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How can civil engineers create social value?

25 June 2020

Jo Dobson – ICE Member and Useful Projects Associate – explains why creating social value during the delivery of infrastructure projects is growing in importance.

How can civil engineers create social value?
The Maximising Social Value From Infrastructure Projects report highlights implementation gaps between policy and practice (Image credit: Shutterstock)

With significant infrastructure investment planned for the UK, matched with severe socio-economic challenges across the country, heightened by the Covid-19 pandemic, there is now more need than ever for infrastructure projects to create additional social value over their lifecycle and help to re-build local economies.

But what is social value and what is the role of civil engineers in creating and delivering it?

Infrastructure’s purpose is to meet fundamental societal needs, for example to provide public transport, a low carbon energy supply, clean water or flood protection. However, the societal benefits that infrastructure projects can generate go way beyond delivering this basic functionality.

Infrastructure projects can also help address local socio-economic issues and inequalities. Projects create jobs for previously unemployed people; provide opportunities for small and medium enterprises and social enterprises; remove barriers to social inclusion; and ultimately increase the well-being of people involved in, or impacted by those projects. These additional benefits are known as social value.

Over the past year I’ve been researching how to improve the delivery of social value on infrastructure projects, for a research project co-funded by the ICE Research and Development Enabling Fund and Useful Projects. Maximising Social Value from Infrastructure Projects highlights implementation gaps between policy and practice, and the role of engineers in creating social value.

The Maximising Social Value From Infrastructure Projects report highlights implementation gaps between policy and practice
The Maximising Social Value From Infrastructure Projects report highlights implementation gaps between policy and practice

What you build, how you build, and how you operate

A useful framework for thinking about social value is to think about how you can generate social value through ‘what you build’, ‘how you build’ and ‘how you operate’.

Using the insight gained during this research project, Useful Projects has developed a Social Value Maturity Framework for infrastructure projects based on these three stages. It is intended as a guide for infrastructure organisations and/or project teams to reflect on their maturity in terms of embedding social value and maximising positive social impact through their business operations. It can also be used to help develop a Social Value Strategy for a project.

For each phase, we have categorised approaches as ‘basic’, ‘best’ and ‘pioneering’. We hope that the framework is used as a starting point from which to assess maturity, benchmark against other projects and instigate strategic planning and decision-making around the subject. It will evolve over time as projects improve their approach.

Key recommendations for civil engineers

There are several recommendations arising from the research to help the infrastructure sector maximise social value. Here are some of the key recommendations arising from the research that are relevant to civil engineers:

  1. Invest in the right project. So much can be achieved by investing in the right project. Infrastructure clients should be more willing to explore alternative solutions that may deliver greater social value and integrate with other local infrastructure projects to maximise benefits to society.
  2. Embrace a broad view of social value. A crucial first step is for all stakeholders in the infrastructure sector to understand that social value goes beyond just delivering employment, apprenticeships and SME involvement during construction. We need to think broadly about how the infrastructure asset can improve the lives of local people and deliver multiple benefits beyond the redline boundary. Thames Tideway is a great example of a project that is doing this well, and a case study is included in the publication.
  3. Aim to create social value at all stages of the project lifecycle. The current focus on delivering social value through the procurement and delivery phase means that opportunities to create benefits upstream (during strategic brief, business case, planning and design) and downstream (during operations and decommissioning) are being lost. The research report sets out key steps for closing the current implementation gap between organisational policy objectives on social value and delivery on the ground, for each stage in the project lifecycle.
  4. Base social value interventions on a Local Needs Analysis. Social value interventions should deliver benefits that meet the specific needs of the affected communities; helping to build stronger and more resilient villages, towns and cities. Clients should conduct or commission a Local Need Analysis in advance of finalising a project’s strategic brief. This should assess local needs beyond the project redline boundary and include engagement with a wide group of local stakeholders.

Find out more from Useful Projects

  • Jo Dobson, Associate Director, Useful Projects