From designing theatrical sets to virtual reality, Stephen Paul, director of visualization and immersive technologies with AECOM’s Design and Consulting Services, Americas, business, discusses how his work directly impacts communities in meaningful ways. He explains why approaching projects with a people-first mindset, especially in a changing environment like today, is key to surviving and thriving in this industry.

Building positive experiences for communities

The legacy I hope to create for the industry and our communities is one that makes the world a better place to live in. For us as a group in the Visualization Studio, one of the ways we contribute to a better world is by helping to communicate projects that impact people’s lives in a very direct way.

We work on all kinds of projects including architecture, transportation, water, energy and education. What continuously inspires me is that these projects directly impact local communities in incredibly positive ways. Our team helps to communicate how we help to build that better world for the people who live there.

Before I joined AECOM, I was a college professor and two of my former students happen to be on my team. For me personally, one of my proudest moments has been seeing them succeed. My definition of success includes every time we help to win work, communicate a project impact effectively or someone

We take design, engineering and architecture and bring them to life. In 2017, we created virtual reality visualizations of a proposed rebuilding of Five Points Plaza in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s a historic neighborhood, and the community was very concerned about what it would look like. We provided VR headsets for the public meetings to review the proposed designs, and the community members – from the youngest to the oldest – enthusiastically engaged with our plans. We were blown away by the effectiveness of the connection that we were able to facilitate! That was a proud moment.

Innovating in a changing landscape

In 2020, it seems as though everything has changed. We’re in an unknown territory, but one thing that is certain is that infrastructure will be a critical part of how we return to normalcy. I see what we do in the Visualization Studio as being a critical part of how we connect the plans for building a better world with those who we are building it for.

In these days of social distancing, we’re finding that some of the most impactful things we can offer are the virtual consultation tools and public meeting rooms. These allow for our stakeholders to visit virtual community centers and gathering places in 3D rooms over the web. There they can view documents, watch slideshows and videos, live chat, leave messages, share information and even experience virtual reality scenes of proposed designs – all remotely from their own homes and mobile devices. It’s proving to be a great way to staying connected to the people who really matter in our work – our communities.

Advancing in STEM with Humanities

I would say, to anyone wanting to move forward in the world ahead of us that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) have never been more important, but so is our ability to connect with and understand the needs of our fellow human beings. Develop your sense of empathy and your communication abilities as much as your understanding of the hard facts of the world around you.

STEM cannot exist or thrive without the humanities. The things we build help make the world a better place only if we remember — and hear — the people we are building for.

Embracing new possibilities

My career as a designer began designing for theater. I have a bachelor’s degree in English and I studied creative writing at the University of Iowa. After graduation, I started designing and working in theater, where I met my wife, a modern dance choreographer. I later earned my Master of Fine Arts in interactive media design.

I have a theatre production company and I still design for it, although not as frequently as I once did. My role in the company is to design everything — set, light, sound, projection — and I’m now starting to design in VR and come up with ideas for performance pieces in that.

So, my next piece of advice is to stay flexible and adaptable. I’ve been lucky enough to have a career that has spanned pencils to VR for our work. Understanding and engaging with the changing flow of the world around us is key to surviving and thriving. Always stay open to new ideas.

Originally published 07.28.2020

Author: Stephen Paul