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Digital Stakeholder Engagement in ESIA — is it a true opportunity for effective participation?

Updated: Sep 29, 2023




Environmental and Social Impact Assessments (EIA/ESIA) utilize the data, knowledge and professional judgment of experts to identify and evaluate the relevant impacts (beneficial and adverse) of a proposed development project. The outputs are reports presented to interested parties and organizations, and decision makers – the authorities, for approval. EIAs have been a mandatory requirement worldwide for decades, existing in similar forms in more than 100 countries.

However, EIA/ESIAs are time-consuming processes (typically 6-18 months) that generate lengthy documentation (hundreds to thousands of pages), which is exhausting for all stakeholders involved. Moreover, EIA/ESIA are often biased, which may result in decisions that are contrary to environmental and social benefits. The source of bias is usually specialists' subjective judgment and descriptive nature of assessments. In an article by Salamanca Sánchez-Cámara (Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 2018) it is underlined that the bias can be intentional or unintentional, but the line between bias and manipulation may be unclear. Emerging empirical evidence has suggested that assessment studies are likely to be influenced by corrupt practices including bribery, collusion and conflicts of interest (elaborated in an article by Williams and Dupuy, U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Center, 2016.)

Important international organizations, such as the UN and the World Bank, have expressed that public engagement is crucial to the success and sustainability of a project. Goal 16.7 of the 2030 UN Agenda for Sustainable Development calls for “responsive, inclusive and participatory and representative decision-making at all levels” while stakeholder engagement is considered fundamental to achieving the SDGs. Stakeholders engagement in ESIA and EIA is a complex and iterative process, involving multiple participants, with their perceptions, expectations and functions in decision-making process, as depicted in Figure 1.




Figure 1. Steps and functions of stakeholder engagement. Adapted from: Anglo American — Social Way toolkit



Nevertheless, public involvement is usually at levels below desired, or even non-existent, especially in developing regions. This is due to the lack of transparency of the EIA/ESIA reports and the methods applied within, the length of the reports, the experts' language, as well as the traditional ways of communication between stakeholders. Technical experts may overlook key information that local citizens or communities can more easily identify due to their proximity to the affected areas and greater stake in the outcome. During COVID-19 crises, the mentioned problems were amplified, as some procedures have been suspended or loosed during lockdown, while live consultations have been canceled, reduced or postponed. For those reasons, virtual consultations and participations are viable alternatives that can also enhance the necessary live ones.


On the other hand, an EIA/ESIA with substantial public involvement can generate additional benefits for the project proponents, such as reducing risks and maintaining a good reputation in the community. There are many successful examples of public participation in ESIA processes. Table below presents several good examples along with the achievements and outcomes they have brought.



These examples highlight how meaningful public participation in ESIA processes can lead to improved project outcomes, better mitigation measures, enhanced social and environmental safeguards, and increased community acceptance and engagement. They showcase the importance of engaging stakeholders and affected communities early and throughout the process in decision-making, ensuring their concerns are considered, and fostering sustainable development practices.



Public participation and stakeholder engagement in ESIA and EIA are facing various challenges and difficulties. What are the key issues?


These issues can hinder effective decision-making, result in inadequate project outcomes, and impact the overall sustainability and inclusiveness of the assessment process. Outline of some common problems with examples of poor participation and the issues they caused is presented in the table below:




Can digital digital technologies help in overcoming issues and challenges of stakeholder engagement in ESIA? What are the approaches and examples?


Digital technologies and software tools can indeed offer significant benefits for public participation and stakeholder engagement in EIA and ESIA processes. While traditional engagement methods have their merits, digital solutions have the potential to enhance and complement those methods. Here are some key points:


  • Increased Access and Reach

Digital technologies can overcome geographical barriers and enable stakeholders to participate regardless of their physical location. This widens the reach and inclusiveness of engagement efforts, allowing a broader range of stakeholders to contribute their perspectives.


  • Enhanced Efficiency and Scalability

Digital platforms and tools can streamline information dissemination, data collection, and feedback processes with a broader audience. They can enable real-time interactions, reducing the time, efforts and costs for both stakeholders and project proponents, in comparison to traditional engagement methods such as in-person meetings or paper-based consultations.


  • Improved Transparency and Accountability

Digital solutions can facilitate transparency by providing stakeholders with easy access to project information, documentation, and updates. They can also enhance accountability by creating a digital trail of interactions, ensuring that stakeholders' contributions are recorded and considered in decision-making. They foster interactive communication channels, facilitating dialogue among stakeholders, project proponents, and experts.


  • Data-Driven Insights and Visualization

Software tools enable efficient data analysis and visualization, providing valuable insights into stakeholder preferences, concerns, and suggestions. This data-driven approach can help inform decision-making, identify patterns, and guide mitigation measures more effectively.


  • Flexibility and Convenience

Digital solutions offer flexibility, allowing stakeholders to engage at their convenience and pace. They provide opportunities for asynchronous participation, accommodating diverse schedules and time constraints.

There are different digital technologies and solutions that can contribute to achieving the above listed goals. Some solutions and examples are discussed below.



1. Comprehensive Digital ESIA Platforms


All-encompassing digital platforms have a strong advantage as they can bring together all stakeholders in the same digital spot. A comprehensive platform is first used by proponents and experts for conducting an ESIA study, by utilizing different digital methods and data. The outcome are digital reports that are readily available for review by the public and authorities. Within those digital reports they can directly provide comments, raise questions and interact with proponents and consultants in real time. This concept saves the time for online submission, transfer of reports and comments, reduces the number of platforms and solutions used, and thus unifies the approach. The comprehensive platforms may include some of the below listed technologies, such as GIS, VR/AR, documents repository, etc.


Example: Envigo (Figure 2.)


Figure 2. Comprehensive digital platform Envigo for ESIA with report commenting and real-time interaction between stakeholders. Source: Envigo by Eon+



2. Online Engagement and Consultation Platforms


Online consultation platforms also provide a centralized space for stakeholders to access project information, review documents, and provide feedback. They enable broader participation, especially for those who face geographical or time constraints. These platforms can facilitate interactions, capture diverse perspectives, and enhance transparency in the decision-making process, similarly as comprehensive EIA solutions. So they also enable project proponents or authorities to gather and analyze stakeholder input more efficiently. However, they do not include the essential part of the EIA process, in which impacts are being identified, evaluated, mitigated and presented. For this a separate solution needs to be used, therefore increasing the efforts for integration and/or submission and studies’ revision.


Examples: Granicus Engagement HQ (Figure 3), CitizenLab, Engage Victoria


Figure 3. Civic engagement platform by Granicus. Source: Granicus Engagement HQ (previously Bang the Table)


3. Geographic Information Systems (GIS)


GIS tools can enhance stakeholders' ability to understand and thus provide informed feedback and contribute to more robust decision-making. GIS technology allows the visualization of project-related data on maps, presenting project’s impacts and potential alternatives. By overlaying environmental, social, and cultural data, GIS helps stakeholders identify areas of concern, explore mitigation options, and contribute with their local knowledge and values. It enhances transparency, data sharing, and collaboration among stakeholders. Again, GIS software is not sufficient for conducting the complete ESIA and reporting, so it can be used for a part of the process, or integrated with comprehensive EIA platforms.


Examples: Esri ArcGIS (Figure 4.), QGIS


Figure 4. Integrating public comments with the Environmental Analysis tool within the ArcGIS platform. Source: Esri ArcGIS blog



4. Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR)


VR and AR technologies can provide immersive experiences, allowing stakeholders to virtually explore project sites, assess potential impacts, and visualize proposed mitigation measures. These tools enhance stakeholders' understanding of the project's scale, design, and potential consequences. They can also facilitate dialogue among stakeholders, project proponents, and decision-makers by providing a shared visual understanding. They can be particularly useful for engaging communities located far from project sites or dealing with language barriers.


Examples: AECOM Plan.Engage (Figure 5.), VR walkthroughs, AR simulations

Figure 5. Virtual public consultation web-based tool by AECOM. Source: Digital AECOM —Plan.Engage platform



5. Mobile Applications


Mobile applications enable stakeholders to access project information, notifications, and updates conveniently. They can provide interactive features, such as comment submission, questionnaires, or alerts about public consultation events. Mobile apps increase accessibility, particularly for younger and tech-savvy stakeholders, and encourage ongoing engagement throughout the project lifecycle. Mobile applications can also empower stakeholders to collect and share data in real-time (i.e. Citizen Science). In the case of Safecast, it enables citizens to monitor radiation levels and contribute to a public radiation database. Earthwatch institute (Australia) initiative ClimateWatch website and app (Figure 5.) are helping scientists and environmental managers to determine the impacts of climate change on biodiversity, through allowing community members to record changes to species and biological events.


Examples: ClimateWatch (Figure 6.), Safecast, EIA Online (South Africa), EIA App (Australia),


Figure 6. ClimateWatch app for citizens observing and recording the biological changes caused by climate change. Source: climatewatch.org.au



6. Digital Documentation and Data Sharing


Digital documentation and data sharing platforms provide stakeholders with easy access to project-related documents, reports, and data. They ensure transparency and allow stakeholders to review and analyze information at their own pace. Open data platforms enable researchers and stakeholders to utilize project data for independent analysis and evaluation, fostering a more collaborative and evidence-based decision-making process.


Examples: Online project repositories, open data platforms



7. Social Media


Social media platforms and tools like Thunderclap allow for the rapid dissemination of project-related information, engagement campaigns, and calls to action. They help amplify stakeholders' voices, increase public awareness, and create a sense of community around specific issues. These tools can be particularly effective in mobilizing support, organizing events, and fostering dialogue.


Example: Thunderclap (Figure 7.)


Figure 7. Crowdspeaking platform Tunderclap amplifying Social media posts. Source: hashembajwa.com



These examples showcase the potential benefits of using digital technologies in ESIA and EIA processes. However, it's important to consider the specific context and stakeholder needs when implementing these solutions. Stakeholder feedback and expectations regarding digital tools may vary, and it's crucial to design user-friendly interfaces, provide adequate training and support, and ensure inclusivity for those with limited digital literacy.



However, the adoption of digital solutions for stakeholders' engagement in ESIA processes does not go smoothly, as various difficulties and barriers are present.



These challenges can arise from both the perspectives of the public participants and the software developers or enablers, and the common ones are presented in tables below.



Addressing these difficulties and challenges requires a multi-faceted approach, collaboration between software developers, project proponents, and stakeholders. User-centric design, inclusive approaches, training, and continuous feedback loops can help address these barriers and maximize the benefits of digital solutions for stakeholder engagement in ESIA and EIA processes. It is crucial to engage stakeholders in the design and development process to incorporate their needs and feedback effectively.



While digital technologies offer numerous benefits, they are not a replacement for traditional methods of engagement. A hybrid approach is a way to go.


Traditional approaches, such as face-to-face consultations, community meetings, and site visits, provide valuable opportunities for personal interactions and deeper engagement. Finding the right balance between digital and traditional methods depends on several factors, including the project's context, stakeholders' preferences, and the availability of resources. A hybrid approach that combines both traditional and digital methods can be effective, leveraging the strengths of each:


  • Hybrid Engagement Strategies

Integrating digital platforms with traditional methods allows for a more comprehensive and inclusive stakeholder engagement process. Online platforms can serve as supplementary channels for information sharing, feedback collection, and virtual consultations, while traditional methods can be used for in-depth discussions, consensus-building, and relationship-building.


  • Tailored Engagement Methods

Recognizing the diverse needs and preferences of stakeholders, it is crucial to offer a range of engagement options. Some stakeholders may prefer digital platforms, while others may find in-person meetings more effective. Customizing the engagement approach based on stakeholder characteristics and project context enhances overall effectiveness.


  • Continuous Feedback and Iterative Processes

Digital tools can enable ongoing feedback loops, allowing stakeholders to provide input at different stages of the EIA/ESIA process. Combining traditional and digital approaches fosters iterative engagement, where stakeholders can provide feedback, review project updates, and influence decision-making throughout the project lifecycle.



What are possible directions of developments and prospects for digital engagement?


The future prospects and possible developments in the digital domain that can further improve stakeholder engagement in EIA and ESIA processes are exciting. Here are a few specific areas that hold promise for future advancements:


1. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Natural Language Processing (NLP)


AI and NLP technologies have the potential to automate data analysis, sentiment analysis of stakeholder feedback, and identification of emerging concerns. These technologies can help extract meaningful insights from large volumes of data, making stakeholder engagement processes more efficient and effective.


2. Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/AR) Enhancements


VR/AR technologies can provide more immersive and realistic experiences for stakeholders. Future developments may include enhanced visualizations, allowing stakeholders to virtually explore project sites, experience potential impacts, and provide feedback in a more interactive and engaging manner.


3. Mobile Applications and Sensor Technologies


Advancements in mobile applications and sensor technologies can empower stakeholders to actively collect and share data on environmental parameters, health impacts, or other relevant indicators. These technologies can enable real-time monitoring, crowd-sourced data collection, and the integration of citizen science into decision-making processes.


4. Blockchain for Transparency and Trust


Blockchain technology offers opportunities to enhance transparency, security, and trust in stakeholder engagement. It can provide immutable records of engagement activities, ensuring the integrity and traceability of stakeholder contributions, and facilitating transparent decision-making processes.


5. Social Media Integration


Integrating social media platforms more seamlessly into stakeholder engagement processes can leverage the power of social networks for information dissemination, public awareness, and mobilization of support. Integrating engagement platforms with popular social media channels can enable wider reach, real-time discussions, and active participation. Social media analytics can help identify key influencers, sentiment analysis, and trending topics for better engagement strategies.


6. Gamification and Serious Games


Gamification techniques can be employed to make stakeholder engagement more enjoyable and interactive. Serious games designed specifically for EIA/ESIA processes can simulate project scenarios, foster collaboration, and educate stakeholders about complex environmental and social issues. Gamified elements, such as challenges, quizzes, or rewards, can incentivize participation, increase stakeholder interest, and promote continued engagement.


7. Collaborative Platforms and Crowdsourcing


Online platforms that facilitate collaborative decision-making, co-creation, and crowdsourcing of ideas can engage stakeholders in a more inclusive and participatory manner. These platforms can enable stakeholders to collaborate directly with project proponents and experts, fostering a sense of ownership and shared responsibility.



In conclusion, digital technologies and software tools have the potential to enhance public participation and stakeholder engagement in EIA and ESIA processes. Digital means can significantly support communication, which can result in better understanding of issues and transparency. All this in a loop can create an atmosphere for discussion that increases the number of interested citizens and their engagement, through a structured and regulatory binding process. Overall this can eventually lead to decrease of corruption, collusion and conflicts of interest. Live consultations and other traditional methods are very important, especially in countries or areas with relatively (s)low access to the internet and modest skill sets for utilization of digital tools. Combining both approaches in a tailored and iterative manner can maximize the benefits and inclusiveness of stakeholder engagement efforts.

It's important to note that while new digital technologies hold promise, their implementation should be carefully considered, ensuring equitable access, data privacy, and meaningful stakeholder involvement, as discussed previously. This is a long-term endeavor that can only be done in wide participation and cooperation between authorities, public and private sectors. Ongoing research, collaboration, pilot projects and user feedback will be essential to shaping the future developments in the digital domain for improved stakeholder engagement in EIA and ESIA processes.




AUTHOR

Founder of Eon+ and the principal co-author of Envigo






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