The infrastructure sector can make a positive difference to communities by delivering more socially inclusive projects, writes Kerry Scott, global practice leader for social inclusion.
There are many definitions of social inclusion being used in the infrastructure sector. At Mott MacDonald, we simply describe it like this: “We leave a positive legacy or make a positive difference in the communities in which we work.” It’s not just words, it’s a commitment.
There are different levels of ambition: a bronze, silver and gold standard.
The first step is compliance. This means abiding by legislation and regulatory guidelines and carrying out due diligence to make sure any negative impacts on communities or under-represented groups are identified, minimised and managed. It is arguably about maintaining the status quo and preventing disadvantage.
The next level of inclusion is empowerment. This is more proactive. It goes beyond just managing and mitigating negative impacts. This is where a project looks for opportunities to maximise positive impacts, where it creates channels of active participation and dialogue and feeds findings from these activities into design. It is about delivering social value and connecting communities with development.
You’re keeping local people on board, listening to what they’re saying and trying to understand their views. You’re basing your decisions, as far as possible, on the information you gather and finding ways in which you can align what you’re doing with community challenges, needs and aspirations.
The gold standard of social inclusion is transformation. This is where we see projects being most ambitious, using their influence to deliver lasting social outcomes and address long-term inequalities.
Transformation involves effecting social change and challenging the status quo around issues such as economic participation and governance. For example, taking action to boost employment levels of minority groups, capacity building in communities, or influencing civic participation. Of course, no single project will shift cultural norms on its own, but you can certainly influence it.
The key to making a difference is starting how you mean to go on. If social impact and outcomes are not considered at the very beginning of a project, there will be a limit as to what can be achieved.
Social inclusion needs to be embedded throughout the project lifecycle, which is the approach we are taking at Mott MacDonald. Like anything, the approach needs to be well-thought-out if it is to succeed.
At the planning stage, this involves securing buy-in from the community and stakeholders and identifying challenges, needs, opportunities and desired outcomes. What are you hoping to achieve with regard to employment, skills development, community development and participation?
At design, it means ensuring projects are fit for purpose and can meet both technical and inclusion objectives. During construction, it is about continuing to engage with local communities and avoiding and managing any negative impacts on them, as well as thinking about the supply chain.
You still need to think about social inclusion after the asset has been built and become operational by collecting data and monitoring wellbeing and equality indicators and, where possible, enabling more diverse workforces, involvement and capacity building. The menu of options will be dependent on the type of infrastructure.
We know that taking an inclusive approach to infrastructure development is the right thing to do. Few can argue with that. Let’s not forget that the principal reason for infrastructure projects being commissioned is because there is a desire to serve the needs of communities and to provide a better quality of life. Communities are the ultimate beneficiaries. They are our clients’ clients, so we need to put them at the centre of what we do.
All of this is important, and not just for ethical reasons but also because there are compelling drivers.
For example, nationally and internationally, there is legislation and performance standards requiring our industry and our clients to think about social inclusion when delivering projects. Look at the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – they have a distinctive social flavour with objectives around equality, sustainable communities and tackling poverty.
Investment will be increasingly conditional upon compliance with these standards and there is growing consumer demand for ethical and inclusive infrastructure.
It’s important to emphasise that inclusion done right is at worst cost-neutral, and at best strengthens the business case and return on investment.
There is both a moral and an economic case for social inclusion. It is no longer an optional extra.
In short, through our projects in the infrastructure sector we have the opportunity to leave a legacy of sustainable, resilient and inclusive communities. And what a great legacy that would be for us all to leave.
Kerry Scott will be one of the keynote speakers at a seminar on social inclusion in major projects hosted by the Major Projects Association in Manchester on 14 November.