Four social research trends: Western Sydney

I am proud to say I’ve lived and worked in Western Sydney for over ten years.

I’ve had thousands of interesting conversations working on research and engagement projects across Sydney's West. And I feel privileged to have had a peek into the mindsets of communities in this unique part of the world.

Dynamic and innovative research techniques are needed now, more than ever, for adding social value to infrastructure projects. This is something our new Social Advisory and Research team at RPS is actively working on in partnership with industry.

As the COVID-infrastructure boom reaches its peak, let’s look at four research trends I’ve noticed.

Understanding the nuances between communities is critical

Differences in mindsets, lifestyles, and occupations direct different conversations in research.

A trend that we see in non-English speaking background communities is that people are not used to telling government what they think. Often in their home countries they can be persecuted for telling it like it is, and they’re distrusting of government.

I saw this firsthand in consultation on an energy project a few years ago. We tackled this by repeating study circle formats with the same group of people. It took us several visits for participants to really open up and trust us.

Families walking along pathway with public art along the banks of the Parramatta River in Sydney's western suburbs. Green grass and trees beside the river on a sunny day.

We're working in increasingly polarised communities

Western Sydney communities – not unlike others –are increasingly polarised. Some have clear social cohesion, while others do not. Some are progressive, others very conservative.

There are communities within communities, even though people may live side-by-side. Research needs to understand each of these pockets of community really well. What makes them tick, their differences, and their commonalities.

An interesting example is climate. People often agree to disagree on the cause, but recognise the value of addressing the issue. I’ve noticed this through research work that I’ve done around features for community infrastructure projects, such as new aquatic centres or cultural facilities.

Communities in Western Sydney are acutely aware of climate impacts. They’ve called for indoor facilities early and continue year-on-year to shelter from the sweltering heat. Of course, they disagree about the reasons why it’s getting warmer (or wetter), but they all agree that solutions are desperately needed because not everyone has air-conditioning at home. They need to escape somewhere.

The NSW Government is starting to address this through policy changes by banning black roof colours and other planning measures.

Close up of cardboard rally sign that says 'Western Sydney wants climate action now' sitting on the grass with people's legs and a pram in the background.

Numbers are important, but stories can complete the picture

As a researcher, much of my work involves interpreting quantitative data (the story the numbers tell). This is completely true for the early days of infrastructure projects, where we weigh up whether something will proceed or not. But as we consider the numbers, it’s so important to overlay the story – ‘the why’ – through qualitative research.

An example of why the ‘why’ is important was revealed to me in the mid-2010s, when I was working with Councils who were joining forces through local government amalgamations.

The objective was to understand what the new communities that would be served by these new larger bodies valued, and the service they expected from us. In the early days, the data showed many people saying ‘I don’t know’ when asked these questions.

It’s standard practice for ‘I don’t’ know’ responses to be cut out of a survey’s data when it comes to the processing stage. The theory is that these responses aren’t definitive and so don’t contribute to the overall story. But their presence was a big ‘aha’ moment for me.

The community’s ambivalence was telling a story in itself. And there was value in leaving that in. People weren’t informed enough about the new Council to make an informed decision. They wanted to wait and see. There was a story behind that data that we would have discounted if we’d gone down the usual route.

Want to know why storytelling is so good? Some research about how our brains absorb stories more readily is here.

Hearing all the voices

Last year, I was part of a team leading research and consultation conversations about a new infrastructure program that would span long distances and traverse many communities across Sydney.

To be successful in our work, we needed to take a different approach for each section of the alignment. Some places were made up of larger farm holdings where property-owners were less used to dealing with government and wanted to really understand what it meant for them.

In another community that was surrounded by open spaces, people's concerns were more about how their lifestyle would be impacted.

There are communities in Western Sydney who are simply too busy surviving to make noise. People – like my immediate neighbours – who work frantically long hours and are less likely to voice their concerns about quality of life, or how infrastructure projects impact them.

In a recent annual survey produced by the Committee for Sydney in partnership with Ipsos called ‘Life in Sydney’ nearly one third (27%) of respondents said they often go without essential goods or services because of the high cost of living.

So how do we ensure these kinds of people have a voice in decision making, when the issues we are talking about are the least of their worries?

I’ve always argued there is a strong place for market research in engagement projects – where people are paid to attend a focus group, for example. This is one strategy we can use to hear the voices of people who are too busy surviving, or don’t have the luxury of time or income to join an action group or go to community meetings.

We started to hear more of these voices from Western Sydney in mid-2021 during the COVID ‘hotspot’ lockdowns. Between the lines of people expressing their exhaustion and overwhelm, was a reminder about the responsibility that decision-makers have to consider and respect the needs of communities whose lives and needs are diverse.

My favourite summary of this was by my friend and colleague Shelia Ngoc Pham, ‘Sydney Lockdown: if we’re in this together, let’s ditch the scapegoating.

As the RPS co-authored Humanising Infrastructure paper also points out, we can learn lessons from the non-for-profit and social enterprise sectors about connecting with the people who, by circumstance, are often left out:

'In Greater Western Sydney, the region’s not-for-profit and social enterprise sector has risen to the massive challenges presented during the pandemic, and has proven in many circumstances to be better connected and more effective in reaching disengaged and vulnerable communities than government or the private sector can ever be.'

Final thoughts

To deal with the challenges and opportunities ahead we need dedication and thought, and above all, heart.

When researching communities in Western Sydney, it’s important to use all the tools in our toolkit and think about the values and nuances of the people who live there.

Creating good infrastructure requires more than strokes on a map, or letters to residents filled with key message statements, and no questions. Good research can help bridge the gap between what Western Sydney communities want and need, and the projects we design and deliver for them.


"I’m excited to be part of the new RPS team specialising in Social Advisory and Research. We have three streams to our work – research, procurement and strategy, to give you understanding and insights that matter."


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