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Did COVID-19 finally push us to completely paperless projects?

September 01, 2020

By Joe Polacek

New technology has helped us reduce waste and increase project outcomes—and we’re getting closer to completely paperless projects

So much has happened over the last couple of years—and especially these last few months—that it’s sometimes hard for me to acknowledge some of the progress we’ve made in the design industry. As an urban planner, I’ve seen that drones, virtual reality, and online engagement have been increasingly part of project discussions over the last few years and have helped reduce use and waste of paper. More recently, with social distancing and working from home, I think we’ve hit a point where a lot of us can visualize working with far less paper use in our workflows.

At Stantec, we’re a multi-disciplinary design firm with offices around the world—it’s extremely important that we have clear, constant communication. We constantly have to find innovative ways to reduce project costs while maintaining a high level of excellence. Our teams rely on digital means to coordinate and communicate with each other, our partners, and the public. With the pandemic, we have been pushed even harder to rely on virtual means while phasing out the use of paper.  

While we’re not completely paperless yet, the last couple years have surely shown us what it looks like to advance in that direction. The business case for digital tools is an easy argument to make because these tools increase speed of communication, enhance availability of data, and ultimately reduce project costs. Plus, the pace at which we can turn a thought into a concept and communicate that concept can dramatically improve project outcomes while reducing paper waste. 

Old vs. new

To design in the past, we often had to create a sketch, draft that sketch into a set of documents, get feedback, and return to the drawing table—going through a ton of paper in the process. Today, we can create iterations upon iterations, layering new attempts over old and creating better designs on digital platforms without having to throw old versions into the recycling bin. 

In the past, we also had to travel to project sites a lot more than we do now. It was the only way for us to get in-depth and on-the-ground information we needed to inform our projects. We’d have to bring drawings along, take notes, and update drafts accordingly. Now, we have 360-degree cameras, drones, satellite imagery, street-view imagery, and georeferenced photos to help us get a sense of the site right from our desks. While we hopefully still get to visit the sites physically at times, the support of these virtual tools reduces costs and waste while getting the information we need to inform design decisions. 

Virtual reality tools allow us to get in-depth information that was once only possible by an on-site visit.

Public engagement

Just like getting on-the-ground knowledge, there is no replacement for face-to-face interactions. One thing that’s become clear through the pandemic is just how much we crave, and rely on, genuine interactions with human beings. Such interactions are also incredibly important for designing a product that meets the needs of our clients and the end users. While we still rely on in-person engagement to inform our project, another way we’re increasing productivity while maintaining social distancing is by moving engagement online. Rather than plotting (and revising and re-plotting) large layouts for public engagement events, we’re likely to find ourselves using virtual means to share project progress and solicit community feedback for the long-haul, meaning less paper waste.

We know how to create attractive and exciting virtual engagement platforms that reach more people than in-person engagement alone. While I don’t think virtual engagement will fully replace critical face-to-face engagement, it will likely supplement our efforts moving forward without requiring the same amount of paper as in-person events.

We know how to create attractive and exciting virtual engagement platforms that reach more people than in-person engagement alone.

Information gathering

We often use virtual data to give us baseline information so that we can focus on gathering more detailed information once we’re at the project site. We sometimes prepare georeferenced site plans to allow us to see our physical location compared to plans on a tablet or phone while on-site. For some projects, we use drones and satellite imagery for pre-visit inspection, allowing us to review conditions ahead of time and predict obstacles before we get there. With virtual field tools, we can send notes and mark-ups back to the office to be addressed while we travel back, or even receive feedback to take a closer look at something before leaving the field. When we do make site visits, we’re better informed and more productive as a result of our virtual toolbox.

Communications

Communications is critically important for our Company. Clear and consistent communication, both internally and externally with clients and subcontractors, is how we’re able to mesh worldwide experience with local familiarity. For a lot of projects, we invest time and resources into developing 3D models instead of static images alone so that our internal and external partners can view and critique our projects more easily. With 3D models, we’re better equipped to develop a shared understanding of project opportunities and constraints with our partners. 

3D models allow clients and the public to understand how a project will take shape better than static images alone.

Future of paperless

The process of going paperless is timely as we grapple with our contribution to climate change. While we may not be totally paperless, we are taking the direction toward being more mindful about the paper we do use. The virtual tools we use in replacement of paper also help us reduce waste related to site visits. While some clients and partners may still require paper documents, we can make a big difference by reducing paper waste where we have control. 

Turning all projects paperless doesn’t happen overnight. But for many, working from home has caused us to adapt away from paper more quickly. By overcoming the challenges of going paperless, we’re better able to help our team, our clients, and our communities. 

  • Joe Polacek

    An urban planner with a focus on community engagement, Joe works to serve our clients and communities with solutions that deliver what people want and need.

    Contact Joe
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