Infrastructure comprises the systems and services, such as roads, bridges, railways or electricity lines, that a society needs to function properly. As the definition suggests, infrastructure should add social value to the society it benefits. When it comes to social value, this means that an infrastructure project should consider the community and environment that it serves and develops.
However, the phrase ‘social value’ is rigged in subjectivity, and it is difficult to define. The Public Services (Social Value) Act of 2012 defines social value as the “economic, social and environmental well-being of the relevant area”. These criteria are difficult to assess, and research shows that the outcomes of the 2012 Act and its recent updates have not been as effective as they could have been.
So, what does it mean to have social value in infrastructure projects and how can civil engineers make our urban environment more socially inclusive and sustainable?
Civil engineering is instrumental in making our cities the best they can be for their residents.
For instance, ‘mixed use’ is an essential practice. It refers to developing spaces that can serve a multitude of uses, spaces for people to live, socialise, work, shop and participate in an array of other activities. Mixed use spaces such as the Luneside East regeneration project in Lancaster, UK can benefit a community socially, can be environmentally sustainable and contribute to the economy.
Inclusive design is another factor of inclusive urban planning. Inclusive design in infrastructure projects considers the spectrum of human diversity. Lifetime homes and neighbourhoods, as found all throughout the UK today, are designed to be inclusive regardless of age or disability and are a great example of inclusive urban design.
Urban inclusivity also implies working towards eradicating urban poverty. Adequate infrastructure is crucial to creating better opportunities for work and education, thus implementing a sense of security and trust for a community. It is essential to encourage all the actors involved in a project's construction and operation to invest in the improvement of their environment.
To promote social value in an infrastructure project, funds need to be set aside for social objectives to be delivered, and said social objectives also need to be enforced and monitored once a project is completed.
Metrics such as travel times, frequency of use or air quality can be used to measure the social value of a project, but civil engineers also must consider other less objectively measurable metrics related to the wellbeing of the community served by a people such as access to green spaces or a river. A good infrastructure project will engage the trust of the local community. The social and community aspect of infrastructure engineering is key to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
The latest themed issue of Engineering Sustainability on the topic of social value in infrastructure is free to read until 18 November 2022.
Additional free papers on the topic of social value in infrastructure: