By Martin Loosemore, Professor of construction Management at UNSW Built environment and Dave Higgon, Employee Relations Manager for Brookfield Multiplex.
The construction sector needs to engage with social entrepreneurship to address growing social inequity and disadvantage in society, write Martin Loosemore and Dave Higgon.
In the last budget Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey announced a $5.5 billion growth package aimed at stimulating grass roots innovation and enterprise throughout the Australian economy.
When considered alongside the country’s planned infrastructure pipeline ($20 billion on the table in NSW – plus the Federal Government’s $50 billion transport infrastructure roll out) we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to get more for our public money and leverage our public spending to address growing social inequity and disadvantage in our society.
How? A new breed of Australian social entrepreneurs is emerging to build inspiring social enterprises which trade for a social purpose, feeding their profits back into the community in which they operate, rather than to private shareholders. Social enterprises represent an untapped opportunity and an innovative way for the government and the businesses they employ to engage with communities. They specialise in working with communities and in measuring social value and many bridge the critical gap between welfare and work by providing ‘job ready’ training for marginalised groups who may not otherwise be qualified to take up construction industry jobs.
These entrepreneurs need the opportunity to be integrated into the construction sector. However, although we have successfully integrated many environmental improvements into new construction and engineering projects, we are lagging well behind our counterparts overseas in ensuring that major public investments in infrastructure to deliver significant social benefits to our communities, potentially alleviating pressure on welfare budgets. In the united kingdom the Social Value Act of 2012 now means that many clients in the public sector require that companies tendering for construction contracts demonstrate some kind of ‘social value’ in their bid. In Australia, some forward thinking local councils such as Wollongong and Parramatta City are also integrating ‘social value’ into their tenders.
To catch up, we need to make significant changes in the way that both governments and construction firms procure their construction and engineering projects. Beyond the obvious benefits to society when construction and engineering companies meaningfully engage with the communities in which they build, our own research also shows that there are many business benefits too. The reputational benefits to companies that deliver ‘social value’ generate measurable returns well beyond public sector contracts. There is considerable evidence to show that increasing numbers of investors prefer companies with a positive corporate image and that there are many advantages in terms of recruiting, engaging, developing and retaining the country’s most talented youth. Gen Y employees will often choose socially responsible employers over others, even if they are offered lower wages.
Social enterprise represents a wonderful opportunity for the construction industry to engage more effectively with the communities in which it builds and to ensure its projects help the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society. After an unprecedented three Royal Commissions into the construction sector over the last 30 years, such a positive legacy would be good news indeed.