Measuring Social Impact? Here's How

If you've been involved in a major infrastructure project in the last ten years, chances are you've been asked to consider its social impact. For engineers and technical specialists, this can be a daunting task since many of the rules and the tools you've been trained to rely on simply don't apply.

Sure, you can create a list of potential impacts and track them in a spreadsheet. You can even rank the level of impact from 1 to 5 to indicate high, medium or low. This is handy for feeding into a triple bottom line analysis to help determine, for example, the route alignment with the lowest financial, environmental and social impact.

According to this thinking, the bigger the hole, the louder the noise, the longer the disruption, the greater the social impact. This is good and useful stuff. But it's missing the most important element of social impact assessment: people.

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People act in ways that are difficult to predict. Their actions can be driven by their values or their mood or simply by being fed up that their neighbourhood is being disrupted again. Many of us just want to maintain the status quo.

A ranking that doesn't consider people's potential perception of and reaction to your project doesn't give your clients and stakeholders a reliable assessment of the real impact of your project on communities. And it doesn't give them the information they need to realistically assess the risk of delay, shut down or loss of reputation that can result from public resistance.

The more progressive engineering firms we work with include social impact specialists in their multi-disciplinary teams, right alongside the transportation, hydrology and environmental specialists. 

If your firm has been asked to consider the economic, environmental and social impacts of a project, here are three things that can help you prepare your assessment:

1. Know what you are assessing. It isn't the size of the hole and how many driveways will be blocked, although that is critical data that needs to be gathered.  It's a whole lot more complex than that. 

Here's a useful definition from the International Association for Impact Assessment:

Social Impact "is the process of identifying the future [social] consequences of a current or proposed action."

2. Look for a standardized, defensible methodology, just like you would for any of the technical disciplines on your project team. Social Impact assessment isn't civil engineering, but it isn't hocus-pocus either. It is rooted in social science and knowledge about how people react to actions that threaten or alter something they value.

3. Think social. That means you need to build social smarts into your team from the beginning and have that specialist discipline with you around the table just like you have environmental, traffic and geoscience specialists on your team.

James Laurence Group provides social performance solutions for public and private sector projects. If you want to talk more about social impact, send me a note. Iā€™d love to hear from you.