'Where to from here' for social value in Australia's built environment
Governments, private organisations and communities are recognising that incorporating social value into our infrastructure and built environment is better for people and better for business. The big questions now are how to embed social value successfully across a project lifecycle, how to achieve the best social outcomes for particular contexts and communities, and how to measure progress.
In 2023, WSP partnered with the Infrastructure Sustainability Council to explore a range of perspectives on social value and develop an understanding of its crucial role in shaping our infrastructure and built environment. Together, we conducted interviews and focus groups with Australian infrastructure professionals, which demonstrated that our sector can contribute lasting, positive impacts in communities when social outcomes are built into the planning and delivery of major projects.
We’ve followed the resulting insights paper with a webinar to progress the social value conversation. Here’s a snapshot of what our industry panel shared about the importance of social value and how the sector can play a role in accelerating meaningful action toward a more equitable, inclusive and sustainable future.
Why social value is an important area of focus
When we asked our webinar attendees why their organisation prioritises social value, more than 75% selected ‘better outcomes for the community’ as their primary reason, over brand, reputation, recruitment, shareholders, social licence or compliance.
“The purpose of infrastructure is to enable people to thrive. Infrastructure is delivered by people, for people, with people.” – Ainsley Simpson, CEO, Infrastructure Sustainability Council
“It’s the right thing to do – and why not? We’re all people and we’re all here to do the best we can in communities and create the best outcomes from the projects and programs we’re working on.” – Lucy Greig, National Executive, Social Strategy & Outcomes, WSP.
The ‘Measuring What Matters’ Statement adopted by the federal government demonstrates a clear shift in focus from purely economic measures of success to an emerging emphasis on broader social good. This is an important milestone. Our research has also made it clear that implementing social value is increasingly regarded as more than a ‘nice to have’, underscored by rising expectations from governments, investors and clients and more focus in the marketplace.
“Social value aligns with our purpose and values and we know it’s the right thing to do. It’s our social licence to operate: we need to build trust with the community, work with the community and do the right thing by the community. It’s our competitive advantage: doing good equals good business.” –Jacqui Saultry, Regional Social Impact Manager, Lendlease
What will encourage the infrastructure industry to overcome challenges and prioritise social value?
Despite widespread acceptance of the importance of delivering social value, a number of hurdles and uncertainties remain.
Discussions of social value have highlighted the complexities and questions around measuring and quantifying social value, developing an evidence base, and demonstrating the value of the actions an organisation is planning or undertaking to foster good social outcomes. Indeed, our webinar attendees indicated that their top barriers to implementing social value are the lack of a framework or process to consistently measure success. We also recognise the importance of qualitative insights and stories to ensure that less tangible aspects of social value are also considered.
“Not everything that counts can be measured. Not everything that matters can be monetised.” – Ainsley Simpson
Many elements that are challenging to measure are very important to the full picture of what a business case can deliver and what the real-world experience and outcomes are. Ascribing value to these less tangible aspects will help ensure they aren’t overlooked.
Another challenge for industry is competing priorities and demands. Implementing social value requires a considered and coordinated approach, appropriate investment, and adequate time and resources.
“The measurement, verification and validation can be quite arduous and time-consuming so you need people dedicated to seeing the process through … You can’t just have a target – you also need people to drive it.” – Jacqui Saultry
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that focussing on social value costs more.
“It just needs more upfront planning, thought, and more recognition of how important it is as part of making projects successful.” – Lucy Greig
Mandate or mindset?
One powerful way to elevate social value to a higher priority is by making it a mandated and contractual delivery requirement.
“Unless there’s a mandate for elements such as reconciliation actions, gender equity initiatives or social procurement, we know that change can be slow or inconsistent.” – Lucy Greig
Ultimately, successgrows from building an organisational culture wheresocial valueis front of mind. Embedding social value into organisational policies, decision-making frameworks and performance indicators will help underpin and reinforce this mindset.
Start early with the end in mind
Our research and discussions have highlighted that social value approaches are not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ and must be tailored to place and social context. A crucial first step istalking with the right people as early as possible to define what social value means to them, and to identify the relevant social outcomes that can pave the way for meaningful change.
“Social outcomes cannot be retrofitted. Defining what is valued is done best when the beneficiaries at the table – They could be the end users or the community or the custodians of the land on which the infrastructure is being delivered. These are the people who define what value is.”–Ainsley Simpson
Understand priorities and set realistic targets
There is a vast range of areas and actions through which a project can build social value – and it isn't necessary to attempt to deliver on all of them. Choosing a few priority areas valued most highly by the local community will help focus and deliver social value efforts.
"Having some targets helps us to deliver. The targets – such as employment or procurement – don’t have to be big. Starting with smaller targets may bring a greater probability of success.” – Jacqui Saultry
It’s important to try push these targets beyond compliance and business-as-usual and strive towards best practice.
Don’t go it alone
Participants in our research, discussions and webinars have emphasised the importance of collaboration. Identifying and building partnerships and relationships will help organisations deliver better outcomes that respond well to their context and successfully support positive change.
It’s crucial to bring everyone along on the journey through communication and education, including all those involved in delivering the project, as well as the project’s beneficiaries. Many social value initiatives and outcomes will be delivered by a project’s subcontractors and supply chain. Some participants in the supply chain may need support to build their capacity and capability to deliver. Instead of transactional relationships with suppliers, social value leaders create productive partnerships to elevate the work of our sector.
Next steps for social value
Our conversations across the infrastructure sector reinforce that what’s needed now is action, leadership and knowledge-sharing. Regardless of size or character, every organisation and every project has the opportunity to make a meaningful difference. Many leaders are showing genuine commitment, championing shared responsibility towards a resilient, inclusive future.
“Share and listen. Get started. No matter where you are in your organisation, no matter your role or rank, you can make a difference.” – Ainsley Simpson
WSP and the ISC invite greater, ongoing conversations about collaborative approaches to building social value through infrastructure and the built environment.