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Delivering and demystifying social value

May 30, 2023

By Richard Webb

Better planning leads to healthier communities. So, how can we gain a more holistic picture of social value across any given location?

Planning and development have driven much progress in the area of social value. We help to create communities across the UK which foster productivity growth, better connectivity, and more employment opportunities. But are we reaching our full potential?

As we’re creating the world of the future, our sector has a responsibility to make sure plans recognise and answer society’s needs, on a human level.

This is both an ethical stance—one that is good for people, communities, and the planet—and one that can help to demonstrate the societal value of development. Building a better world requires a stronger bond of trust between communities and developers, and it is important that we showcase the opportunities good development can deliver. Our teams offer the full scope of support, from engaging with communities to how we set social value targets, implement strategies, and track progress. At the root of doing this successfully is truly understanding social value, and how to measure it.

How can we take a holistic approach to social value?

What is social value?

Social value and what makes ‘good’ development mean different things to different people in different contexts. This can cover the impact on an individual, a community, or even the planet in the wider sense. A well landscaped courtyard can bring social value, so can a new cycle path, an attractive building vista, or a new wind turbine. The challenge is identifying for each development what its unique context is – what will bring the greatest value to the users of the spaces and the community around them.

It is this complexity that makes those with our diverse range of expertise so important to understand and deliver social value. The ‘equation’ has three parts. Firstly – robust and comprehensive community engagement: developing a rounded knowledge of a development’s context and the needs of its users and stakeholders. Secondly – creative and innovative approaches to meeting the community’s needs and solving their problems. And thirdly – the technical and specialist expertise that can deliver these approaches in practice.

It’s not enough to fulfil just part of the equation – the best developments must have a team capable of all three. They must also integrate and interweave at every stage. For example, strong engagement is enhanced by technical data gathering and analysis; and innovative solutions and practical delivery are often best developed in consultation with communities, drawing on them throughout the process, not just at the start.

Because everything ties together, a good development team should too, with constant collaboration and cross-specialist thinking. Get rid of simplistic terms like ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ – social value needs something better and more nuanced: complete integration between social value experts, technical specialists, and community groups. This allows for a more inclusive approach, with outcomes and ambitions informed by engagement and specialist knowledge, wrapped up in expert baseline measurement and evaluation throughout a project life cycle.

Beyond quantification

This links to the second challenge for social value: how you measure it – both in terms of comparing potential scenarios and evaluating outcomes and success. This is important for justifying social value spend to investors in business cases, and for and showing the full benefits of a delivered scheme to a wide range of stakeholders. The development world has been trying to quantify and compare social value for some time, from clients making social value propositions a core part of competitive tenders, to Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) listing out and scoring developments against social value criteria.

Our sector has a responsibility to make sure plans recognise and answer society’s needs, on a human level.

There are several issues in these approaches. In tenders, clients or partners often ask for social value to be quantified in pounds and pence. This encourages teams to put forward programmes that can be more simply measured, like new training schemes and apprenticeships, rather than say new landscaping or parks. A similar bias can take place towards physical health and away from schemes to benefit mental health – where improvement is less easy to identify and assess.

We can simply work out if a development has brought new jobs, homes, transport links, or GPs, but we need to go beyond that. We should be asking different questions too: do users of the space get a sense of wonder in the new development? Has it helped them connect with others, reduced loneliness, and isolation? Have we made someone feel a more valued part of society?  Have benefits been felt from the outset of the development, long before any spades are in the ground?

Even with multi-disciplinary teams, the intangible elements of social value can too easily slip through the cracks – but they are important. Studies often show the benefits to individual wellbeing of factors such as access to urban green space, beautiful design, neighbourly interactions, or active travel. So, a key part of delivering greater social value is by carrying out better assessments that don’t rely solely on quantitative elements. For instance, following up with apprentices or students on their career journeys, self-reporting surveys of wellbeing, and more evaluation of sites and residents following completion and occupancy.

To deliver social value, we need to ask the questions that matter.

This drive has been at the heart of uniting and strengthening Stantec’s community development teams. By bringing together the technical and quantitative with qualitative and creative, we have all expanded our understanding of social value and creating better places in the round. There is much more to do, but we can start by asking the right questions, and acknowledging the gaps in existing approaches. We are committed to building better communities, and that starts with understanding and delivering social value. 

  • Richard Webb

    A landscape architect and associate director, Richard has experience working across urban design and landscape disciplines and specialises in bringing the two together.

    Contact Richard
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