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Worlds apart, or side by side?


Comparing Australia and the UK’s approach to designing places for lasting social impact.

Communities across the globe are longing for greater accountability from those who design our places.

The capability to address this growing demand, through accurately measuring social impact – a method that quantifies the built environment’s impact on people, place and planet – is gathering pace within the industry.

In basic terms, social impact explores the potential the sector can deliver when it comes to improving the lives of communities, however, it is a much-misunderstood concept. The industry is often finds itself struggling to measure, understand and communicate the tangible benefits it can, and should, deliver.

To get a better understanding, we spoke to Australian and UK social impact experts, to draw comparisons between the two countries, and how – although 10,000 miles apart – the countries’ approaches to delivering social impact might be closer than we think.

Ruth Skidmore is the social impact lead at Meeting Place.

Ruth comments: “Ten years on from the Social Value Act, the UK is often seen as being ahead of the curve when it comes to delivering social impact. The industry is certainly moving rapidly towards a standardised approach and clearer definitions.

Whilst it can be straightforward to measure direct economic impact, there is an emerging desire to see less tangible outputs take precedence – as we shift the focus towards understanding the impact of areas such as urban nature, reduced loneliness and access to social sports.”

Eilish Barry is a 30under30 Social Value Lead at Hayball, an award-winning Australian architectural practice designing a positive future for cities and communities.

Eilish comments: The concept of measuring social impact within the built environment is gaining more interest in Australia; it’s an exciting time for the industry.

It might seem that the industry here is 8-10 years behind the UK, however, measurement is becoming more prominent following the federal government Wellbeing Framework released last year.

It’s often been said that Australia, due to its progressive attitude, is in the habit of rivalling some other countries in areas such as social impact or sustainability. We have a great opportunity to determine the lessons learned from other countries and try to improve them for the Australian context.

While the concept of designing for social value in Australia is becoming more known, Hayball, along with many industry peers, have been actively designing with communities in mind inherently, for years.

For us, the critical element moving forward is to agree on the definition of social impact across the industry and move forward from there. There are emergent pockets of work starting this process, but to avoid abortive work, it would be helpful for everyone to get behind a unified understanding.

Is social impact being driven by a few socially conscious actors, or are all developers taking note?

Ruth: Social impact is not simply a moral imperative in the UK, because it is becoming more prevalent in tenders, it has also become an economic one, too. It is favourable for developers to pay attention and strive for best practice, with those who go above and beyond winning more work and improving public perception.

Eilish: In Australia, the mood is more mixed. Many see the potential commercial benefits of evidencing the impact a project has delivered. This can help in tenders or when speaking to potential tenants and buyers.

However, some developers are excited to now have a process to measure their impact and use it as a tool to improve their businesses internally and projects for the benefit of others.

Australia has also seen some developers be wary and sceptical of social value calculations. However, creating robust frameworks and understanding based on existing methodologies that have been tried and tested, such as the UK, can help to assist in communicating how something intangible can be measured.

There is work to be done in explaining how something intangible can be measured, and how accurate the measurement can be due to factors such as bias.

Legislation is changing and the next few years will be pivotal for change across both the UK and Australia. Australia’s Federal Budget recently outlined aims to prioritise wellbeing through its ‘Measuring What Matters’ wellbeing framework, which looks beyond macro-economic measures to base priorities on societal wellbeing.

Eilish: While this is a good first step, the framework is still in its infancy, and likely to change over time. There was a lack of contribution from the built environment community during its consultation period.

This presents wonderful opportunities for architects and designers to drive the conversation and understand how it will impact the built environment. The current framework has some key indicators that are appropriate to apply within our industry. Some include ‘creative and cultural engagement’ or ‘emission reductions’ that we can begin to measure more robustly.

However, Australia is vast and hugely diverse in its needs from place to place. Social impact is highly context and place-specific. Future indicators should be geographically mapped.

This could be similar to the UK’s common practice of asset mapping, developed by Flora Samuel, which helps to identify impact hotspots and indicate the interventions needed for improving specific communities’ wellbeing.

Ruth: Perhaps the UK is only more developed in this area due to the passage of time and the size of the sector. Within the public sector, social impact has been standardised for over a decade, through the Social Value Act, meaning we are well versed in the concept.

There are multiple bodies out there able to support in the delivery of commitments made on public sector contracts, many who can help you measure it and some who demonstrate the impact of these actions. The system is in place and it’s talked about a lot.

Within the private sector, the lines are far less clear. Social Value UK is positioning itself as an overarching body, however, there are still a broad range of themes used by various other toolkits. These can explore less tangible metrics, such as how the built environment can be more empowering and caring, fair and inclusive, and how it can focus on wellbeing. But how we quantify these outcomes still results in a broad range of outputs that can’t always be compared or standardised.

As we move forward, is there a possibility of a snowball effect and momentum building rapidly across both countries?

Eilish: The Wellbeing Framework is an important step forward for Australia, with the potential to transform the way we design places for people. Social impact reporting and measurement has the power to transform the industry. It would enable consistency and benchmarking and provide an industry-wide demonstration of the impact that design has on a community’s wellbeing.

If adopted, the implications could be significant, helping architects advocate for design features that are forecasted to create the greatest social impact. Additionally, it could help governments and councils predict the social impact created for local communities by major developments.

However, some critical first steps are to establish definitions, standardised approaches, and tools for the industry to use. These need to be flexible to suit all project typologies, sizes and budgets. The creation of social impact can happen through any size of a project, so the steps we take now need to enable it to be accessible for all in the built environment to utilise.

Also, Australia is increasingly focusing on First Nations consultation and reconciliation in projects, learning from these principles within the built environment. Therefore, a priority must also be measuring the impact of decisions on all First Nation Australians.

Ruth: In the UK, the private sector is still struggling to find how the social value act applied to them. When we use a social impact lens from project inception, guidance is still lacking. Before pens are on paper, we know that there needs to be engagement taking place, but the industry still often struggles to translate this into design guidance and long-term social legacy.

We will always struggle to move away from this standardised metric-based approach now it’s in motion. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is yet to be realised. The benefit is the ability to compare one project against another, viewing social impact in context across the country. The downside is a race to the bottom line and the default to a tick box exercise. Perhaps Australia still has the opportunity to find a way to deliver social impact without needing to turn to forms and metrics, focusing solely on people.

The greatest opportunity to shift the dial in the UK now lies with manifestos. While the industry is buzzing with articles, ideas and vision documents, when it comes to party conferences these conversations are limited to the ‘housing’ speech. Social impact needs to be about a much more holistic view. When we improve living environments, we reduce pressures on healthcare and social services, on policing and on charities. This is bigger than the developer, this impacts society as a whole.

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