To mark the end of the Engineering for People Design Challenge for students in the UK and Ireland, we hosted a virtual panel discussion, Big engineering, local context: The importance of community consultation. A topic which speaks to the heart of globally responsible engineering principles; ensuring that the engineering process is inclusive in recognition of the fact that engineering impacts on people’s lives and livelihoods, every single day.

Our CEO, Katie Cresswell-Maynard chaired the panel which included: Simon Sizwe Mayson, a significant community figure and PhD student at this year’s Engineering for People Design Challenge location, Makers Valley, South Africa; Jenny Irvine a Project Manager at Black & Veatch who is based in Scotland; and Franklin Kirimi a Landscape Design Coordinator at Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), who is based in Kenya.

All three of these individuals brought valuable and varied insights to the discussion which explored the complexities of this sometimes contentious topic. The session began by investigating how each panellist employs a community engagement process in their current role; in response Franklin was quick to highlight how trust is embedded in his practice, saying;

“I’ve learnt that co-design goes beyond involving people in just the construction of amenities, it requires the building of trust and encouraging confidence of participants to give critical input and feedback.”

Alternatively, Jenny touched on the significance of spending large amounts of time getting to grips with the scope of a project location, to understand what the client wants and therefore how it will affect local landowners and the wider community.

Taking time to understand a community’s perspective was echoed in Simon’s response as he highlighted the work that is carried out in Makers Valley through interviews and focus groups, ensuring a wide variety of perspectives are considered. This community centred approach is also essential to the work KDI carry out in Kibera, Kenya. Franklin went on to explain how the organisation shares their proposals with the community before pitching the idea any further, building greater levels of trust and an opportunity for community members to raise any concerns.

Community interactions such as the examples given above aren’t simply achieved by posting or emailing questionnaires to recipients, as the panelists pointed out, the practicalities of community consultation can vary greatly depending on the location, socio-economic conditions or cultural norms of a location. Franklin mentioned the importance of mixed medium methods, especially when working with communities with varying levels of literacy, pointing out that a method such as a written questionnaire could alienate some individuals entirely. Similarly, Jenny emphasised how personalities can also play a role in levels of participation, suggesting that extroverted individuals may thrive in town hall formats but more introverted individuals may find written methods more effective.

Although the merits of community consultation were greatly considered during the panel discussion, it is imperative to note that the process is not straightforward. For instance, Simon flagged how procurement issues often limit community participation, finding that donors are still “old-school” in their approach. Jenny noted that in her experience, she has seen little evidence of change in the scope of a project as a result of community consultation, but she did point out that strong local opposition could damage an organisation’s reputation and can therefore impact the way a project is carried out.

As the discussion concluded each participant identified the most crucial aspect of community consultation. Jenny began by stating the importance of not dictating to communities and instead using the opportunity to highlight areas of flexibility in the project and crucially the importance of asking lots of questions. Franklin, once again promoted the priority of trust, admitting that it’s a lengthy process, but by building a relationship with community members you can use a continuous narrative to inform your decisions. Simon advocated for the implementation of co-creation and co-design, suggesting that even in locations using more traditional engineering design processes, they could always be improved through local input and co-creation. However, Simon warned of the danger of the process being co-opted, and therefore resulting in little real change.

These varied experiences and outlooks made for an inspiring discussion. For those who attended we asked them to challenge themselves by being the person constantly asking, “Are we including all the right voices?” and “How can we better engineer for people, with people?” Let us know how you get on after testing yourself or your team, by emailing us at [email protected] or tagging us on social media.

We are extremely grateful for the extensive insights of the panelists Simon Sizwe Mayson, Jenny Irvine and Franklin Kirmi. If you enjoyed this discussion, why not sign up to our next session on 13 August, where we will be discussing how the lack of racial diversity in the engineering sector is being tackled both in terms of the systemic changes that need to be made, whilst also considering the role every individual needs to play. Simply register here and send in any questions you would like the panelists to explore on this topic.