Infrastructure can transform communities and make a lasting, positive difference to people’s lives, but only if we take the right steps from the start of the project lifecycle, says Mott MacDonald’s Kerry Scott.
How often do we ask ourselves this question: What is the purpose of infrastructure? Through my lens as a social scientist, this is an easy question to answer. The primary purpose of infrastructure and our built environment is serving the needs of communities, delivering better social outcomes and improving the quality of people’s lives.
But how good is our industry at putting people and their needs at the very heart of the way in which we design and deliver projects? What can we do to ensure that infrastructure is maximising all the opportunities available to it to leave a positive social legacy for the communities in which we work?
I’ll share with you what I think are some of the key success factors.
Clarity of purpose
First, what we need is clarity of purpose and objectives. What difference are we looking to make? What does success look like? If we are not careful, social outcomes, social inclusion and social justice can come across as esoteric terms.
We can’t afford to be vague. It is important for things to be tangible. Our industry is one which generally likes detail. It calls for definitions of how infrastructure can improve communities in terms of, for example, accessibility, inclusion, empowerment, resilience and wellbeing.
The second success factor is ambition. Leaving a social legacy is not a quick fix, nor is it easy. But that should not dissuade us from aspiring to achieve it. There are three different levels of ambition around social outcomes:
There is doing the minimum to ensure that legislative and planning requirements are met and that social risks are managed.
There is the creation of opportunities for improving participation and equality.
And then, the gold standard, is identifying ways in which to deliver long-term change which tackles entrenched inequalities.
It will not always be possible to have a transformative effect in every project. But we should certainly have the ambition to do so.
Innovation and confidence
Third, now is the time for innovation and confidence. Political, legislative and technological drivers are nudging us in the direction of putting social outcomes at the forefront of how we deliver projects. But industry methodology and approaches have not necessarily caught up. We must be more innovative.
An upfront confidence is needed to do things differently. We may need to act before, necessarily, there is all the data to prove that we should. The reality is that the time to make the real difference is at the stage of the project when we know least, we have least data, we have least detail – at the beginning.
This is when we should be thinking of the outcomes we can affect so that these can be reflected in strategy and options, so that the right skills are brought into the team and time is allowed in the programme for stakeholder engagement, and so that an asset’s design is geared towards delivering the priorities of its users.
Integrating social outcomes at the start is a must if we want to leave a social legacy. If social outcomes are not considered until the project is being built, there will be far fewer opportunities to deliver them.
Next, what we absolutely need right now in this space is leadership. There is growing momentum behind this agenda but it requires some concerted effort, with industry leaders being champions for change, and doing what they can to embed it into the way in which design, engineering, architectural and construction activities are delivered.
Business case and procurement processes may not be making social justice mandatory – yet. But the industry has the ingenuity and increasingly the passion to put social responsibility very much at the centre of projects. Good leadership can help to make this happen.
One of the issues the industry faces is that many of these social considerations are not mainstreamed into traditional business case approaches. Evaluation tends to be stacked very much in favour of economic return on investment. At present, benefits that can’t easily be counted don’t tend to count in decision-making. We need to change this and think far more about who benefits and how. This involves developing ways in which to build in checks and scrutiny through our own project processes and planning in order to make the most of the opportunities we have to deliver more inclusive outcomes.
Diversity of thought
Finally, it is not enough to rely on a singular set of minds. The vast majority of projects require a diversity of thoughts to arrive at the best solution. It’s why we must always engage with communities and customers – those who will be directly affected by the projects we are involved in delivering. We cannot know, better than them, the outcomes they prioritise and the needs that they have.
Everyone in the infrastructure industry ought to think about these critical success factors. We all have to play our part in addressing them. If we do, we are much more likely to be able to future-proof projects for generations to come and deliver a social legacy as well as a technical one.
Kerry Scott is global practice leader for social outcomes at Mott MacDonald.