Designing projects with social value at the forefront of our thinking

Jacobs recently released a thought leadership paper Before & Beyond the Build. We caught up with Sarah Alexander – Principal Consultant, Social Investment and Innovation and co-author of the report, as well as Juliet Woodward – Executive Director Sales NZ and David Jones – Principle Consultant - Cities & Places, to look into the impact of social value in today's engineering and consulting world. 

What prompted the social value paper? 

Multiple world events have collided to highlight a range of growing social issues in our society, and many of them require a people-focused response. The things we talk about in the paper are not new ideas per se, but we wanted to start a conversation on how we could stitch them all together and change the way we deliver projects at scale to shape the world around us for the better.  

What do the words' social value' mean? 

When we talk about social value, we are talking about the value of a project to society that isn't captured by conventional economics. The value will differ depending on where you are in the world, who you speak to, and it can change over time. Whatever it looks like, social value is people-focused and needs to include non-market values.  

Why does creating social value matter?  

Despite massive growth in prosperity in some parts of our society, there is also growing disparities like increasing homelessness and inequality.  

Infrastructure can potentially play a key role in helping overcome some of those inequalities. We now recognise that social value needs to be more central to our decision making. For example, here in New Zealand, exploration around urban regeneration as a concept is a growing topic, and social value plays a vital role in that conversation. We now have a more rounded view of the world and how the development of new infrastructure can have a significant impact on the lifestyle and well-being of people.       

What is the New Zealand-specific context for the development of the paper? 

At a central government level, the well-being budget has brought social value into strong focus. Clients in all sectors are now reviewing their projects through a broader lens to ensure social value is a significant component of the development. For example, Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency has implemented three strategic responses, one of which focuses on making a step-change in social outcomes. There is also great potential for robust social and sustainability benefits from projects that New Zealand companies are working on in Pacific Island countries.

Where have we done well in the enhancement of social outcomes? 

Scott Point Sustainable Sports Park is an Auckland Council project that was developed with a broader perspective on social value in mind. Engagement with the community and stakeholders was key and has delivered a facility that is well suited to the community it serves.  

Auckland Transport has begun the Eastern Busway project, which includes a commitment to social procurement principles and is working with He Waka Eke Noa, a Maori and Pacific business network, to employ suppliers and workers on the project. We have been working with Kāinga Ora on the Manukau and Wiri areas through the Manukau urban regeneration programme. As well as importantly partnering with Auckland Council and Panuku Development Auckland, the commitment and involvement of iwi in the programme and its governance structure is an important aspect to the authenticity of the work and commitment to the locality and its representatives. 

Where have we missed on delivering social outcomes?    

There is still a long way to go in our sector's engagement with Māori, mana whenua and iwi. These groups play such an essential role in the fabric of our society, and the social value paper highlights this as an area that requires greater focus, particularly when it comes to recognising the value of their lived experience, cultural values and ways of working. We believe there are ample opportunities to increase co-design opportunities in projects with these and other community groups.  

What's the consultant's role in unlocking social value? 

A consultant should be able to help clients conceptualise, implement and demonstrate the value of a social value approach. There is a risk that the push for greater social value in projects will become a tick box exercise. It's where consultants need to meaningfully engage with all stakeholders around social value early in the project planning phase, and not leave it until the delivery phase. We also need the right tools to measure the social value of a project, and there should be a follow-up strategy to ensure those targets have been met. We can all write outstanding project bids with sweeping social value objectives, but we must make sure that we follow through on the delivery of those goals.  

How do we ensure investment in social value achieves the required outcomes? 

The COVID-19 pandemic economic stimulus and recovery packages have a strong focus on infrastructure investment. One of the things that we need to consider with this spending is how we ensure equitable outcomes are delivered for the whole of society.  

For example, we know the pandemic is disproportionately impacting women and young people, yet neither group is well represented in the engineering or infrastructure sectors. There is an immediate need for the industry to consider how we integrate the needs of those groups, and other un- or under-represented groups, into the infrastructure projects that are currently on the table. We need to undertake a critical analysis of who we are designing projects for, and who we might be including or excluding. All projects need to be evaluated for community well-being, equality and equity, housing, mobility, work opportunities, physical and mental health uplift and access to vital services. 

If a project is designed with social value at the forefront of our thinking, we should be able to measure the societal uplift that results from our efforts.

Read Before & Beyond the Build

Connect with Sarah Alexander on LinkedIn 

Connect with Juliet Woodward on LinkedIn 

Connect with David Jones on LinkedIn