by Nicola Grayson, CEO, and James Robertson, Australia’s Policy Lead (People and Pipeline), Consult Australia

As the industry voice for design, advisory, and engineering businesses in the built and natural environment sectors, Consult Australia has been working with members to build the case for a greater focus on social value in considering infrastructure investments, which we see as critical to Australia’s COVID-19 economic response.

Despite sometimes being seen as such, the social value from infrastructure investments is not distinct from its economic value.

Instead, an increased focus on social value can help shape and inform our investment decisions, ensuring that what we spend our money on results in economic benefits in areas of greatest community need.

We see this as a ‘dual-lens’ approach, as a way to align future growth opportunities from investments with the values, objectives and priorities of our communities – the end users of these assets.

To deliver social value from investments and maximise community benefits, we must consider social impacts as early as possible in infrastructure projects – particularly in the business case phase of a project, where we look at whether an investment stacks up.

Social impacts are the consequences, both positive and negative, experienced by people due to changes in their surroundings from a project.

While these social impacts can sometimes be difficult to consistently measure, they are no less real for those experiencing them. The earlier we think about them, the more influence we can have on the social value of a project, which in turn can improve the outcomes from a project and ultimately save time and money.

If we spend more time coming up with better ways to fully understand the impacts on how people live and interact, as well as the community’s composition and sense of place during the business case phase of a project, then we have a more complete picture of the ‘problem’ we are seeking to solve through the investment.

This will inform whether or not the proposal is the right solution, and importantly, help refine and shape the proposal to align well with community needs.

New approaches to business cases

It is also important to note that following this process in itself leads to greater social value because it helps create greater community acceptance and lowers the risk of conflict as the project proceeds through its various stages.

Arguably, a failure to follow this process is a significant cause for many projects around the country being cancelled or delayed, rather than a failure in the projects’ merits.

So how can we increase our focus on social value through infrastructure business cases? Many of our members are developing clever ways to better understand social value by utilising new technology and innovative practices – both from a community-wide

The key lesson we are seeing showcased in these new approaches is the need to move away from a one size fits all approach, or cost-benefit analysis thinking, and instead be more flexible and considerate of the context and objectives.

For example, how we consider the social impacts in a business case for a rail project in a rural area should not be applied to a business case for an arts precinct in an inner urban area. The approach taken must be more tangible and specific to the problem or the opportunity that the business case is looking at.

We have also considered the benefits of bringing forward what happens later in the project to the business case development stage primarily social impact assessments, which usually happen alongside environmental regulatory approvals once the business case is finalised.

Much can also be learned by looking at some of the practices that sit outside typical ‘infrastructure projects’, such as mining projects, as these have a long history of considering the social value and licence to operate from the community. We believe many of these practices are transferable to infrastructure projects.

One example is the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment’s Social Impact Assessment Guidelines, which apply to state significant resource projects. Positively, an updated version of this guide is currently being proposed for all state significant projects, including new infrastructure proposals.

Covid-19 as a catalyst

Consult Australia has published a report looking at this topic in more detail which can be viewed at www.consultaustralia.com.au/home/advocacy/pipeline.

We hope that the report adds to the growing public debate about how we can extract more social value from infrastructure investments.

We believe Australia’s economic response to COVID-19 is the catalyst to improve how we assess the investments that are important to us as users of infrastructure, and the legacy that we would like to create for future generations.

As such, improving how we consider and shape social value from investments is essential.

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