Construction’s purpose is ultimately to improve people’s lives, whether by providing essential schools, health facilities or workplaces.

Major projects like this deliver most successfully on this purpose when they are shaped in collaboration with local stakeholders and communities. That applies particularly in Australia, where rural communities have in some instances seen traditional cultures eroded over many years.

One of the most powerful tools to ensure a construction project is successful is to tap into the knowledge base of local and indigenous stakeholders. If buy-in is sought from these stakeholders in strategic planning objectives and the decision-making process the outcomes will be more in tune with and beneficial for the community.

A roadmap engagement plan brings traditional culture back to communities. The local and indigenous community is well placed to inform about social, physical and spiritual understandings. Their knowledge has been handed down over centuries and provides a solid reference to inform design and development.

Drivers of knowledge integration

There are three key areas that are driving knowledge integration in rural communities in Australia:

Climate change: bushfires, flooding, sea levels rising and storms will continue to increase in frequency which will risk human life. The property industry needs to better integrate western science with local and indigenous knowledge to improve developments.

Legacy in rural communities: all projects need to develop a sense of pride, leave a lasting legacy and be culturally appropriate. It is vital that the community has a connection to the project and that when it is completed the project is embraced by the community.

Technological advancement and innovation: projects are becoming more complex as technological advancement and building materials improve. Change must be embraced to deliver the very best project outcome.

Understanding knowledge integration

Three different types of knowledge from diverse stakeholders need to be considered in the design and construction process.

Technical knowledge

Technical experts such as engineers or designers often guide the development of rural communities, however in some cases, the accuracy of their results do not match the practical needs of the community. Initiatives led by these experts need to also consider the local situation and institutional context to ensure the best decisions are made.

Local knowledge

Local or community knowledge is uniquely developed over an extended period of time. Rural communities are passionate about their surroundings and hold strong opinions on developments that are being considered or built. Many projects rely on community-based knowledge in rural community contexts. Residents living in an area or historians are the main knowledge holders.

Indigenous knowledge

As the environment changes, indigenous knowledge from elders living in the community are best placed to inform local conditions such as cultural sites and sensitivities that engineers cannot identify on drawings. In any context, environmental problems have social and cultural dimensions which benefit from perspectives other than technical knowledge. Indigenous knowledge is based on the social, physical and spiritual understandings of non-western people and has assisted their survival and sense of being in the world over many centuries.

Creating a road map engagement plan

A roadmap engagement plan is an important tool to use when starting a project in a rural community and should include three components:

Strategic planning engagement and consultation: involving indigenous knowledge in the upfront decision making by local councils to inform land use is vital. A monthly working group should be established to regularly review and update land use areas and mapping throughout local council jurisdictions.

Approval consultation: when submitting and assessing development approvals, indigenous knowledge should integrate with development assessment criteria prior to project approval. At this level of engagement, specific site and surrounding environmental conditions and community impacts can be understood. Suitable conditions can then be imposed on the development.

Design and construction consultation: the final area of engagement would be utilising indigenous knowledge during the design and construction phases in a project. Indigenous knowledge can inform project design to respond to the needs of the community who use the area and specific environmental impacts and sensitivities. Room layouts, positioning of the building, shading design and stormwater/flood assessment can also be evaluated at this level.

Case study: Palm Island Primary Health Care Centre

Palm Island is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community located on Great Palm Island in the Great Barrier Reef in North Queensland. It is also known by the Indigenous name ‘Bwgcolman’.

Many residents believe that the introduction of western culture and its subsequent Mission policies have eroded Palm Island’s identity. As part of a wider program to bring traditional culture back to Palm Island and provide better health, education and housing infrastructure amenities to the community, Townsville Hospital and Health Service constructed the Palm Island Primary Health Care Centre.

Prior to starting the project, Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council (PIASC) developed a masterplan which included education, retail and health precincts to create a community hub. Palm Island’s Primary Health Care Centre forms part of this hub which has helped further increase community engagement.

Integral to the success of this project was developing deep relationships with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community in the early stages of the project. They were involved in the planning, design and construction of the centre. Community leaders, traditional land owners and PIASC worked collaboratively towards a shared vision to deliver an enhanced facility for health, education and housing.

For the first time in Palm Island, local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island resident artists were engaged to portray their history on the face of a public building in the community where they were raised. The centre has created a lasting legacy for the community which they feel a sense of ownership in. It also showcases their story to the rest of the country through the artists’ work.

Knowledge sharing

Integrating roadmap engagement plans requires the planning and design process in rural communities to use the diversity of knowledge from various stakeholders. With the roadmap engagement plan in place, the project director has a powerful framework for working with stakeholders and gaining an understanding of the ecological, economic and social challenges of the project and its location. As projects become larger and more complex, this approach becomes vital to ensure that the identity and culture of the communities in which we build is not only preserved but enhanced.

Article by Daniel Burke, Project Manager, Australia and New Zealand at Turner & Townsend.