Building the trust of local communities and investors in the value we say we are creating for society through infrastructure programmes will enable us to improve and upscale social value initiatives. This in turn will help ensure we are building back better and fairer. But one of the challenges is the quality of the information that is gathered and shared on the aspirations and outcomes of social value initiatives. So, what opportunities do digital technologies present to do this better and help build this trust?
Challenges in gathering reliable, quality data
The industry is improving its ability to report on outputs and numbers but ways to comprehensively assess the actual impact and outcomes are less evolved. Current tools used to measure social value outcomes ie. responses from people asked to evaluate in surveys and interviews, can be unreliable. A person’s snapshot view of the future can often be dependent on their circumstances which may change over time.
Surveys and social analysis tools run the risk of bias that may be introduced by the interviewers or the organisation conducting the surveys who are focused on securing planning and funding. Engagement hubs are useful for passers-by but often there is a wider community to reach who cannot visit the physical hub. To measure the impact on well-being comprehensively and with accuracy, the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) offers a gold standard for well-being evaluation. But this is expensive and therefore not widely used. Leveraging digital tools to collect data on outcomes
Some digital tools are in use to address these challenges. Social media data such as ‘likes’ can be assessed and related to social value. For example, it is argued that ‘downloads’ are a better outcome than ‘likes’ as they indicate something of value has been provided whereas, a like is an expression of appreciation at a moment in time. Digital surveys also reduce the risk of bias and reduce the financial and environmental cost of gathering this primary data. This makes it more feasible to conduct surveys at multiple points in the lifecycle of a scheme.
Improving stakeholder engagement before, during and after a project can ensure people are given multiple opportunities to be part of shaping the outcomes and confirming whether they match expectations. Applying the relatively new ‘life satisfaction’ approach which assesses the value of something by the impact on people’s wellbeing or happiness would also help to focus measurement on outcomes.
‘A conversation about the place you live in’ using existing social channels and multi-media, to complement the face-to-face consultations, that gives the local community a continual voice rather than a series of disjoined conversations, would improve the reliability. The conversation needs to be rich enough to provide the data different organisations need, but also provide a shared understanding of needs from a holistic, inclusive, community point of view, rather than individual needs. Enabling an ongoing conversation and richer data on wellbeing
This type of conversation is something Costain is exploring with Commonplace. Their online community engagement platform makes it easy to collect, understand and act on community feedback all in one place. Commonplace’s community heatmap and design feedback tools are designed to start an open and transparent conversation between the community member and stakeholders in the built environment. Residents can drop a pin on a map, or respond to a proposal and share their ideas, and agree with the opinions of their peers in the area.By shifting primary engagement activities online, it becomes easier for people to understand what is being proposed and how it might affect their community.
Commonplace has built in social media and communications tools to ensure people remain informed and engaged with project updates throughout the entirety of a project. As a consequence, engagement becomes an ongoing process, not just a one-off event.
Using online community engagement tools, can also help increase public participation, from a broader audience. To date, the Commonplace platform has attracted over 1.7million contributions, sparking conversations and serving up invaluable input into issues, locations and stakeholders. What’s more, respondents’ range between the ages of 13 to 91, with 70% of users being under the age of 45. Deborah Efemini, Town Centre Manager, Lewisham, says: “Commonplace has enabled us to reach thousands of residents and helped us better understand what they’d like about our town centre and what they’d like to see improved.”
However, despite a lot of people being able to access information online, we must still be conscious of the needs of stakeholders who are not able to interact online. That is why it is important to blend offline and online engagement, by collecting feedback at public events using a tablet or uploadable paper surveys.
The real time data gathered can also easily provide reports such as a statement of community involvement and help benchmark and analyse the performance of one project against similar projects, helping to identify where there may be further opportunities to increase social value. Costain and Commonplace are exploring how these digital tools can gather community feedback on the impact of initiatives beyond the delivery phase, expanding to throughout the lifecycle of an asset. Deeper engagement, deeper data
Immersive technologies can help improve stakeholder understanding of what is intended by the scheme and the quality of the feedback on proposed social value initiatives. For example, simulating environmental changes for participants so that when you see a tree, you are made aware of its impact in increasing air quality and improving local amenity value. An immersive experience of the tree would also help give more data on how it makes you feel and how the tree impacts wellbeing.
Microsoft HoloLens and HTC Vive were used to help stakeholders experience the future of maintenance at London Bridge train station. Information gathered through this has improved the design of other stations such as Gatwick Airport. Leveraging digital tools such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), and apps for mobile devices, will be just some of the digital tools that help make the collection and quality of feedback data more rich and more reliable.
It must be noted though, with any medium of community engagement, whether it be online or offline, it is important we ask the right questions. If we ask meaningless questions, that cannot be actioned, we will never gather useful data and the exercise becomes futile as it cannot deliver change. Fortunately, we are using the collective insights of engagement experts at Commonplace coupled with our own expertise of social value and the built environment to create insightful, purpose driven question sets that gather the data needed to help drive continuous improvements. Accessibility and inclusivity
Digital tools can be expensive as web-based tools generate their revenue via licensing arrangements and SME’s may not be able to adopt technologies to the same extent as larger companies. This would limit how involved our supply chain could be in measuring social initiatives and this is a critical element to demonstrating value, particularly to the levelling up agenda. There needs to be awareness that anything mandated for our sector needs to be non-exclusionary.
Digital poverty is potentially a risk as not everyone has access to technology and levels of literacy are variable. However, since COVID-19, using digital tools in everyday life has increased digital literacy for many. Democratising access through free, intuitive Apps on handheld devices, the reach and inclusivity, especially of the younger generation, is a tremendous complement to the face-to-face events and surveys.
To address data protection and malicious intent to disrupt results, Commonplace has built-in checks and features that can flag if campaigners are trying to ‘game’ the system to take control of the conversation. They constantly review and update their approach to ensure that they are responsive to new threats.
Overcoming these challenges is worth it to enable digital data capture and sharing that will improve visibility and trust in the social outcomes of infrastructure projects.