Can We Build Back Better?

Amid the heartbreaking headlines around the world, Australia is under pressure to take new action.


"Changes to our climate pose an existential threat to natural values that help define our country."

Kieran Power, National Lead for Resilience and Climate Adaptation

The world is watching to see how our leaders and communities respond to the bushfire crisis. We know that it’s getting hotter and drier with more extreme weather events over time. The number of days with a severe fire danger rating are projected to increase by 30 to 70 per cent by 2030, with new areas becoming bushfire prone and fire behaviour becoming harder to predict.


“Changes to our climate pose an existential threat to natural values that help define our country,” says Kieran Power, WSP’s National Lead for Resilience and Climate Adaptation. “But this can no longer be seen as a niche environmental issue – already we can see the cascading effects of extreme events for communities and the Australian economy, particularly in rural areas dependent on tourism and agriculture.”


Given This New Normal, What Lessons Can be Learned to Rebuild Resilient Communities Impacted by Bushfires?

That’s the question we posed to our people across various professions as part of our resilience series, seeking to better understand how we can use the process of recovery as a catalyst for helping communities in both good times and bad. We recognise there are several key trends, in addition to climate, that are impacting Australia and globally, we must harness in our collective response to the bushfire crisis. What do the trends mean for our local communities and businesses? With current government policies in place and new ones developing on the horizon, we consider and explore these trends to provide recommendations and inform decisions for recovery and rebuilding.


Ask, Listen and Observe

“Australia is a signatory to the UN’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030), which urges countries to ‘Build Back Better’ after disasters,” says Michael Tyrpenou, WSP’s Social Strategy and Design Principal. “This means not repeating the mistakes of the past and including local communities in defining what ‘better’ looks like.


“We are seeing a societal trend giving rise to the individual, creating more freedom to engage in experiences that best meet their needs. In other words, to build back better after disasters, we must take an inclusive, accessible and participatory human-centered approach to recovery and ongoing risk reduction. We need to be placing a focus on understanding the needs and lived experiences of those directly and indirectly impacted through disasters.”


Building engaged communities is a priority, with organisations and governments acknowledging the value it holds for enhancing policy and service delivery outcomes. Commitments are being made to ensure public participation and collaboration, creating a platform for meaningful conversations and accountability throughout the decision-making process.


“It is incumbent on organisations and governments to continue working with impacted communities and co-create solutions in a transparent process, rather than designing solutions and measures on their behalf,” explains Michael. “For communities impacted by bushfires it means we need to better understand their aspirations for their places. By co-designing solutions with local communities, we can help to meet local needs, de-risk assumptions, and design Future Ready places. It will require empathy and humility to ask, listen and observe where grief, trauma and loss is still prevalent.


“Several tools and techniques can be employed to ensure local communities are included within a transparent and iterative process of meaningful engagement. Methods that emphasise honest, open-ended, face-to-face communication are preferred as it gives local communities the opportunity to be involved in the conversation. One such method which is gathering global popularity and has been advocated by the OECD1,  is the creation of deliberative democratic citizen bodies that are randomly selected to be representative of the local community.


“These bodies have been successfully implemented in the United States, Austria, Poland, France and Spain and highlight the importance of including citizens in decision making so that problems are defined locally, and solutions are developed locally. In Australia, deliberative democracy approaches are gaining traction through organisations such as newDemocracy, an independent, non-partisan research and development organisation. Technology trends towards ubiquitous connectivity and people expecting to be digitally enabled as a part of day-to-day life can help to support greater engagement with and between communities.


“The challenge, however, is to manage these competing needs against the feasibility and viability of any given solution in the rebuilding and recovery phase. In our journey toward transforming difficult human problems into desirable solutions, we will find innovation in the intersection between the desirability, feasibility and viability of any solution - it is not a zero-sum game2.”


Getting Real About Indigenous Perspectives

Looking ahead to the future means we also need to consider those before us who have managed the land and lived in harmony with it for years. Organisations and governments engaging with local communities will also find value in strengthening engagement with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia who hold a depth of knowledge and can provide increased perspective of the land for generations to come.


“As the oldest living civilisation on this planet and as the first peoples of Australia, we are progressively working alongside communities and clients to share in our understanding and management of the land, which will be crucial to support initiatives in building back better,” says Russell Reid, WSP’s Senior Consultant for Aboriginal Affairs and Participation and Gamilaraay Man.


“For the past 65,000 years, our people have used their intimate knowledge of plants, animals, stars, landscape changes and observations of the weather, all of which contribute to the tracking of the seasons. Fire plays an important part to the lives of our people and has been used not just as a tool for hunting, cooking, and warmth but for managing the landscape.”


Contrary to perception of fire as purely destructive, fire is considered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples as part of the healing process of the land. Children as young as four are introduced to the ways of land management, and quickly learn how to lose their fear of fire by managing with it.


“Early introduction and passing down of these skills and knowledge also allows the youth of a new generation to go out on Country and reconnect with culture,” adds Russell. “Elders share knowledge with younger generations of Aboriginal men who receive training from the Fire Services.


“It is an initiative for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to look after Country and share their experiences. The Banbai nation people at Wattleridge Indigenous Protected Area in northern New South Wales have worked with Michelle McKemey at the University of New England to develop season and fire calendar fostering ‘intergenerational transmission of Aboriginal knowledge, acting as a model for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal partners to work together and increase awareness of Aboriginal fire management.’


“To build back better, we advocate approaching organisations who are committed to sharing their experiences with Country and engaging with them to see how their work can support those affected by fires, and providing assistance in future proofing their lands,” says Russell. “In NSW, two organisations are reviving the practice of Cultural Burning. Both the Koori Country Firesticks Aboriginal Corporation (KCFSAC) and Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation facilitate cultural learning pathways to fire and land management and share these as an alternative approach to Hazard Reduction techniques often used by private and public landholders and managers. Active engagement with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will help shape the way forward as we build resilient communities together.”


Taking Immediate Action

We know recovery efforts are underway across the nation with the establishment of the National Bushfire Recovery Agency providing an initial $2 billion fund to support recovery efforts over the next two years. The NSW government also announced a $1 billion commitment to rebuild bushfire impacted communities across the state. So how do we ensure funds contribute toward rebuilding resilient communities? Are there ways to instil ‘building back better’ as a key performance metric?


Immediate and practical ways to build resilience:

  • Spend time meaningfully engaging with local communities so that we better understand their experiences, needs and trauma before quickly identifying solutions.
  • Collaboratively revisit planning provisions to ensure they support resilient outcomes.
  • Support projects that are engineered for the new normal of drier, hotter conditions with longer, more frequent and severe bushfire seasons.
  • Replace damaged community assets with facilities that better serve the community 365 days a year and can be readily adapted in the future, in response to demographic shifts such as an ageing population.
  • Facilitate workshops with organisations reviving the practice of Cultural Burning to develop alternative approaches for fire and land management.


“At present, as part of our commitment to communities, our people are taking action to offer affected clients and communities a helping hand,” says Guy Templeton, WSP’s President and CEO for Australia and New Zealand. “We have mobilised eighteen staff from WSP and Elton Consulting (a WSP company) as part of the Laing O’Rourke team, announced by the Prime Minister and NSW Premier on 30 January as the lead contractor to undertake the clean-up of residential and other sites, a critical step in rebuilding, supporting bushfire recovery in regional NSW. It’s a step in our journey to helping communities build back better.


“We aim to provide guidance for organisations and governments helping communities recover, ensuring the decision-making process for rebuilding leads to resilient outcomes.”

Watch This Space

In the coming weeks, we will continue engaging with our people and clients to expand upon trends identified here as part of our Future Ready innovation platform, their impact on communities and share ways in which we can create solutions together to build back better.


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Building Back Better for the Natural Environment

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