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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Social Infrastructure:
Construction Projects as a Force for Good

If an organization commissions a multimillion-dollar building or renovation, how can it double or triple the social and environmental benefits from its investment? Many green building standards already exist, but what if it was possible to go beyond them — to design a building process that was transformational in its execution?

Society is at an inflection point. The intersecting crises of climate change, rising inequality and systemic racism are driving organizations to rethink their roles in society as they mobilize their resources, reach, scale and influence to help put humanity on a sustainable course. And there is yet one untapped opportunity for organizations: to leverage their construction and building projects to achieve exponential social good. If an organization is commissioning a multimillion-dollar building or renovation, how can it double or triple the social and environmental benefits from its investment?

Many green building standards already exist, but what if it was possible to go beyond them — to design a building process that was transformational in its execution? A new report, Unlocking the Potential of Campus Infrastructure Projects to Build Social Infrastructure, shows how.

It is a think piece designed to prompt visionary and “out-of-the-box” ideas at the outset of a building or renovation project. It targets Canadian universities, but it is relevant to any organization anywhere that is commissioning a building or major renovation. It is especially relevant in a world with rising social divisions, inequality and temperatures. The report is a call to action for organizational leaders, real estate developers, architects, engineers, procurement and facility managers, and others who are planning significant construction or renovation projects to have those projects become catalysts for social change. Following the ideas in this paper as set out below can help builders create social good by mobilizing the building process itself to tackle society’s challenges.

Building project as a catalyst for social change

The Project Social Purpose Continuum below sets up the options available to organizations to accelerate societal benefits through their building projects. Early in the effort, project teams should consider what level they aspire to, beyond levels 1 and 2, where most building projects tend to operate today.

Figure 1

How can your project contribute to a better community or world?

The level of ambition chosen will start to align project stakeholders and signal to them the larger purpose of the undertaking. Next, project teams should determine the social purpose of the project and plan to cascade this purpose through all phases of development and operation — going beyond conventional considerations of building users and uses. A social purpose acts as the project’s North Star and guides decisions and trade-offs, setting the course and guide rails for the project’s execution. Answering the following questions can help the project team define the social purpose of the project.

Once you have determined the social purpose of your project, you can develop goals to achieve that purpose, and can agree on the organizational assets you plan to leverage for your project to further your societal goals. Assets can include products, services, employee bases, technology platforms, supply chains and relationships with industry, academia, suppliers, contractors, training institutes and others. You can harness these assets and competencies to help bring your purpose to life and advance the social goals of your project.

With this in hand, you can develop social-change initiatives to pursue along the full lifecycle of the project, from pre-planning to project initiation, planning design and construction, closeout; and evaluation, opening, operations and legacy.

In addition to adding your social goals to the planning, design and delivery stages of your project, you can do the same with your project’s value chain. How can the value chain be a force for good and generate societal benefits in the process of the building project? Here’s a schematic to help you think about that.

What societal goals can be introduced at different stages of the value chain?

This is an ambitious new mandate for building and infrastructure projects, but the times call for nothing short of a hard-driving rethink of the purpose of the building process. If it seems overwhelming, start small – you don’t have to figure it out overnight and you don’t have to do it all.

As you go down this path, you will learn how much people gravitate to this. Your organization will benefit from the pro-social efficiency that comes when people contribute — even overcontribute — to your success because they can see themselves in the value your organization is creating through this project.

While there are hurdles ahead, these investments will benefit organizations over the long term. The business case or the spreadsheet should not drive this direction; nor should challenges — though real and immediate — be allowed to stall the effort. This is the 21st-century reality of organizational leadership, driven by the social issues and imperatives of the era.

This report gives organizations a resource to help them uncover a potent way for building projects to contribute to the greater good. By reimagining the investment, pursuing a societal North Star, and harnessing and mobilizing underutilized assets, organizations can set the course for greater societal impact through the building process. By looking up and down the development process and the building value chain, organizations can broaden their lens on opportunities and partners. There is untapped and exponential potential for organizations to unlock greater social good from their building projects. In doing so, they will unleash powerful solutions for tackling society’s greatest challenges.