Opinion article

Delivering infrastructure for lasting social benefits

Laura Stewart from RPS writes that social value should be the key reason to invest in and deliver infrastructure.

The term 'value’ means different things to different people, but social value should be the key reason to invest in and deliver infrastructure.

‘Value for money’, ‘value engineering’ and ‘return on investment’ are all common terms used to determine the success of infrastructure initiatives and yet there is growing consensus that infrastructure is a means to an end, with the end being high-functioning people and communities. But how often do we measure a project’s success, once completed, based on its social value and benefits?

Maximising social value 

Social Value International defines social value as ‘the total impact a project or investment has on an individual's wellbeing, including social, environmental, and economic outcomes.’ 

During this time of unprecedented spending on infrastructure, we need to ensure that the injection of funds, and infrastructure projects that result, don't just generate assets and economic benefits, but also create lasting social benefits for communities. 

In Australia, we rarely measure the success of a project based on how it has impacted individual people. During the early planning and decision-making phases, we make assumptions based on the potential for economic uplift. We make informed generalisations about how infrastructure assets will contribute to enhanced living standards. 

What we don't tend to do is quantify this social value once projects are completed. This is not to say that social value isn't being created. We just aren’t investing enough in measuring and understanding it.

Social value isn’t just created by infrastructure projects themselves, but also by how they are delivered. Through a proactive approach to social procurement during the delivery and operational phases of assets, there is the opportunity to create deep social impact and generate lasting, meaningful social benefits. 

Western Sydney provides just one example of the possibility for social value creation. The substantial investments being made across Greater Western Sydney have the potential to be the catalyst for local employment and wealth generation for small and medium enterprises. 

This spending can also drive skills development and employment pathways for key groups like women and young people and support better outcomes for some of the most disadvantaged members of our community, including First Nations Peoples, people with disabilities, new migrant communities and refugees. 

When we look back on the infrastructure investments made in Western Sydney in years to come, we will need a way of measuring the benefits generated for people along the way. 

Ensuring we are solving the right problems, together 

Both the infrastructure sector and the communities it is designed to serve are becoming more complex. Project interdependencies, political pressure, community outrage, supply chain shortages, natural disasters, and competition for labour and funding are all making infrastructure harder to deliver. 

More than ever, it is important that we collaborate as a sector to solve problems and focus our efforts on the right solutions. 

Breaking down the barriers that result from complex processes and enabling greater transparency will ensure more people are granted access to better collective outcomes. 

Across a number of industries, we are seeing a transition to better engagement that aims to involve communities earlier and in more meaningful ways. 

In 2021, Energy Charter released the #BetterTogether Better Landowner Engagement. Its purpose is to establish more effective ways of engaging between energy networks, landowners, and communities to overcome the many challenges of energy infrastructure planning and delivery. 

The Charter is an industry- and customer-led initiative to understand and meet customer expectations. This is a world-first because it is a whole-of-sector initiative involving most energy networks from across Australia, with a vision of delivering energy for a better Australia. 

It’s this kind of collaboration that will allow the energy sector to create greater social benefit and it’s a model for other industries to follow.

Leaving a real legacy 

Creating a legacy is about much more than the completed piece of hard infrastructure. It’s about striving for benefit across the entire lifecycle – from how projects are designed to how they are delivered, and the impact that remains for the community once they’re operational. 

Social procurement and local training provide meaningful, long-lasting legacies for individuals, families, and communities. How we make decisions on projects and the way in which people are engaged also has the potential to leave a lasting legacy – good or bad. 

The Caulfield to Dandenong Skyrail was a highly contentious project in Victoria that, through its design, removed nine level crossings between Caulfield and Dandenong. This engineering marvel also created more than five kilometres of new parks on land that was formerly reserved for railway tracks. The engagement approach saw Melbourne communities co-design these public spaces, providing opportunities to build capacity and support communities as part of the transformation. 

As we look at the pipeline ahead, we must look at the opportunities within each project to deliver benefits beyond transport, energy or water. We have positive examples to draw on. We just need to make social benefit a consideration by default, not by exception. In 2022, Australian communities expect it as much as they need it.

About the authors

Laura Stewart

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Laura currently leads RPS’ Insights, Communication and Engagement teams across NSW, ACT and Queensland. She has over 15 years’ experience as a communication and engagement professional, and has worked across major infrastructure planning, design, and delivery for all sectors.

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