Traditional economics has told us a tale about how the world works – about what we value. But, for most of us, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
How do you express the significance of having a quality job, affordable childcare, or access to a community centre? Instinctively, we all know these things matter, but don’t have the practical tools to measure their worth in clear-cut ways.
Social value provides a way to change this. As it becomes a fundamental feature of built-environment legislation up and down the country, those who have championed the concept for years are calling for a consistent approach. We invited our new collaborative partner and social value pioneer Rob Wolfe to sit down with Diana Sanchez and share his thoughts…
- UK expert in social value strategy and delivery
- Works with developers, contractors and local authorities
- Economist and social value champion
- Works with architects, engineers, planners, and developers
So, I’m intrigued… what initially led you towards social value, Rob?
It’s funny because what I do only started being called social value when the Social Value Act came in to play in 2013… but my work began back in 2006. There was £1.6 billion of investment coming in to Leeds; I was essentially given a laptop and a park bench, and tasked with ensuring the money actually addressed deprivation and benefited the city’s people. I had to work out how that inward investment would create employment, grow the local economy, support communities, and develop skills. So, while the name given to it has evolved, the process and principles are still the same. It started in the north – perhaps because of demand, or because of the wider poverty disparity. Either way, it’s cities like Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool that have been leading the way on this. Now, London and other local authorities are seeing the benefits, so we’re at an exciting turning point where it’s important we create some clear frameworks for executing social value. My background in setting up pupil referral units, integrating prisoners back into society, and supporting vulnerable young people into work/apprenticeships gives me a real grassroots view. For me, social value is about creating actions that will make tangible change… not just a platitude in a strategy. So even though I now work at more of a policy level, I’m still obsessed with the who, why, and how things will get done – the questions that led me to social value in the first place. How about you?
For me, social value is about creating actions that will make tangible change… not just a platitude in a strategy.
The first time I heard about it was when studying economics and the theories behind what we can or can’t measure. I was (and still am) fascinated by how we often bind the role of business to measurable things, such as growth and employment. However, we all know that ‘successful’ societies or economies go beyond that... they are societies where everyone can enjoy a high-quality of life. I see the growing interest in social value as the biggest opportunity for our industry to rediscover, understand, enhance, and embrace its role and purpose in society. It’s the chance to truly understand and remember who we’re designing for… to find not just purpose, but more motivation.
Yes, interestingly, I’ve noticed that the industry is most motivated when you present clear, practical, pragmatic advice. For too long the idea of creating social value in a development was seen as esoteric or fluffy. Until about 2009, I was called ‘the care bear’: “this is Rob, he’s the care bear, he does the fluffy stuff” …and I think that stemmed from people not realising that it can be achieved in a practical way. The problem was the most common words in social value reports were ‘think about’ or ‘consider’, and people tasked with doing this didn’t know where to start. Yet, as soon as you can provide parameters and practical frameworks, they completely get it. Thankfully, nowadays, we are also starting to quantify that value and it’s being incorporated into legislation, so the whole approach is becoming much clearer.
Yes, I think the resistance maybe came from there not being a set process. But, we saw this with sustainable design; it requires you to consider the context particular to a project. In some parts of the world sustainability efforts are focussed on energy, in others the priority is around poverty, and that’s the same with social value. It requires a slightly different mindset. I think of it in the same way as I do sustainability: that traditionally it’s been viewed as a challenge to overcome, but actually it’s an opportunity to create value and excel.
That point about context is so true. Every company, community and development
is different. As such, I do find myself getting frustrated with the industry’s focus on defining social value… because, to be honest, as someone brought in to deliver it, I don’t care what the definition is! As long as that conversation is happening, and we all set the parameters within a clear framework, then that’s what matters.
I do think the desire for definition arose once people understood that true social value actually required a qualitative approach rather than quantitative… you can’t reduce the impact a development can have on people to just pure figures; it’s so much wider.
It shows how the most humble engineering or design decisions can impact entire communities, economies, and livelihoods.
Yep, social value has come a long way since it was purely about listing things: such as how many apprentices a project supported, or how many schools were engaged with etc. Of course, 10 years ago, we pushed for those numbers because it was the best way to introduce the concept of social value, but it provided people with the dangerous temptation to treat it as a tick-box exercise. I saw projects where apprentices working on site for just one day were counted in the stats. Currently, it’s easy for companies and clients to claim that they are ‘better’ at social value merely by manipulating privately held data. Luckily, open data could allow us to make social value objective and properly track how we are doing. Equally, the growth of socio-economic analysis – which puts a pound sign on social value – is a way to quantify the quality of actions. What needs to always be very clear though, is that it’s just monetisation: a way of speaking the ‘language of development’ in order to make a case for things. It’s an enabler that informs decisions.
Yes, getting the right data, speaking to the right people… I think it will help society start to break down the old way of viewing things as ‘hard or soft’: whether that’s subjects at school, skills, or whole industries. For so long, we’ve seen how working in silos has just created more problems: we solve one challenge and inadvertently create one somewhere else. For me, looking at social value is a way to open our eyes to the bigger picture, the connections between things – it shows how the most humble engineering or design decisions can impact entire communities, economies, and livelihoods.
Exactly, it’s easy to forget how simple choices can make massive impacts – but it starts with getting the right information. For example, I did some social demographic research for a proposed development, which revealed invisible pockets of unemployment in the area. By looking at the data, we found the reason for that unemployment was partly due to a high number of people who were carers or single parents. The data also told us that there was one nursery place per 200 residents. The developer was wanting to create a community space and was pursuing the health-centre route. We were able to show that, if they really wanted to enhance the social value of the area and if they really wanted to create sustainable jobs for the people who needed them most… then they needed to address the lack of affordable childcare. The simple solution? To make sure the community space housed both the health-centre and an affordable childcare provider.
That’s the kind of practical route to unlocking social value that we’re talking about: how best to take developments forward in the first place. For that you need true – and diverse – community engagement, a dialogue with all demographics. This ‘unique context of thought’ is something I can’t champion enough. If we all think in the same way, it will hinder developments. Often, community engagement is constrained to a particular group of people – those who can turn up to an event at 2pm on a Wednesday, and want to complain. Our industry needs to look up and start to embrace how other sectors talk to all members of society. I’ve recently started talking to an entertainment-industry agency that engages with millions of people, with the aim of developing better ideas for how to reach out to a wider variety of people.
This piggy-backing is something the industry can learn from. Too often, developers think achieving social value is too hard because they assume they have to set up their own apprenticeship scheme or community group etc. But why not just find those that already exist? The best part is, it’s not just easier, cheaper, and quicker, it also often has the most impact.
Absolutely – if you think of people as citizens rather than customers then community engagement and support becomes so much simpler. We’re all human beings; we all want to understand more and contribute to society.I do think ethical expectations are changing. We only have to look at the slow transformation happening across the globe: whether that’s New Zealand deciding to include social value in its measure of economic success, or the rise of companies that have a business model directly focused on improving lives – it’s all pointing to a transformation in what people trust, want, and expect.
Totally. It’s been interesting to see the change since I started working in social value. Initially it was all marketing and PR led – it was more about saying something than doing, but people are so aware of that gap now. PR has to support what you’re doing of course, but not be the driver. That’s not to say that profit and good press can’t be a motivation – I understand we all have businesses to run. That’s also why I find the social value conversation is so positive once people open the door to it – because it’s not just about doing good, it also makes total sense from a commercial point of view: if you design a shopping centre that supports communities then more people will come and spend money there. The same goes with houses – the more they enhance a community the more the value will rise. It’s a no-brainer really…
That’s also why I find the social value conversation is so positive once people open the door to it – because it’s not just about doing good, it also makes total sense from a commercial point of view.
Yes, I was excited to see that when Italian energy company Enel recently launched the first general-purpose bond linked to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, it was almost three times oversubscribed. It’s the perfect example of how, from an investor perspective, sustainability means less risk, as well as an opportunity for return while creating positive societal change. People-centred sustainable design (that understands what they want, need, care for, and dislike) is more future-proofed and resilient. It’s a journey that each industry has either gone through or is going through, and it will soon converge in a completely different way of thinking and doing things. I truly believe social value unites everyone: engineers, architects, designers, data scientists, anthropologists, economists – all these people bringing their expertise enables the best places to live in. It’s about asking the big questions: how do we want to exist as a society, what do we want to pass on?
Photos by James Cheadle @ The Lighterman, King’s Cross
Regeneration in Leeds city centre photo by iStock