Are the 5 Sustainability Capitals the Consistency We’ve Been Looking For?

Rob Wolfe

I have written about how Open Data can provide consistency before; and as I work through benchmarking social value metrics for the Construction Innovation Hub’s Procuring for Value tool I still think using raw, open data is an approach we should take…however…

As the CHY Social Value Open Surgery evolves we have begun discussing consistency in the way we design, deliver and measure social value outputs and outcomes. It was quickly decided that we would never achieve or agree on the outputs and socio-economic metrics we use across the built environment.

The polite reason for this is that communities are different and therefore need different approaches, it would stifle innovation in the built environment, sustainability and social value sectors and a standard approach does not align with the Social Value Principles as set out by Social Value UK (which I whole heartedly agree with).

The more challenging reason is that local authorities are “insanely selfish” (a direct quote from a local authority employee) and therefore want their own approach for their electorate, master planners are reluctant to standardise their approach, consultants (including me) want to make a living, we (as a sector) do not want to be accountable for our promises, sub-sectors within our industry believe they need their own personalised approach and most industry bodies, institutions and representative organisations are not truly collaborative; protecting their income, their membership and their own approach.

I certainly do not pretend to have the answer (but keep an eye out for my currently rudimentary sketched solution) but I do know that without some level of consistency we will never be responsible and held accountable for our pledges, aspirations or ambitions for the society in which we work; it will not be a level playing field for the industry as those with a more value led purpose are undermined by cost; and we will never move on from marketing, PR and mostly meaningless Social Value Charters and photo opportunities.

So…..Can and should we focus on agreeing industry wide Social Value Themes?  What might these look like?  How do they provide a framework but remain flexible and future proof?  How do they become embedded in process?…and..most importantly…How do they provide a level of consistency so we can be held accountable, held responsible and more value and purpose led as an industry?

If we were to agree on a set of Social Value Themes for the Built Environment what framework should we use?  There are many at play that CHY regularly come across within our industry:

By Social Value Theme I mean defined groups of critical/optional social value outputs (number of new apprentices recruited, number of apprenticeship training weeks) and social value outcomes (number of apprentices completing their qualification, number of apprentices employed post qualification) that fall within an overarching Social Value Theme (Employment, Skills, Community Benefit etc.)

Social Value Outputs/KPIs

  • Homes and Community Agency (2006) – “1 Apprentice per million.”  A benchmark still widely used; particularly in housing development.
  • CITB National Skills Academy Employment and Skills benchmarks.  Widely used set of 9 employment and skills KPI benchmarks for construction projects based upon the type (education, infrastructure, residential etc.) and financial value.  Awareness of the NSA benchmarks is high amongst Tier 1 contractors and a large number of local authorities.
  • Social Value Portal National TOMS Framework.  A detailed set of c50 KPIs and corresponding financial values (based on Cost Benefit Analysis) across 5 social value themes.  The framework is used extensively across public sector procurement.

Social Value Outcomes:

  • Local Authorities Anti-Poverty, Community Wellbeing and Economic/Inclusive Growth Strategies provide local framework of social value outcomes. Even though the outcomes are based on local need, and stakeholder engagement the social value outcomes are similar; regardless of local authority and strategy title.
  • UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – The 17 SDGs provide a high-level framework to tackle poverty and other deprivations by improving health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth, tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.  The use of the SDGs as an overarching framework is gaining momentum in the built environment; mainly with those involved during the early stages of the project lifecycle.
  • The 5 Capitals is a flexible framework that provides a basis for understanding sustainability in terms of how we enhance or deplete Manufactured, Financial, Social, Human and Natural capital. The use of the 5 Capitals is gaining momentum amongst commercial clients, engineering, design and sustainability consultants but there appears to be a lack of awareness across other sub-sectors within the built environment.
  • Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) refers to the three central factors in measuring the sustainability and societal impact of an investment in a company or business. It does not provide a specific framework but asses corporate governance and reporting to audit and asses sustainable behaviours.  The ESGs are focussed on listed companies and therefore awareness outside large commercial clients is limited within the built environment.
  • UK Industrial Strategy and the Construction Sector Deal provide objectives that align with social value outcomes such as investment in skills, increasing diversity and providing sustainable “good” employment. Awareness of the strategy is high, but rarely is it referred to in social value terms.
  • Triple Bottom Line provides a simple framework aligned with the Social Value Act (2012) that takes into consideration social, environmental and financial value or people, planet and profit as it is commonly referred to.

I believe, as a start, there is a way in which these frameworks can be aligned to inform a social value outcomes mapping process in a simple, effective and consistent way.  I also believe one way of doing this is to start with the 5 Capitals.

This is not an impossible task.  The built environment has agreed consistency in the way we measure, monitor and account for our environmental impact and the health and safety of our workforce; they are by no means perfect but have driven innovation, accountability and process.   We are also seeing a more promising and innovative attitude to transparency with standardised, open source designs in MMC (Modern Methods of Construction).

I have my own ideas on potential solutions but, as always, we want to have an open, transparent and frank discussion about the frameworks we currently use, why we use them, which direction (if any) to take and potentially how we get there – as a collaborative movement.