Lessons from Country with our First Nations partners

As part of Hassell’s Reconciliation Action Plan journey, our Perth Studio hosted a round panel discussion at the WA Museum Boola Bardip, on Whadjuk Country, the land of the Nyoongar nation.

The conversation brought together First Nations collaborators, Western Australia government representatives, clients and designers to listen and understand better ways to engage on projects. 

The resulting conversation was rich, provocative and full of lessons, and in this episode of Hassell Talks we share an edited recording of that conversation.

What you create as an organisation has to be something that pushes the boundaries everywhere.”

Carol Innes AM

The insights revealed by Dr Richard Walley OAM, Karen Jacobs and Carol Innes AM, will resonate beyond our practice. Reminders that while early engagement, investment, integration and planning are crucial elements in maintaining positive collaboration throughout a project’s journey, so too are the employment opportunities that projects provide for First Nations people.

Hassell looks forward to sharing more about our Reconciliation Action Plan in the coming months.


A Reconciliation Action Plan helps Australian businesses to embed the principles and purpose of reconciliation. A plan for reconciliation enables organisations to sustainably and strategically take meaningful action to advance reconciliation. Based around the core pillars of relationships, respect and opportunities, RAPs provide tangible and substantive benefits for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, increasing economic equity and supporting First Nations self-determination. 

In Australia, the RAP network is a diverse group of over 1,100 organisations that directly impact over three million people at work every day. Find out more about the role of reconciliation in Australia.

Listen to the podcast via the player below. Search for Hassell Talks on Apple, Spotify, iHeart, PodBean or on your favourite podcast app.

This episode was recorded on Whadjuk Country with additional production on Wurundjeri Woi-Wurrung land. Recording by Periscope Pictures.


Season 4 Episode 4


Peter Dean, Principal


Dr Richard Walley OAM, Aboriginal Productions Promotions
Karen Jacobs, Indigenous Economic Solutions
Carol Innes AM, Non-Executive Co-Chair at Reconciliation WA Board, Art Gallery of WA Board, Manager, Aboriginal Cultural Heritage & Arts, Development WA
Steve Wilson, Chevron Australia


Robert Frith/​Acorn Photo


One of many sculptures dispersed throughout the Chevron Parkland site, Discovery Boyi’ (Long neck Turtles), is by Noongar artist Miranda Farmer of Farmer Design Team.

What do we need to do to shake this foundation to ensure that Aboriginal people’s stories can be told?”

Carol Innes AM

Peter Dean:

From global design practice Hassell, this is Hassell Talks, a podcast series looking at a changing and complex world, and the opportunities for design to create a better place for everyone. It’s a series that is unashamedly optimistic about creating a beautiful, inclusive and resilient future.

I’m Peter Dean, design principal at Hassell and I’m recording this on Whadjuk country, the land of the Nyoongar nation in the city known as Perth, Western Australia. As is our practice, I offer and pay my respects to the wad elders, past and present to the knowledge and ongoing custodianship of this land and the lessons they and other First Nations people across Australia and the world share.

For a long time, Hassell have been thinking a lot about what happens when people come together, whether it’s through designing for memorable experiences in our cities, the latest thinking on bringing people back to workplaces, creating diverse and resilient communities through housing, and even how to make women and girls feel safer in public spaces. To bring people together well, to be able to create places they include, inspire and support people, we need to reflect on our past. How have we designed places people love? Where have we got it right? But more importantly, where could we improve on things? And that includes how we have worked with First Nations people on our projects.

You’re about to listen to an edited recording of a conversation we held with some of our First Nations collaborators, Western Australian government representatives, clients and our key designers. We brought this group of people together as part of our reflection and learning stage of our reconciliation action plan or RAP. And there’s some links and other information in the show notes about what a RAP is, as well as other terms used in this episode. The dialogue proved to be incredibly rich and broad ranging and we wanted to share parts of it with you, our listeners.

We know there is so much to learn and act upon to create better outcomes for First Nations people and culture so we can continue to walk together.

I’ll now hand over to my colleague, Peter Lee, who opened the conversation, and Nyoongar elder, Dr. Richard Walley for a welcome to country. I hope you enjoy the episode.

Peter Lee:

My name’s Peter Lee. I’m a principal at Hassell. I want to acknowledge the Whadjuk people, the Nyoongar nation whose land we meet today and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging, and thank them for their stewardship of the lands, the seas and for the rich culture of arts, song, dance, language and stories.

Hassell’s developing a reconciliation plan and we want our RAP to be both meaningful and practical, and we want to hear from you about things that we are doing well, what we can do better, and if we’re missing any vital pieces of the puzzle. I believe that our consultation process has become second nature with most of our people and it has had a wonderful effect on the quality and intelligence of our work. However, as with most things, we have much to learn and a long way to go to truly partner with our Aboriginal friends.

Please be very honest in your comments to us today. We can really only learn if you’re as open as possible and in fact, understand where we’ve not done things well is more important than where we have done things really well. So thanks again for your help. I’m very happy to hand over now to our friend Richard Walley to give us a welcome to country.

Dr Richard Walley OAM:

Thanks, Peter.

So may the good spirit keep us all safe here.

Traditionally of course this is known as Boorloo, it’s one of the many places where the swamps were around this region. It’s a place of meeting and gathering and telling stories. So today I asked good spirit to watch over us in this sacred and spiritual place, and when it’s completed, take us all safely home at the end of the day.

I’m listening for Hassell to say, We’ve got a position that we want to offer.” I’m listening for, We’ve got these projects and it’d be fantastic to have a project manager to come on as a cultural consultant, as a project manager.” And I understand the goodwill’s there. There’s nothing wrong with goodwill. It’s how challenge to be able to present but to be invited to present because we are not going to knock on doors and says you need. But conversations like this are fantastic, that this pricks the consciousness in saying, do aboriginal people have strategic plans?

We have strategic plans into our DNA system. Our plans start before we’re born. Our plan is such sophistication that you can’t marry someone from your family till the sixth generations. That’s genetics. The sixth seasons process we use from fertility, incubation, birth, childhood, adolescent to adults is the strategic business plan. You talk about stuff before you put your pre-feasibilities into your pre-feasibilities, and once you get the tick off, that’s your birth. Then you got your contracts, adolescence. You built a childhood, built adolescence, up functioning as adult. When you’re fully functioning you think about how you’re going to reinvent your fertility.

So we’ve had those structures in our DNA and what we’ve done is we’ve been able to implement them over the normal strategic planning, but we’ve never had the capacity to manage or oversee the implementation of that planning through the projects. We’ve always been the mendicants, come please can we participate? And there’s always been gatekeepers between us and the decision makers.

If you look at what any company or organisation build, they build what they call a culture. We want to build a culture in our company. We want to build a culture in our operations. A culture is the interaction between the collective so that the collective have this feeling and not the dominant up the top saying this is what I will dictate what will happen. So to have a culture, you have to have a homogenous connect. Aboriginal people, we were the forerunners in developing that. We had a far greater culture today and in the past than any other society that ever existed. But that’s not taken into the context of how do we incorporate into a body or a business and organisation? That culture is integrated, is a sophisticated series of codes.

Now in the western world, you understand the codes. Your engineering is based on codes. The strategic plans is based on the codes, critical paths of codes. We understand those, but our code were existed up here. We did not put them down so they were easy to interpret by others. You had to absorb the code. Alphabet’s a code. You learn the alphabet, you’d be able to write in them, but you can’t take that alphabet in the English code, in the English alphabet. You can use the English words to write in French, but it’s completely different. You try to translate that code into that other code.

So what they’re doing here is saying Aboriginal people have one code. We don’t. We have many interpretations too. So don’t expect the [inaudible 00:07:54] to understand the same writing. We may have the same letters, which is a different interpretation and pronunciation. It is specific. So no disrespect to people in Perth, this is Whadjuk Boorloo country. It may be the capital for the state, but it always starts as Boorloo, and you can’t change that.

Karen Jacobs:

Karen Jacobs, the owner of Indigenous Economic Solutions.

Because Perth is completely encompassed within one language group, which is really significant. You can go to some of the other capital cities around Australia and there’s often two language groups that encroach on the capital cities. So that causes some real friction then as to who do you listen to, and who has the strongest voice. But here Whadjuk country, it’s about portraying what is significant about Whadjuk people and Whadjuk country and Whadjuk practises and Whadjuk principles that are really quite significant within here. And plus we had the ancient city which sits right here called Boorloo. And I often say that what we’re doing today has only evolved what our practise was for thousands of years prior to colonisation. So it’s just understanding the significance of that and not asking us to compromise on certain projects.

We understand that the museum has to portray a lot of stories, a lot of stories, a lot of histories, and that’s what it’s about. And we understand there are layers in history as well that need to be presented. We’re not against that, and looking at the paradigms and also bringing other people’s story in because that’s what we know that a museum’s all about. But there are other significant projects where we’re being dictated to that we have to compromise and take into consideration how this links to other parts of the state. All of a sudden we just switch off and actually don’t want to be in the room.

Peter Dean:

So, Peter Dean, design principal at Hassell. Yeah, I mean it’s a real challenge. We faced that on the stadium in terms of it very much was overtly a Whadjuk country. Everybody fully understood that and it was a statewide project and the brief was to reflect all of West Australia.

Architecturally, landscape-wise, we think we visually did that, but there were mistakes. It’s unfortunate, but I think we learnt from that process in terms of actually how we actually can get on. We went through what we thought was the right process, but it’s difficult to get it right every time. You’re never going to get it right a hundred percent of the time. I think the risk is now not doing it and I’ve been here less than 20 years, but it’s changed. It was originally perceived to be a risk to engage. Now, I think it’s the opposite way around absolutely around. If you don’t engage you’re going to lose out.

Carol Innes AM:

I’m Carol Innes, and I’m currently working at UWA with the Centre for Social Impact and co-chair reconciliation with WA. You need to understand the journey of what you want the engagement to be as well. When you write a brief that has to include Aboriginal people to have a connect or a sense of place, they need to understand what the sense of place is themselves. And even when you’re bringing internationals into our place, they need to be informed about our place and understand that as well.

I think that’s what we’ve got to look at is sometimes we are bringing people together in a conversation to make the meeting more focused before we even get to the meeting so that people are feeling a lot of that. So the untold story in a lot of this stuff as well, it’s not just who builds and how you build it, but when you win this, well what has been your learning journey from working with Aboriginal people? That’s what we’ve got to see. The better part of that.

This city and this place shut us all out. What you create as an organisation is got to be something that pushes the boundaries everywhere. Think about all the things you’ve done. How did you get to that point? What do you need to do better, when you’re talking about this RAP conversation, and who needs this? Not just the people working on the bid on the project, what does your organisation need? That’s the other part of this conversation too, is what does the organisation need? What do we need to do to shape this foundation to ensure that Aboriginal people, stories can be told.

And most of the buildings over the last few years, there’s been a big change in how we recognise that. So building in that space, the cultural practise stuff, has come very powerfully through what we’ve been doing. And Richard’s has been involved with a lot of it. Karen has been involved with that. The cleansing of the land before building’s done. All of that has become a part of the process. So don’t forget that. Make those a part of the journey.

If we are open to that cultural practise of cleansing country, having that, it’s a really important journey because I think about where they all were, those sites and these places that we’re in, it’s healing the building of the part of the hurt and things. So make that a big part of your attribution to that. I mean when we did the Wirin’ statue, that was very powerful. This young fellow, and I didn’t realise that he was Aboriginal, but he had tears in his eyes around the process. And I’ll never forget that because it was like he was letting go of something because they made it, you see? But people think, oh, that’s our part of the project.

All of them stood around it. And when we get to the people who because they went through the cultural awareness trainings. So all the people went through cultural awareness. The day that it got delivered to site and coming off on the crane and we were all on one point with the fire going. And then you see this movement of high viz people just making their way to a very visible space to see it all happen. They were all out. They all came out and they were standing in this, just watching this happen off the crane and even the smoking that was done. When I think about the RAP and the journey you are investing in the people, the people change for this stuff, in giving opportunities to out mob is a big part of this. And it’s more than just your project. It’s if you can bring getting staff in at any point, that’s what we want to see.

Steve Wilson:

Steve Wilson. I’m heading up the One The Esplanade project down at Elizabeth Quay for Chevron. Our first meeting I think, was one of our most significant meetings, Carol, where I distinctly remember Carol saying, Steve, this is not about artwork, this is about respect.” And I went away from that meeting and really thought about that a lot. And I think that everything that we’re talking about here, we’re not doing this because we want to tick a box. It is about respect. And if it’s about respect, then that means the outcome can be a whole range of things. It’s not about artwork. It’s not about landscape design. It’s not about calling your meeting rooms Aboriginal names or whatever. It’s actually about a whole process of respect.

Dr Richard Walley OAM:

You’re already blessed. You’re blessed because you’ve got people who got our outcomes. So you’ve already got outcomes that you can measure. So Hassell’s have got outcomes. You don’t need a RAP to say that we’re going to improve what we’re doing. You want to reflect on what you’re already doing and share that with everyone else. But the challenge with Hassell’s and your internal challenge say, how far up the decision line can we get Aboriginal people because this is going to be good business for us in the future. And whether that’s traineeships, mentorships, they become very important.

Peter Lee:

Please carry on the conversation. That’s been great to share.

Dr Richard Walley OAM:

Thank you.

Karen Jacobs:

Thank you.

Peter Dean:

Hassell will be sharing more about our RAP as well as other stories from projects in up and coming episodes. Thanks to all our guests, in particular, Dr. Richard Walley, Carol Innes and Karen Jacobs who shared personal insights with us today. Thanks also to Doug Port, Abigail Humphreys and the team at Periscope Pictures for arranging and capturing the panel discussion for us to use internally and to share with you today.