that provided additional social amenity to the community rather than simply passage from A to B. Other examples included road alignments that went beyond simply minimising footprint and visual impact and were designed to increase adjacent environmental value.
Pillar 3: Whole of project narrative transfer
Third, there were projects that involved a whole of project narrative transfer.
It is important to note that that is not whole of project knowledge transfer, rather whole of project narrative transfer.
This includes projects where the initial project vision was not lost or value-managed on the way through to completion. Instead, everyone from client at initial scoping to contractor at completion embraced the higher-level project principles and place specific objectives.
Examples included projects where everyone from all organisations not only understood the key project drivers but were taken on the journey of why delivering these outcomes were important. This includes everyone from client-facing, design and delivery, and contractor sides.
In such projects, key project drivers were not value-managed out. Instead, they were considered from initial scoping through to project completion.
Pillar 4: Environmental innovation
Fourth, there were projects that went above and beyond to protect, retain, restore or enhance environmental values. This includes projects that focused on legacy outcomes that may not be realised until long after the project’s completion. These projects went beyond the likes of green facades, discrete water sensitive urban design installations or elemental biophilic design and drew from their context to formulate a design response that provided environmental uplift beyond the site boundary.
Examples included projects that implemented whole-of-lifecycle adaptive reuse of materials from purchase and procurement, implementation to end-of-life management. Also included were projects that incorporated practical application of circular economy principles.
Pillar 5: Early and continuous engagement
More often than not, stakeholder engagement is ‘set and forget’, and is often seen as a tick box exercise.
By contrast, in my research, projects found success when continual engagement with the community, external stakeholders, and Traditional Owners was undertaken as an integrated process from concept through to completion.
Examples can be seen through projects in the renewable energy transition sector where stakeholder engagement began early and continued throughout the project life cycle to influence planning and design outcomes. This occurred through a connected approach to knowledge sharing with stakeholders. Such projects also demonstrated a clear reduction of programme and cost risk.
Pillar 6: Cultural reciprocity
Finally, there were projects that involved genuine exchange of knowledge and values through meaningful engagement with Traditional Owners which was reflected into whole-of-project outcomes in an integrated and purposeful way. This includes projects that didn’t just pay homage to integration of cultural outcomes such as surface artwork but considered a project’s context and representation of the place’s historical importance.
Examples included transport infrastructure projects where project elements were designed to educate visitors and users of the history and importance of the country on which the project is placed and to share knowledge through the design and construction of a project.
Data Driven, Evidence-Based Approaches
An important take-away from this research is that the aforementioned pillars are data driven and evidence based. This makes it easier to advocate to project decision-makers about what helps make projects successful. Such advocacy is most successful when done at the early stages of a project.
As we celebrate the triumphs of today, let’s not forget the challenges we will face tomorrow. The truest mark of future project success lies not just in decoding these enigmatic factors but in our ability to continuously push the boundaries of what large and complex infrastructure projects can be when we look beyond the concrete and steel and towards dynamic thriving entities that leave a legacy long after we’re gone.
When kicking off your next infrastructure project, think about how you can incorporate the six pillars as a catalyst for positive change by connecting the human elements involved and the long-term positive community, environmental and cultural outcomes.
James Millar, Lead Design Integrator, Aurecon
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