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Jacques Bénard - Senior Vice-President, Infrastructure & Urban Development, Hill + Knowlton Strategies

29 Jan 2018 3:45 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)
How long have you been in P2, and where have you worked?

I don’t consider myself a P2 practitioner, but I’ve been involved with it for many years.

I started with construction in Montreal after doing engineering school at École Polytechnique. Then in the late 80s, I started working as a consultant, specializing in urban revitalisation and heritage preservation projects. It was when I was working on my Masters at Université de Montréal on heritage preservation and land use that I developed an interest in P2.  

The 1980s was not a good time for Montréal. The city was very depressed, particularly the poor parts of town, and the whole city needed an electro-shock. You had to create your own jobs, and that’s what I did.

After I got my Masters, one of my projects was an urban revitalization project in Plateau Mont-Royal – a neighbourhood in Montréal. Going from academic work to a real project I found I needed to get people involved. On top of that, I had discovered that the actual engineering work – calculations and that sort of thing – was not my passion. I learned I was more of a communicator than a “numbers person”.

So P2 became a tool – a way of getting people involved, invested and engaged, getting people to have a shared vision of their neighbourhood, their street. Some people see P2 as an end in itself – a way to make things more democratic: for me, it was a case of “how do you get this project done?”

Eventually – in the mid-90s -- I started a non-profit in Montréal, supporting local economic development and urban revitalization initiatives. With a non-profit, participation is important: you have to have a collaborative environment among employees and the Board. We worked in different neighbourhoods. We experienced the different cultural environments and learned to adapt to the different cultures in places like Chinatown, Park Extension or Westmount. Working in those different realities, you learn how to adjust processes – and and yourself.

In the early 2000s, I had an interesting project that changed my way of seeing things. It was the transformation of a former veterans’ housing project in NDG (Notre-Dame-de-Grâce section of Montréal), which was extremely controversial for many years. There was lots of fighting among local residents and community groups. I was working on several projects in that area, and the federal agency that owned the piece of land asked me if I could help resolve the conflict and come up with a common vision for the site.

That changed my perspective and allowed me to bring different stakeholders – with different interests and needs – together. Seeing the skills required to reconcile those interests got me interested in facilitation.

I was focused early in my career on mobilizing communities, and I found that proponents of projects were having difficulty getting support for their projects locally. People don’t want projects imposed on them; they want to be part of it. There were developers who didn’t have the capacity to reach out to communities and get involved in dialogue and they had projects to work on. So I changed my practice and started a consulting firm – Acertys -- to work with them, focusing on community relations, conflict resolution when needed and communications. I changed my perspective on the type of tools you need to use to make large-scale projects successful.

We started working on other projects, such as railways, hospitals and energy, and broadened our geographic scope beyond Montréal.

And then Hill + Knowlton took over your company.

P2 is in an interesting state. PR & communications companies are merging with P2 and taking up the idea bringing people together, rather than pushing themselves through. H+K wanted to strengthen its Quebec presence and was interested in Acertys’ urban development and infrastructure experience. Now, I’m the leading expert for that sector for H+K and support internal teams and clients in some of the most significant transportation, public transit, real-estate, energy and institutional projects across the country.

Have you noticed differences as you move outside Montréal?

There are different sensitivities, but humans are humans. I’m always trying to figure out the needs of people who are involved in a project, since they do differ from one neighbourhood to another and from one city to another. But as I work on different projects – also in agricultural areas, which are obviously different – what surprises me is how similar the job is. It’s similar in that you always have to adapt yourself – find out about the local culture and not try to make it adapt to you.

Look at Toronto: it’s a booming city, growing at an incredible pace. The issues are different from Montréal, but everything boils down to the same thing: quality of life. People want to make sure they protect that, and their property values. You’ll find that everywhere, and when you get down to basic needs on a human scale, beyond the social differences and context, there are always the same characteristics that need to be respected.

What learning experiences have you had?

Every project is a learning experience, because they’re all so different. The NDG project was an eye-opener, because I was lucky enough to be involved for three or four years and see the evolution of the project from vision to completion and see the stakeholders get involved in the process. It seemed like an impossible thing at the beginning; and this seems to be the case in many projects where you have people expressing positions in public meetings.

Often, what they express is not their real need, but more of a positioning. That was an eye-opener, being able to get down to see their individual needs. Often as p2 practitioners, we expect there’s a big collective movement in one direction, but each person has an individual need, and when you’re dealing with a mass of people, one of the difficulties is to get down to that individual level. That realization led me to change my practices.

The other learning experience is that over the years, it seems that each P2 process leads to more conflict. We think that P2 leads to more consensus, but really, as more people get voices and want to be heard, that increases the diversity of interests and needs that have to be considered.

In fact, P2 and alternative dispute resolution are distant cousins but members of the same family – part of the same toolbox.

So you need to take a mediation approach to get representation of those interests around the table and it becomes a negotiation process to get solutions that are mutually acceptable. That’s how I approach new assignments now.

Is that realistic?

You can’t please everybody, that’s for sure, but I think when there’s an understanding from all parts that the needs of everyone involved have to be considered, there’s an acceptance of the need to address all these different needs and interests. You don’t often find reaching out and negotiating in P2, but that’s become an important aspect of my work. If people have a sense that they have some kind of control over the end result and that they have made a contribution, they’re more likely to accept it.

If you had anything to say to someone just getting into the P2 business …

The value you bring is not only your knowledge of p2 mechanics, but the knowledge of one area of practice. More often now, I see P2 practitioners in a specific field: find an area where you have a particular knowledge and expertise, and that can help you understand complex situations.

To a young practitioner, I would say: first, have a very diverse practice and find out about different sectors and cultural contexts, whether it’s the health sector, development, social planning, public policy, transportation. Then, find one that is your niche -- the place where you are an expert, not just a P2 practitioner.

I know a lot of P2 practitioners won’t agree with that, and say that you have to be distanced from the subject, but I believe knowing the industry you’re working with is becoming the norm – not the exception.

And don’t be afraid to question. P2 is not a religion: there’s a lot of transformation in society and we have to keep questioning ourselves.

(Listen to Jacques taking part in the IAP2 August 2017 Webinar: “Montréal Encore – ‘Understanding the Squishy Stuff’ + ‘Are We Smarter Together?’”here.)

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