The Capire Story

It all started one Autumn day, mid-GFC on April 27, 2007. As the financial markets crashed around the world, Capire Co-Founders and Directors, Amy Hubbard and Chris Robinson, saw an opportunity. 15 years and over 1000 projects later, Capire has grown to become a leader in community engagement.

An interview with Chris Robinson and Amy Hubbard

What inspired you to start Capire? Why community engagement?

We worked in urban planning and design, and it always felt apparent that the community’s expertise was left out. From our experience we understood the value of engaging with the community. It made sense. We could see that it needed to be at the forefront.

We both worked at major Australian professional service firm GHD. There we worked on sustainability consulting, urban planning, and major infrastructure projects. We left to join The Hornery Institute, a not-for-profit off shoot of Lend Lease and they worked in the cross over between property and community development. They were looking for a new General Manager and specialist staff. We joined up and got to work. After a year, we felt the urge to go out on our own. As we had a background in consultancy, we soon knew what it would take to start our own company and focus more on client needs. We took a chance. Chris had a young family and a mortgage, so there was no backup plan for him.

We rang a few clients and asked if they wanted to work with us and they did. They wanted to buy Chris and Amy. We had the quality attached to our previous work. On Sunday we met up to discuss logistics and by Monday Capire was created! We started working that day.

The first couple of years felt like an experiment. Low overheads. Great clients. We spent a lot of our time just looking for projects and delivering quickly. Around April/May 2007 we opened our first office in Bouverie St in Carlton – above a convenience shop. We employed casuals from day one and grew the team in a safe way. We always had a good handle on business development. That was a benefit of coming from a big company and exposure to so many people. Chris was the founding Managing Director then Amy took over as CEO in 2015. In 2018, we brought in our current CEO Sandra Jerkovic.

Starting a business requires a lot of effort and commitment. How did you make sure you were prepared? As a growing business, what challenges did you face during the early years?

We weren’t fully prepared! Can you ever be in the fast world of a start-up? We needed to deliver all our client needs and their projects, whist growing our IT and office systems, growing our team, and keeping focused on what we could control – remember, we started during the Global Financial Crisis and the world and local economies looked scary. We just kept on working. Delivering on projects and focusing on making an impact wherever we could. Eventually, we even paid ourselves … now, that was a good day. Everything we did, we did incrementally. We focused on what we were good at and outsourced the things we were not good at.


What were your original goals and founding principles?

In the earliest days as it is today, we were client and project first. We knew very well that our clients were paying the bills. They also gave us fantastic projects to work on and challenged us to be the best we can be, to build the system and raise the overall engagement bar.

We had a desire to create a high level of social impact. It wasn’t really given a name then, but we always knew we wanted to be a B Corp. We wanted to make a positive impact on the people and places we visited, and we wanted our business to be known for that. Pro bono work was always important to us and continues across the business, as was our desire to minimise our environmental impact and produce quality work.

Our founding principles also included having fun, travelling, and making sure our end of year company retreats just got bigger and better!

In the early days, was there a desire for community engagement, or did you have to essentially ‘sell it’ to clients?

As well as community engagement, we also did social planning and policy. That was a bonus. Community engagement has always been the core of what we do, but we had to offer other options. Community engagement was still growing. The growth of Capire was the growth of the community engagement practice in general.

Community engagement expectations were starting to spread – we seemed to pick the right time. Engagement was rapidly moving beyond planning and project approvals and into policy making and place design or organisational management. It was exciting to see and be part of. To this day, it is still rewarding when a client has a little eureka moment and can see the value the engagement has generated for them.

As a business, how did you balance profit and passion? How did you stay true to your heart and original goals and be successful – to listen and understand community members whilst also meeting the needs of clients?

By always being mindful of the client and the project. You can balance both by picking the right projects. We were, and still are, selective with what we do. And by being honest. It also helps to have networks and friends.

Empathy is a key part to the Capire model. Putting ourselves in the shoes of others allows us to design the right approach, the right methods, and tools for any project. We still do this every day. We need to try all the time to understand how our clients and stakeholders are feeling, understand their fears or dreams, what is important or what might be just words.

Who were some of the first clients?

Sustainability Victoria, Department of Transport and the City of Melbourne were our foundation clients. To this day, local and state government and the urban development sectors are still a large part of our client base.

What was unexpected about starting Capire?

We have been continually surprised at our success. And how solid we are. Capire is known for that. It’s also terrific that Capire’s reach has grown far beyond the skills of us as early founders. For fifteen years, so many very talented and passionate consultants have been part of the Capire adventure. They have all left their mark on the business and many are now professional leaders, both in Australia and overseas. Capire’s terrific staff now lead the business and are continually innovating, growing, and delivering great project outcomes.

What were some of your original engagement methods, tools and techniques?

Until a few years ago, Post-It notes and butcher paper were our staple and we consumed vast quantities of Blu-Tack and textas. We obviously do a lot more online today, back then it was all face-to-face and 99% of it was with hard to reach groups. Our difference now is inclusion – finding ways to include the whole community.

Most community engagement is initiated by governments and service systems, usually when they are planning to deliver or change a service or amenity. Have you witnessed many community engagement programs that have been initiated by communities themselves?

Community initiated ‘engagement’ is often based on a campaign for change or project protest, underpinning a political agenda. The low cost of social media platforms means community engagement around local flashpoint or project decisions can occur overnight and stun decision makers into action – or inaction!

Our clients and projects have been part of everything from a ‘save our park’ letter box campaign to integrated social and mainstream media campaigns to social and physical activation programs. There are infinite examples of how this form of engagement is influencing the practice of engagement every day and it’s continually changing.

From the earliest days, we have always had an interest in international development work, and have worked in Samoa, Timor Leste, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Malaysia with education programs and building knowledge in their universities. We’ve worked with many local communities where formal state-sponsored community engagement is largely PR, so the campaign engagement model they show does comes with risks.

How has Capire changed and grown over the years and how has it stayed true to its founding principles? Was it always important to you to stand out from the crowd?

The engagement crowd is indeed busy and getting busier. The growth of sole practitioners, small start-up companies, new digital engagement platforms, major international public relations or professional service firms are all doing ‘engagement’. And in many ways, that’s great. This should mean that people have a voice in public policy and projects that impact people’s lives and places. It often doesn’t, however. Big reforms or projects with large budgets doesn’t always mean great engagement outcomes. Communications is part of part of engagement, but not the only thing.

One of Capire’s biggest challenges is to ensure we provide clients with the highest possible quality and value, whilst giving them the skills, knowledge, and confidence to make their best decisions. We frequently act as adviser, strategist, advocate, and often an in-field ‘front door’ for a controversial project. We are driven by ensuring that people who interact with the project we’re working on are informed, understand, know what they can influence and what decisions may have been made. The ability to balance client needs and our community responsibilities are core to how we go about our work.

The depth of Capire’s balance sheet, our proven systems, tools, and recognised staff training provides clients with the confidence that we can deliver their long term, multi-year assignments, or just drop in and solve a problem quickly. We stand out by being a proven performer with a generous spirit and reputation for delivery. Many repeat clients refer us onto new industries or sectors – into renewables, resource recovery, corporate governance, skills development, and training.

What’s one of the best projects you have worked on?

From iconic city shaping masterplans, new train stations and infrastructure, national corporate restructures, essential community infrastructure and Malaysian skills development…there are just so many amazing projects to choose from. Can you really have a favourite child?

One project that does stand out is Return to Royal Park, with the City of Melbourne, Royal Children’s Hospital and State Government. While there were conflicts, it was rewarding to see the engagement directly inform the design of the new play space and the landscaping based on the Wurundjeri’s seven seasons. There were so many diverse voices to engage and we went through the design process in a cautious and considered way. The park won national and international awards and is loved by many.

How has community engagement changed over the years? How have the barriers and drivers changed?

It’s now more widely recognised unlike in the early days. It’s considered not just important, but vital and even enshrined in legislation. It’s widely used in government and co-design. It also creates evidence. It’s no longer about just ticking boxes.

The new digital world and social media has turned communities into ‘customers’. There is an expectation that they have a right to be involved and receive far more recognition. We also have newer tools now than we did in the past, especially with digital platforms. An upside of the video conferencing revolution is that a cold mid-winter community hall engagement model is no longer a barrier to participating and more people can have a voice or at least find out more.

What would you like Capire to achieve in the next ten years?

International partnerships. To work more with universities in Vietnam. Exposure to different challenges. To continue having a sustainable business. To amplify even more voices, that’s still where our personal values sit. Our strategic business plan sees Capire 2.0 as being a business without borders, working on high impact community, infrastructure, cultural change, and natural resource projects and with influence across a wider diversity of sectors.

Global advances towards embedding business and organisational ‘ESG’ (environment social and governance) will require genuine and impactful engagement with stakeholders, staff, regulators, suppliers and the communities within which organisations and projects operate. We’re in a sweet spot now ready for growth and increased diversity to support this essential work front. It’s an exciting time and we can see that energy in our team and their forward planning.

Within the next ten years, Capire will be much more central to the origination, early design and place shaping projects. These projects or programs will also regenerate damaged or threatened land, build lasting and constructive partnerships with first nations communities, and build real value to all communities, wherever we work.

Where do you see the future of engagement?

People are still hiding behind engagement. We want to see it recognised and used properly. This can be done with firmer regulations. We’re at a bit of an engagement turning point in some respect. For many people or organisations, the way of the future for engagement will be driven by the vast growth in digital engagement tools, media platforms, and the ability to forensically trawl through and analyse terabytes of meta data of people’s daily behaviour and thoughts on infinite topics. Others may see this as dehumanising and treat people as simply data points or votes.

A data central view of engagement might lack the very nature of human interactions, the subtle communications, quiet reflections, and insights that can be discovered by a skilled engagement professional. Some might lament the dramatic decline of face-to-face conversations and that the industry must return quickly to that place. The future of engagement won’t be a future of data vs conversations. It must be both.

Engagement practice is always a function of the great cultural values or shifts of the time. One thing that is sure, is that a call for increased transparency, better governance, and project honesty is not going away soon.

It is here Capire will shine. Quality engagement practice can shine light in the corners of society that need to be illuminated. It can point to a new direction and future that can be informed and influenced by the wise, the creative, the disruptive and the hardworking people who live in every community.

What advice would you give up and comers in the industry?

Get practical experience. Volunteer. Work with the community any way you can. Treat every project you work on differently. Never a rinse and repeat. Every project is distinct, it has a distinct community, a distinct challenge.

Be the first to take on that hard project. Look at things differently and listen. Get out and mix, talk and listen to those other voices in our community, especially voices that might be hard for you to listen to – those voices are real and growing.

Finally, try listening more and talking less. Put those empathy shoes on a little more frequently. It’s a great industry to be in and one that has potential to make real changes in the world around us.

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