This blog was originally published on the UKGBC website.

Organisations involved in the built environment – including those who invest in, develop, construct or manage new buildings – usually seek to demonstrate and communicate their economic and environmental impact. Increasingly these companies wish to, and in many cases are required to, measure their impact on social value.

Social value has gained significant momentum recently. The Social Value Act was in the news again this summer, as the government announced that it would explore applying the Act – which currently affects the procurement of services – to other areas of public decision-making, such as planning and community asset transfer. They also announced that central government would ‘account for’ social value, rather than just ‘consider’ it, and that they would train all 4,000 of their commercial buyers in how to take account of social value.

A good number of companies are beginning to show leadership in this space. Many have sought to understand, measure and communicate the positive social value that they are creating – through residential, retail, or office developments.

There is excellent guidance available on measuring social value outcomes in the building and construction sector, including from UKGBC. But even with the right guidance, measuring social value can be harder than measuring economic value or environmental value. Social value is less tangible, more subjective, and harder to interpret than most of the data we collect. So what can we do to make sure we get it right?

In our experience, there are three things that stand out among those who have measured social value effectively:

An understanding of your stakeholders: You probably already know who your key stakeholders are. And UKGBC’s social value in new development gives guidelines on important stakeholders in delivering and driving social value throughout the development lifecycle.

Measuring social value in full means you need to think beyond your immediate project concerns. What difference is your development going to make to the school across the road? What impact will the design and construction stages have on student’s wellbeing and learning? How does the building design affect accessibility to nearby green spaces, and does it change how people use those spaces? How will your development affect the workplace wellbeing of those who work there? All of these – pupils at the local school, users of nearby green spaces, workers who will be based in the building – would be important stakeholders. And measuring social value means understanding how much social value these stakeholders stand to gain – or lose.

Investment in primary research: You may already have data that allows you to demonstrate your economic or environmental impact. You may have numbers that tell you how many jobs you have created, the amount you invest in local supply chains, and the carbon emissions created by your construction work.

Social value doesn’t work like that. It involves visiting local businesses to find out about the impact of a new development. It involves talking to local people about what has changed for them – and not just the ones who turn up to community engagement events. It involves asking people open-ended questions about what they really think, not just filling in a multiple-choice questionnaire. So if you’re really committed to understanding social value, make sure you invest in your research capabilities.

Avoidance of misattribution: Yes – there has been an increase in footfall for local businesses since your development was completed. But is this because of your development, or because transport links have also been improved? Good building design might reduce the fear of crime in an area. But if fear of crime would have otherwise risen – rather than stayed constant – then your measurement might underestimate the impact of your development. Understanding what would have happened anyway is important if you want to fully understand social value.

Above all though, social value needs to be proportionate. Committing to measuring social value shouldn’t get in the way of delivering social value – or worse – stifle creativity and innovation. And there is a danger that our desire to measure social value encourages us to focus on short-term, easier-to-measure social value initiatives, rather than longer-term initiatives that may be harder to measure, but could create more value overall. So make sure that your social value measurement supports – rather than impedes – your social value creation.