Author: Guest Author

Innovating for Engagement

Author: Jo Winters

Contributors: Tam Nguyen

As part of Bechtel’s commitment to contribute 100 ideas to support the United Nation’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we examine the use of virtual reality to enhance the participation of indigenous peoples on major projects.

SDG 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

SDG Target 11.4: Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.

As part of the delivery of the Amrun bauxite mine project in Australia, Bechtel is utilizing virtual reality to engage the local Aboriginal Traditional Owners – the Wik-Waya people.

I. Problem

Indigenous peoples can have a strong socio-economic and spiritual dependence on local lands and ecosystems for food, medicine, livelihoods, and shelter, as well as culture, identity, and traditional knowledge. Because of their status in mainstream society, or the remoteness of their territories, indigenous peoples can be highly vulnerable. They are particularly at risk if their lands and resources are transformed or degraded, which can potentially affect their “way of life” in many aspects: loss of identity, culture, livelihoods; increased poverty; and susceptibility to disease.

Furthermore, the engagement of indigenous populations in developing projects risks a lack of true inclusivity. Often times, project sponsors have good intentions to include them, but asking for feedback and opinions becomes a complex endeavor for all sides. When trying to build an inclusive project with indigenous peoples, the language barrier coupled with an unfamiliarity of the incoming needs of a new project can lead to low or uninformed participation. When these challenges become present, project sponsors can result to ignoring them or only listening to the loudest voice, instead of the entire community.

II. Solution

The addition of virtual reality helps to address the language barrier and unfamiliarity by allowing the indigenous community members to physically see the future changes of their land. Including the indigenous peoples is an important asset to the project’s lifecycle.  By seeing the changes, participating members have an opportunity to voice concerns and influence changes before the project’s development begins, which can ultimately improve the project.  

III. Approach

From building an inclusive community to demonstrating long-term regeneration growth of plant species, the use of virtual reality on the project has created improvements in safety, sustainability, community relations, project schedule and cost.

In 2016, Bechtel’s project team introduced a virtual reality tool to support technical aspects of the project, including engagement of the Wik-Waya community. Utilizing the tool enabled the Wik-Waya people, and other community groups, to visualize the future of the Amrun project and better understand potential changes to expect as the project progresses.

The tool has been beneficial in supporting important cultural processes, such as Traditional Owners calling out to the spirits of their Elders ahead of any clearing or construction work efforts.  Engaging them on each phase of the construction needed to be performed in a respectful, culturally appropriate manner. For example, one of the Wik-Waya Traditional Owners and Elders wore the virtual reality goggles to describe to his spirit Elders the clearing and construction work that would be taking place in that area.

The Amrun project also applied virtual reality tools to be used for recruitment purposes. The tool showed prospective workers what to expect once they arrived on the project site, and helped facilitate discussions on potential risks and hazards and how to mitigate them.

IV. Key Learnings

The use of virtual reality technology offers some key opportunities to improve social risk management on projects. First, enabling indigenous communities to visualize the future state of a project can enhance the “informed consultation process” between project sponsors and communities. They can identify potential impacts and implications – positive and negative – earlier and more precisely. Moreover, they can engage with the project team to generate better alternatives to lessen the negative impacts. Second, it helps shift indigenous communities from observers to more active participants – technically and spiritually – in how the project will impact their long-term, sustainable development. Finally, it’s can be a mechanism to help new workers joining the project to more effectively understand how the construction can affect the socio-political, cultural and environmental context of the impacted indigenous communities. 


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The Build100 blog brings together Bechtel and industry experts to share insights and innovations around global sustainability issues that will have an impact over the next 100 years.


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