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Hassell and GBCA on social value in the built environment

Building on a recent research paper, Helen Bell and Dr Brett Pollard discuss how social value is defined, its potential pitfalls, and why it matters.

Hassell and GBCA on social value in the built environment

AMRF First Building, Sydney, (Hassell).

Helen Bell is Senior Research Manager at the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) and Dr Brett Pollard is Senior Researcher at Hassell. Together, the two bodies recently released a discussion paper, ‘Social value in the built environment‘. We shared some questions with the pair in order to delve a little deeper into this emerging, important field within architecture and design.

Timothy Alouani-Roby: How are you defining social value in the built environment?

Helen Bell & Brett Pollard: In the recently released GBCA + Hassell discussion paper, we proposed a working definition:

“Social value is the net positive change in the social, environmental, and economic wellbeing of those directly and indirectly impacted by an initiative, project, or organisation.

“In the built environment, social value is created when local needs are understood, the people most impacted are authentically engaged and where buildings, places, and infrastructure improve present and future communities’ quality of life, wellbeing, and social cohesion.”

The definition was developed after an extensive international literature review and interviews undertaken with experts from the built environment and the social value sectors. We are calling it a working definition because multiple definitions are being used, and part of our work here is to help the built environment sector move closer to a common definition and framework(s) for creating and measuring social value.

Why is it important?

The built environment directly impacts people’s lives and is critical in shaping communities’ and individuals’ wellbeing and quality of life. We can create social value across environmental, economic and social dimensions, which are often interlinked. For example, creating accessible, well-designed green space can help improve people’s health and wellbeing as well help to mitigate the urban heat island effect and improve biodiversity. Creating vibrant, walkable and culturally diverse neighbourhoods can help drive economic activity and address social equity and inclusion.

Why is it important now?

It’s fair to say our cities and communities are facing significant challenges, many of which were accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Climate change impacts, biodiversity loss, increased inequality and intolerance, housing affordability, rising cost of living, ageing populations, effects of technologies such as AI and the rapid shift to renewable energy are just some of the many challenges. By releasing the Measuring What Matters Framework, the Australian Government has recognised the importance of putting inclusion, equity and fairness at the centre of government decision-making. By purposefully creating social value in the built environment, our sector can contribute to building healthier, vibrant, more inclusive, resilient and sustainable communities.

Community Consultation, Bay Area Challenge, Resilient by Design, San Francisco (Hassell).

Can you explain what aspects are measured, and how they’re measured?

Social value can be created across environmental, economic and social dimensions, some of which are more easily measured than others. But before measuring social value, it is important to understand the reasons for doing so.

There are several different frameworks that guide organisations when embarking on measuring social value. One of these is the eight principles developed by Social Value International. The principles include involving stakeholders, understanding what changes have occurred during a project or activity, including only what is material when reporting an outcome of a project and being transparent. It is also important to not just focus on the inputs and outputs from a particular initiative or intervention, but also seek to capture the outcomes and impacts, particularly over time.  For example, a starting point for some organisations is to report on the amount of money spent on a program or the number of people trained. We would like to see that expanded to include whether those people went on to secure long-term employment and if so, the impact this had on their lives.

Related: More on social value with Hayball

Community Engagement, Colma Creek Adaptation, Resilient by Design, San Francisco (Hassell).

Some of the points covered under social value seem like they are already part of a consensus in architecture and design, so why is there a need to add this framework?

Indeed, architects and designers often strive to create positive benefits for communities and the environment through their projects, practices and advocacy. However, there is still a need for greater clarity and alignment around the definition, creation and measurement of social value. We want to demonstrate that, while social value can be created when working on social infrastructure projects or undertaking pro and low-bono work for community groups, the opportunity is so much bigger.

All projects have the potential to create social value. Providing a widely agreed, common language and associated frameworks and processes will help all built environment professionals focus on having a real, positive impact rather than spending valuable time trying to differentiate themselves by developing standalone, one-off systems.

Isn’t there a danger in trying to make grey things black and white, i.e. in turning qualitative, subjective things into quantitative, measurable ones?

Measuring social value plays a vital role in ensuring that a project’s agreed social value outcomes are delivered and reported back to stakeholders. The metrics used to measure social value need to be a mixture of quantitative and qualitative measures because, as you say, it’s not always possible or appropriate to turn grey into black and white.

Quantitative measures allow comparability between different opportunities or interventions and permit the value of initiatives to be considered alongside other financial aspects of a project. Qualitative measures and methods allow people’s direct experiences to be captured and the impact on their wellbeing and quality of life to be assessed. Selecting and agreeing on the social value measures needs to be undertaken carefully and in conjunction with those stakeholders directly impacted by an intervention or project.

WA Museum, Boola Bardip, Perth, Australia (Hassell), photograph by Peter Bennetts.

How do you think concepts of social value in the built environment will further evolve?

It’s probably more apt to say that our understanding and prioritisation of social value will evolve.  Regenerative design will gain greater prominence and allow us to not just maintain but actually repair, rebuild and enhance our environment and communities. There will be a greater emphasis on equity and inclusion as well as health and wellbeing for all members of society. We will have better, more widely agreed methods for measuring and co-creating social value with local communities. While technologies such as AI present potential challenges to social cohesion, they also offer the opportunity to analyse qualitative data so we can better understand the impact our projects and initiatives can have on people’s wellbeing and quality of life. 



Taking a long view of the built environment in the planned city of Canberra

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