Social benefits of underground space: moving from cost to value

In October 2017 Think Deep UK brought together urban planners, economists, geotechnical engineers, geologists, tunnellers, public servants, researchers and other professionals to debate the social value of urban underground space.

Hosted at IDEA London, and under the guidance of social value experts from PwC, HS2, Arup and Volterra, the workshop participants considered how we might define and measure the social value delivered by underground space.

Social value is ambiguous

Listening to Stuart Jefford (PwC) and Bridget Jackson (HS2) it became clear that social value is not clearly defined, that there are many different definitions, frameworks, guides and policy documents for social value which generates confusion and ambiguity. Some define social value in its narrowest sense, others include environmental and economic benefits. Some encourage economic valuation and financial indicators whilst other advocate more qualitative measures. Social value as concept is not mainstream and government projects tend to adopt ‘benefits management’ as a broader framework.

The principal drivers to evaluate social value for large infrastructure projects appear to be cost and risk. From the outset the business case needs to be proved and as such the social value assessment is intimately linked with the cost-benefit analysis and the design life of the scheme. As such, only the tractable, evidence-based social benefits can be easily accounted for. Is such a process ‘future proof’? How can we go beyond domain-specific objectives and context-specific extrapolations to capture the broader societal need over future generations?

Benefits and beneficiaries, connectivity and community

There was consensus among the experts at the workshop that underground development is currently viewed as problematic, the benefits are not highlighted sufficiently and the evidence base for the benefits needs articulating. The challenge to balance individual preferences, community benefits and national interests was acknowledged as was the trade-off between long-term benefits and short-term costs. Communicating the social benefits and impacts was considered key, explaining the value of underground space utilisation and making the benefits more visible.

Early stage consultation with potential beneficiaries and community-led engagement were considered markers of success, with our speakers highlighting individual successes where public consultation had led to enhancement of social value – and not always with financial implications. Such approaches have potential to refocus project development from purely economic endeavours to socially inclusive processes. In this way the full potential of underground development, which may have a higher initial cost but greater long-term benefits, could be realised.

Views from the experts

“If social value is a proactive part of a project, right from the feasibility stage, we have a clearer way to communicate to the public.”

“We need to find better ways to include social value in project appraisal. If we do that we will probably come up with different and better answers.”

“When we articulate value in a traditional way we take quite a singular view to it. But when you start to look at the social and environmental benefits, you can start to articulate the story in a way of multiple beneficiaries.”

“Often we build under the ground to facilitate other things elsewhere – the benefits are not in the underground space itself but what it allows to be created on the surface”

For more information about Think Deep UK or watch the video.

The next workshop is on Future Transport, to be held in London on the 30th November. To register your interest please email thinkdeep(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)