Standing on the shoulders of giants: lessons for Australia's social value movement

Over the last few months, I’ve been talking to industry leaders about their perspectives on social value creation in Australia.

I have spoken to some of the most inspiring names in the built environment.

Davina Rooney, Chief Executive of the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA), Anita Mitchell, CEO of Placemaking NSW, Ainsley Simpson, CEO of the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA), and Romilly Madew, Chief Executive of Infrastructure Australia, who was the guest panellist for our webinar on social value earlier this week (watch back on demand here if you missed the conversation).

As someone who has recently returned to Australia from the United Kingdom—where my social value work had a national policy underpinning in the form of the Social Value Act 2012—I wanted to hear these leader's views on how social value is done in Australia, where similar legislation does not yet exist.

How do we think about social value as an industry? How do we define, prioritise, and measure it? Where are we doing well? What should we be doing next?

It’s perhaps no coincidence that most of these people’s careers are deeply entwined with the Australian sustainability movement. When asked about social value, most drew parallels to the early challenges (and triumphs) experienced in taking environmental sustainability mainstream.

There are lessons that we can apply as we aim to make social value more central to infrastructure. Here are a few of the insights that stuck out most for me.

Signal the market, and let it lead

Australia does not have an overarching national policy that dictates what social value is, or how it should be created and measured. Should this be a goal? Of course. But should we wait for it? Absolutely not.

Australia’s green building movement was not sparked by government policy. It was market-led.

The social value movement is already at an advantage. There are plenty of state, federal and local policies that prioritise aspects of social value creation in our projects and investments. Things like learning and skills development, local employment, First Nations' participation, and social procurement. 

As Romilly said when speaking in our webinar, Infrastructure Australia has reworked its prioritisation framework to better incorporate and account for social benefits ‘beyond the BCR’ (benefit cost-ratio).

Both she and our National Lead for Economics – Lee Jollow, pointed to the fact that we aren’t, and shouldn’t be trying to start from zero when it comes to social value policy and measurement.

Promoting, augmenting and replicating good policy where it already exists, and adapting existing approaches to measurement will be key to social value’s success. And rewarding market leaders who are finding ways to embed its principles will accelerate the movement.

Define success, innovate and improve

Rating tools like Green Star and the ISCA IS Rating Scheme (Australia), BREEAM (United Kingdom) and LEED (United States) are a key feature of the sustainable building movement.

They’ve played a pivotal role in making the construction industry greener, and continually evolving what best practice looks like. Green Star ‘credits’ that were considered hard to achieve in the early days are now minimum standard for building projects, whether they are targeting a Green Star rating or not.

Rating tools provide clear definitions of what ‘good’ looks like. They provide a benchmark to work to, and from.

While no tool is perfect, they have started a conversation and have been improved along the way. Their creators have engaged with industry to develop, shape and improve them iteratively.

Rating tools are already starting to incorporate social value criteria, so they may be an important mechanism to drive social value creation moving forward.

Even if they aren’t exactly the right answer for social value, we can still take inspiration from the power rating tools have had to create benchmarks, and encourage projects to exceed them. They independently verify the good work that leading organisations are doing, provide a forum for educating the market, and make poor performance less acceptable.

Even if only a small percentage of projects are actually gaining a rating, having rating systems and tools in place raises the standard for all and pushes those who are lagging to do better.

Data is crucial, but money isn’t everything

As the old saying goes...what gets measured gets managed. Quantifying social value performance is really important. Lee, and my other colleagues in economics are doing exciting work to quantify social value in infrastructure business cases and ensure decision-makers understand the cost of underinvestment in it. Read more on how our economics team is applying this thinking for regional projects here.

With this in mind, it was interesting to hear some leaders warn against getting lost in the numbers. Investment decision-makers often focus on what can be monetised in the cost-benefit analysis (CBA), while other ‘soft’ benefits are considered qualitatively. 

As Lee pointed out in the webinar, there is a middle ground that draws on socio-economic data, place-based mapping and stakeholder endorsement to provide evidence of social value benefits, without monetisation. These should be given greater weight in decision-making, and it’s exciting to see more support for this in the Australian infrastructure space.

It’s never going to be possible for every project to max the scale across every social value metric. And what is ‘valuable’ will be different, depending on the community and project. We need to be prepared to try new solutions out.

By doing so we can build our body of knowledge about what works well, where, and when. If we can identify a few specific areas to target and create standardised benchmarks that are agreed and understood industry-wide, we are laying a strong foundation for social value to be integrated more deeply into our infrastructure practice.

If all projects are applying social value principles and making small gains in a few areas, the collective impact could be huge.

Industry collaboration required

If the sustainability movement has taught us anything, it’s the power of collaboration. Social value is no one project, government, company, or community’s responsibility. That is both its challenge, and its power.

Just like in the earliest days of the sustainable building movement, we need passionate people to come together to test ideas, explore potential methodologies, and create agreed terms of reference, guidelines and tools for social value in Australia.

The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2)’s Public Participation Spectrum is a great example of an industry coming together to create a framework that is agreed, publicly tested, and universally adopted. Importantly, the spectrum is powered by an independent body that supports the industry through regular training.  

Social value is communal. It is by its very nature shared. The definitions and tools we create to drive it should be as well. In a time of unprecedented infrastructure investment, now is the right time for us to come together and create a similar, open and transparent framework for how social value is done in Australia.

How are you integrating social value principles into your projects? I’d love to hear your stories!

Vanessa Pilla

National Lead - Social Advisory and Research

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