Switching On: Can Place and Social Value Find Common Ground?

Our Switching On webinars invite different panels of expert commentators and industry professionals to discuss issues about the future of the built environment in Greater Manchester.

On the panel for our latest Switching On webinar were:

  • Dr Sarah Fitton – Social Value & Stakeholder Engagement Specialist, Aurora Engagements
  • Stephen Gleave – Regional Cities Director, AECOM
  • Sarie Mairs Slee – Head of Culture and Place Partnership, Salford.

How Do We Define Social Value?

Because social value is often used as an umbrella term, covering the economic, social and environmental effects of the actions of companies, it can be hard to pin down.

Essentially, in relation to the built environment, it is about what people want, what they need, and what a project should give them.

From a development angle, it should provide an outcome that is better for people than what they started with.

However, this sense of value needs to reflect the user perspective, and not exclusively a developer-led approach.

Engagement is therefore fundamental in defining social value.

Finding common ground with all parties is the challenge professionals in the built environment face when embedding social value in their projects.

Active collaboration requires active listening, to understand the multiple perspectives involved.

Social value can appear different according to:

  • Economics
  • Design, and
  • Culture.

And there must be clarity, in any given project, about which communities social value applies to.

Otherwise, across the Greater Manchester region, there is the risk of imbalance.

Some areas have had much more investment than others, for example, in Salford, the Quays and MediaCityUK.

Unravelling the Complexity of Now

Things feel fragmented and complex, and the multiple perspectives of social value reflect this.

However, economic value is still a crucial driver of social value.

This is partly because when it comes to quantifying it, social value lags behind the measurement of a project’s economic and environmental impact.

Also, social value deals with semi-intangible aspects of place and culture which can be hard enough to agree on as definitions, before even getting to the challenge of measuring them.

Take authenticity in the built environment, for example. What happens if a regenerated area loses its authenticity, because its economic growth overshadows either its cultural or social aspects?

There are numerous examples of this in modern cities such as London and New York.

Recently, there has been speculation that the Baltic Triangle in Liverpool is set to become a victim of its own success

This is where regeneration ends up enabling gentrification.

Cities and towns contain multiple shades of meaning, not just the starkly contrasted black-and-white of dirty old town versus modern metropolis.

However, this changeability, these shades of meaning, may also be a natural part of the dynamic of cities.

This would then imply that attempting to protect or defend certain areas from change runs counter to how cities should evolve.

Cities are places of tension, not sanitised centres of urban perfection and high ideals.

Conflicting views of what the city aspires to, and how different classes and people experience living in it have long been mainstays of popular culture, from the novels of Dickens to Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, and the stories of JG Ballard.

Why Social Value Measurements Matter

We have already mentioned how social value, as a metric, is difficult to grasp.

But realism dictates that to successfully include social value in the development of a project, you need to somehow monetise and score it.

This can be problematic. You can outline the costs you incur if you get it wrong, but how do you embed its value at the outset of a project?

There is an increased focus on social value questions in tenders and pre-qualification questionnaires. This reflects an expectation on the part of public bodies that bidders should demonstrate a clear and measurable social value impact as part of their application.

But again, this returns to the question of how you should measure social value.

One way to look at this is to see social value as a process, rather than a desired end-point.

The fact that it is now appearing in tender documents is part of this process, even if measuring it remains, to an extent, elusive. It represents moving away from awarding contracts simply based on the lowest cost.

To begin to measure social value properly requires transparency, where we recognise weaknesses and blind spots and begin to address them.

Social value asks uncomfortable questions, but by asking these questions, it can, ultimately drive change.

Is Social Value the New Sustainability?

The comparison is apt. Sustainability is now embedded in design culture, and established as a collective, collaborative process.

But at one time, it was very much on the fringes of development, and this was not so long ago.

The term sustainability first appeared in a 1987 UN report, called Our Common Future.

It helped establish the idea that the world was not the limitless resource we assumed it to be.

Social value is, at this stage, still something that is more talked about than implemented.

But for the built environment, its principles are both sound and highly relevant for the future, where sustainability will also be a driving factor in development.

What it calls for is for everyone who is involved in the built environment, including stakeholders and end-users, to look at the wider implications.

Finding Common Ground

Projects need to be mutually beneficial from the start, which means understanding what place means to different people.

In placemaking, this means defining which communities a specific place applies to. These communities can be both complex and diverse.

The challenge for social value is to find the common ground on which we can build something meaningful.

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