Maximising the social value of infrastructure projects through digital technology

For better or worse, digital technology has infiltrated almost every aspect of modern living. Governments and businesses have access to unprecedented amounts of data on what citizens need and want. When it comes to major infrastructure projects that impact large numbers of people, could digital technology help to achieve more positive outcomes for society?

In this CIMR Debate in Public Policy, chaired by Professor Klaus Nielsen, we welcomed a panel of industry and social value experts, including alumnus Jeremy Galpin, to discuss the role of digital technology in the Transforming Infrastructure Performance: Roadmap to 2030, which links societal outcomes with value-based infrastructure policy.

How digital technology can support social value generation

Jeremy, who is Lead for Social Value Consultancy at Costain, began the discussion by outlining the recommendations of his Working Paper, which was born of a sponsored Masters project.

Jeremy noted ‘the shift in policy context with respect to social value in the last few years is quite remarkable, and we have learned from the covid pandemic that governments and society can make dramatic and significant decisions when critical.’

Decisions made in future infrastructure projects must align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and societal values, and developers will need to ensure greater transparency and accountability to gain the trust of stakeholders.

Jeremy shared key recommendations to support the infrastructure sector in achieving these goals:

  • Agree an up-to-date, context-specific definition for social value in the infrastructure sector and embed this in policy and practice.
  • Adopt a holistic approach to the implementation of social value using a digital framework, based around a multi-capitals model.
  • Develop an ethical and methodological framework of good practice for the use of social media to maximise social value.
  • Develop a standardised digital framework of social value metrics for the infrastructure sector, recognised by government.
  • Embed social value data into digital twin development, enabling better decision-making on social value across the whole life cycle of infrastructure assets.
  • Leverage digital tools such as Artificial Reality and mobile apps to make the collection and measurement of primary outcomes data context relevant and proportionate to the benefits.
  • Build on the shift to digital in engagement and consultation with stakeholders.
  • Use digital tools to enhance stakeholder engagement and present the ‘data voice’ in real time.
  • Upskill managers, using digital learning, to maximise social value including through contracting, accountability and management processes.

Building an inclusive, ethical practice

As Project Lead for the Value Toolkit at the Construction Innovation Hub, Ellie Jenkins supports clients to define, measure and realise better social, economic and environmental outcomes.

Commenting on the dramatic change in the role of digital in the built environment, Ellie highlighted technology’s potential to ‘hear from unheard voices and make our design and planning process more accessible and inclusive’. Digital technologies allow developers to create a thread between investment decisions and the actual outcomes to ensure continuous improvement.

Ellie cautioned against viewing digital as a silver bullet: the implementation of digital technologies has practical and ethical challenges and further dialogue is needed to address them.

Engaging with communities through digital platforms

David Janner-Klausner, Cofounder and Director of Customer Success at Commonplace, spoke of the importance of understanding what people value in order to deliver social value.

Digital can support social value by collecting community views in a transparent way, ensuring consistency in the information collected and the repeatability of the process.

David noted that the public’s expectation of engagement is now very high, as this has been conditioned by other areas of life. A key challenge is for infrastructure developers to understand the need for a continuous engagement strategy for a project’s duration, starting pre-planning and ending post-occupancy. While there is a concern around digital poverty, digital can support in the identification of people who are not online and help developers to reach them by other means.

Using social media as an engagement tool

Furthering the discussion on customer engagement, Mark Hedges, Asset and Data Information Manager at Anglian Water shared the success he has seen in tentative social media engagement. For example, sharing traffic rehearsals from the impact of upcoming works and trying to understand this impact on customers resulted in ‘phenomenal’ social media engagement.

Anglian Water’s current works project with Costain, the Strategic Pipelines Alliance, is an example of how parties can collaborate to develop a sustainable, socially valuable project.

Implementing the principles of Social Value

Social Value UK is the UK’s professional body for social value and impact management and CEO Isabelle Parasram OBE advocates for social value and impact management across a variety of organisations.

Isabelle highlighted three of Social Value UK’s eight principles that are particularly relevant to digital technology:

  • Engaging stakeholders: it is essential to hear from the people who will be directly impacted by a new infrastructure project and avoid engaging exclusively with leaders and managers.
  • Valuing what matters: what would be a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ outcome for the stakeholders involved?
  • Being responsive: it is important to engage and analyse data throughout the life cycle of an infrastructure project and to respond to this in real time.

Future opportunities for digital technologies

Questions from the audience and further discussion with the panellists identified challenges and opportunities for digital technology to generate social value. A key challenge noted by all panellists was digital poverty and the consequent need to continue with complementary methods of engagement. David noted that technology does not afford decision-makers the opportunity to abdicate responsibility, but it can make them better informed and reduce friction between decision-makers and stakeholders.

The panellists were also in agreement on the importance of local expertise and the tailoring of data collection and engagement methods to a specific project – digital technologies do not offer a one size fits all solution.

A recording of the full discussion is available to watch on YouTube.