Measuring social value - does it help social value creation or social washing?

Does measuring help better create social value in real estate and urban development?


“What gets measured gets managed” is an expression quoted often in relation to theory of change. This statement does indeed make sense. If you don’t measure, you don’t know what progress has or hasn’t been made.


However, there are also counter arguments. Campbell’s Law, Goodhart’s Law and Cobra Effect all highlight the danger of measuring. It could be unproductive or worse, counterproductive.

“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” Campbell’s Law


“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Goodhart’s Law

Besides, measuring social outcomes itself is hardly simple. Lowe and others (2020) identified ‘the four aspects of complexity’ relating to measuring social outcomes: 1) compositional (factors contributing to social outcomes are interconnected), 2) dynamic (contributing factors are interactive and dynamic), 3) experiential (contributing factors and experience of an outcome are individually unique) and 4) governance (outcomes are created by systems and beyond control of individual actors).


In essence, social outcomes, such as wellbeing, equity, social cohesion and culture, are created by factors that are interconnected and interactive and experienced differently by individuals. All stakeholders (e.g. investors, developers, architects, planners, communities) have a role to play. Yet, no single actor is solely and wholly responsible for any outcome. The obesity system map by the UK Government’s Foresight Programme illustrates such complexity well.


What is the solution? Can we measure progress while mitigating the risk of ‘impact washing’ or ‘social washing’?


The first and foremost, defining goals and objectives should come first. As discussed in the ULI social value report, what to measure needs to be dictated by objectives, not by the availability of existing measures.


Secondly, the primary purpose of measuring is to inform decision-making for better outcomes. A UK-based regeneration firm igloo is a good example. They developed a bespoke approach in which each project is assessed using unique KPIs across six dimensions at key decision-making points during the project. Measuring for standard reporting (e.g. BREEAM, GRESB) is secondary. Focusing on measuring for the sake of reporting increases the risk of social washing.


Finally, decision-making relating to social value inevitably requires judgement based on alignment, balance and improvement and should not solely rely on metrics, no matter how good they are. For instance, creating jobs may improve wellbeing of those employed and boost local economy but those jobs also need to be aligned with the wider Net Zero Carbon agenda and sustainability goals.


In short, measuring can be useful and, might I daresay, even necessary to drive the social value agenda across the built environment industry. However, a greater emphasis should be placed upon defining objectives, aligning decision-making with those and monitoring overall performance holistically.