As with many industries, the evolution of the energy sector is increasingly being driven by technology — more advanced solutions that continue to propel the industry forward. 

When one thinks of technological applications for the energy sector, the first thought is often of hard engineering technology — solutions that perhaps make exploration and production of resources faster, more accurate, more efficient and hopefully safer. However, the use of technology has the potential to revolutionise, or at least advance, all aspects of work within the industry. 

For decades, the process of engaging stakeholders in the sector has relied on the same tried and tested methods of interviews, focus groups, workshops and of course, public consultations. These approaches are increasingly less effective in achieving the objective of true stakeholder participation and end up being ‘box-ticking’ procedures in the impact assessment processes. 

There are, however, an increasing number of digital solutions that are being used in impact assessment and other stakeholder engagement to actively involve stakeholders and the broader community. These technologies allow for both input and collaboration in the identification of potential impacts and the development of mitigation measures, but their application spans the entire spectrum of public engagement with many examples currently being utilised by both private and public sector organisations. 

The use of technology in community engagement is not new and methods such as digital media, interactive community mapping and open data tools have been in use for close to a decade, especially in disaster mitigation and management. Interestingly so, interactive community mapping was used (albeit with moderate success) in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling rig disaster in an attempt to create a community-led approach to tracking environmental impacts of the oil spill. And, a 2014 World Bank book entitled, Closing the Feedback Loop: Can Technology Bridge the Accountability Gap?, noted the ‘tremendous diversity of tools that enable citizens to participate in the governance of villages, cities, states, and countries’. 

Today, community engagement technology is certainly more widespread, with more interactive and user-friendly applications and perhaps more importantly, also used by governments and state organisations to democratise many processes by successfully engaging citizens in planning and development initiatives. 

In the United States for example, Wake County, North Carolina used a combination of offline and online community engagement efforts to upgrade the county’s transportation network to address the needs of a growing population. The City of Virginia Beach also used online engagement to assist in disaster relief efforts and gain feedback from citizens on flooding, property damage and assistance needed in disposing of damaged household items. It must be noted that the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) also appears to be moving in the direction of using technology to support disaster relief, but there is so much potential still untapped. 

In today’s interconnected world, smartphones are commonplace and most people, from the farmer in the field, to the fisherman out on the ocean, have one or even two mobile phones, with social media and other applications often being the preferred platform for both receiving and sharing information. Engaging citizenry through smartphones is being used for a variety of crowd science applications, from uploading earthquake information, to mapping sightings of endangered species. 

Options for actively involving and engaging stakeholders in issues that affect their daily lives have moved leaps and bounds away from focus groups and public consultations to a broad suite of participatory technology applications that are flexible, user-friendly, transparent and interactive, with the additional benefit of easy data capture and analysis. 

Perhaps it’s time to consider other approaches to interact with and engage stakeholders so that they too can be part of the technology transformation that is propelling the industry forward.