The powerful ‘why’: how project narrative builds social license

Infrastructure Partnerships Australia’s new report Building Trust: Social License for Infrastructure highlights the crucial role of engagement in establishing and maintaining the social license for infrastructure projects.

The report cites nine principles for building and maintaining social license, from active and tailored forms of engagement through to improving user experiences of infrastructure. These principles are a solid starting point for maintaining focus on the informal social contract we have with the communities we work in.

At RPS we are passionate about compelling communication that tells the story of a project and its benefits. This is in line with Infrastructure Partnerships Australia’s recommendation to:

“Ensure the benefits of a project are clearly and frequently communicated to the public.”

Harnessing the power of ‘why’

Organisational psychology tells us that when it comes to change, communicating the ‘why’ is more powerful than talking about the ‘what’.

As communication professionals, a key challenge for our team is that project benefits aren’t necessarily why we’re doing a project. They are the outcome of a proposed solution to a socio-economic challenge. Building social license can’t just be a case of communicating project benefits. It must be an exercise in framing these benefits as a compelling ‘why’ for the community.

In its Building Trust report, IPA points to asset recycling as an excellent example of how framing the ‘why’ in positive terms that communities can connect to, understand and value can be the difference between social license and staunch opposition.

Asset recycling is broadly supported in New South Wales and Victoria, where the ‘why’ becomes investment in the systems and infrastructure that help build a liveable city and healthy community (the benefits being new or improved schools, hospitals and public transport). The ‘why’ is positive and clear.

In other jurisdictions where conversations about asset recycling have been framed in terms of state debt reduction, the community has been far less receptive. With no positive vision for the future and little that the public can meaningfully connect to, the ‘why’ is lost and the edges of social license start to fray.


"It's important to get communities involved in the early planning phase–when critical decisions are being made–so they can help shape project outcomes that work from the street, to city to state level and beyond."

Creating opportunities from the challenges

There can be specific challenges around communicating benefits for infrastructure projects when negative impacts and ‘disbenefits’ are felt disproportionately by local communities who bear the impact of a wider ‘greater good’.

Key questions we should be asking to ensure project outcomes and benefits are shared and social license maintained both locally and at the wider geographic scale include:

  • How can we convince people to act altruistically, to step back and consider wider community benefits when all they can envisage is months of construction disruption for little personal gain?
  • Will this be harder in post-COVID-19 if people’s worlds have shrunk, their focus on the local areas has increased, or when their livelihoods are impacted?
  • Is there a strong ‘why’ narrative that demonstrates how this project is part of a bigger picture – which they are more likely to benefit from and may be more acceptable than communicating about benefits alone?

When communicating infrastructure benefits, it is important to define the geographic scope of the ‘community’ when assessing the net community benefit in the feasibility and early planning stages. For locals, the ongoing loss of amenity can easily outweigh the wider project benefits that are delivered at a city or even state-wide level (which are the terms of geographic reference we most often apply when framing our conversations about infrastructure).

These complexities highlight the importance of getting communities involved in the early planning phase, when critical decisions are being made, so they can help shape project outcomes that work from the street, to city to state level and beyond.

Building positive legacies

Building positive relationships during the early stages of infrastructure initiatives opens up opportunities to minimise community resistance and the risks associated with contentious projects, while providing genuine opportunities to shape better outcomes, foster community buy-in and codesign strategies that minimise local ‘disbenefits’ close to home.

By prioritising social license, we can not only build better assets and services for the community, but win hearts and minds doing it.

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