04 OCTOBER 2022

Social impact: why wellbeing not monetisation?

Monetisation sounds good,  but to make a real difference, we need to find a more nuanced way of analysing, focussing and measuring social impact.

Billy Bragg once sang “Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that can be counted counts.

As we think more progressively about the value that the built environment brings to society this is increasingly true.  

The sector habitually attributes a financial value to social impact, with headlines claiming billions of societal value created by companies or even individual projects. People like a simple answer, a single number that distils a complex idea. But with wildly differing methodologies the more frequent result is confusion and cynicism. Or worse, little impact on real life outcomes.

Going back to basics, the fundamental purpose of social impact is to create better places and improve people's lives. However you define social impact, one of the key principles is that you need to understand need. It’s so locally contextual that understanding individual community need is the critical starting point in how you go on to create impact.

Ascribing a monetary value can be a way in to talk about impact. But it’s a narrow lens. If this is your starting point, the results and interventions you focus on risk being skewed.  

Privileging activities that can have a financial value attached to them often means that intangible or hard to measure initiatives are excluded, it also doesn’t tell you much about the real life outcomes influenced. This perpetuates the presumption that if an activity cannot be assigned a monetary value, it is not ‘worth’ doing.  

Drivers of wellbeing, which contribute to the positive or negative impact places can have on people’s lives - like perception of safety, neighbourliness and air pollution are all examples of where assigning a financial value is difficult, if not impossible. Does this mean we should ignore them? 

In creating our social impact strategy, People Positive, the first step we took was to baseline wellbeing in our places using established ONS measures to help us understand how they perform against comparable places. Independent research was then coupled with conversations with c2,000 residents, workers and visitors including marginalised groups across our portfolio.

This enabled us to focus on the way we want to deliver social impact and, recognising what we can credibly influence, decide how we can best deliver it through our core business. Our strategy concentrates on three strategic priorities:

  1. Improving wellbeing in the places we make and manage
  2. Helping local economies thrive by championing inclusive growth and diversity
  3. Maximising the positive impact of our people and partners

This isn’t the start of our efforts to deliver social impact it’s an evidenced way of directing our resources more meaningfully. By getting a better sense of need, and particularly need that spans our three core communities of residents, workers and visitors, we can make better informed choices ensuring we play our part in tackling what the research has surfaced and focus efforts in areas people told us are most important.

And crucially we now have a way to baseline where we are today and the contribution we make in the future.

Monetisation sounds good,  but to make a real difference, we need to  find a more nuanced way of analysing, focussing and measuring social impact.

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