By Arup


The design, construction and operation of built and natural environment projects, as well as social initiatives and policies, shape the places, neighbourhoods and cities that form the stage of people’s everyday lives. As such, the built environment industry is central to driving social change across society.

Despite this, we seldom talk about the social outcomes we want to deliver through our work. This means we often miss significant opportunities to reap social benefits and redress the inequities.

Today, ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) considerations are becoming a priority in the industry. Yet, questions around social value and equity have until recently taken a back seat to environmental concerns – which isn’t surprising given the climate crisis. The focus has been on reducing the carbon footprint and environmental impact in our cities; less attention has been placed on improving the social impact of the built-environment industry.

In light of this, Arup has examined the emergence of social value and equity as a concept that needs to be considered as the essential part of the built-environment practice. We recognise that the meaning of social value and equity depends on historical, cultural and social contexts, and therefore there cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution. The creation of social outcomes must be a dynamic and flexible process that adapts to the unique attributes of every place and community.

Our aim focuses on outcomes: to improve people’s quality of life and to shape a more inclusive, equitable and just environment and society.

With a focus on the built-environment industry, our definition is driven by Arup’s aim to do socially useful work – a value that dates to the firm’s founding over 75 years ago – and our commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. More specifically, our definition has four dimensions:


Equity differs from equality. Whereas equality treats everybody in the same way regardless of their needs, equity treats people fairly and supportively by accounting for different histories, burdens and abilities. Equitable environments actively bring people into a society where everyone can participate and thrive.


Justice addresses historical harms and oppression. It recognises privilege and inherent biases in systems, and it seeks to redress them. Just environments ensure people who have historically been, and continue to be, disadvantaged are treated fairly – now and going forward.


Inclusion means that everybody feels that they belong in a place. It begins with physical accessibility and the absence of barriers. It further involves actively supporting people’s varied needs and creating opportunities for all.

Quality of life

Quality of life is a highly subjective concept that refers to the state of health, comfort and happiness experienced by an individual or group. It is rooted in local values and needs. These in turn are shaped by social, cultural, economic and historic factors as well as personal experiences and the conditions of an individual’s environments.

Delivering a transformational change: six driving principles

Arup’s Theory of Change model represents a transformative way of thinking and operating. It fundamentally changes the relationships between project stakeholders, enhances project processes, and focuses on outcomes rather than outputs.

It is a journey guided by six principles:

  • Tailored, place-and-needs-based approach.

Understanding the context and local needs early by engaging with communities, as well as thinking about the potential of the project, can unlock unexpected opportunities and potential benefits, turning the project narrative on its head and creating long-term social outcomes.

  • From consultation to co-production.

If the dialogue with local communities, as well as stakeholders who will enable benefit to be delivered, starts early and continues consistently, they can play an active role in designing new places and infrastructure. Co-production empowers communities through inclusion, active engagement and self-determination, rather than simply offering reactive feedback on proposals developed elsewhere. Empowering communities also involves adequate resourcing and capacity building.

  • From measuring outputs to assessing outcomes.

To be able to assess the real difference projects can make to people’s lives – even after a project is completed – it is critical to work closely with the community and to take a long-term view of outcomes. This shifts the focus beyond what can be achieved in the short term. Considering first what outcomes are needed rather than rushing to import generic solutions from elsewhere, we can build an infrastructure of social value and equity that enables people’s quality of life and a better society, building in long-term resilience and sustainability.

  • Throughout the project lifecycle.

Social value and equity is best achieved when it is considered and integrated at every stage of a project’s lifecycle. This way, it becomes inherent to project aims and designs, and not merely a superficial add-on.

  • Clear governance at the core of delivery.

By establishing governance arrangements early on between stakeholders (e.g. government authorities, developers, academia, civil society organisations), even in an informal way, social value and equity becomes the shared responsibility of multiple parties and more likely to be delivered successfully. These arrangements help to establish steering groups, hold regular meetings, monitor and report protocols, and to assign clear roles and responsibilities. They can also help centre social value and equity when some groups are seen as rights-holders (rather than stakeholders), especially in the longer term.

  • Programmes and partnerships for change

There are specific programmes and partnerships that can ensure that the benefits of a project reach local communities: educational, skills, employment and cultural programmes can offer a structured way for local people to learn new skills, improve economic opportunities and find work on the project as it progresses. Partnerships with local community groups and non- governmental organisations will be the most effective way to ensure community engagement and build longer-term capacity.

What are the benefits?

The potential benefits of this theory of change approach are significant for different stakeholders: starting with individuals and communities through to government and infrastructure authorities, urban planners and designers, developers and investors.

  • Create innovative and contextually relevant ideas and interventions, address local needs and wants, and reduce the risks of biases and of having unforeseen, negative impacts. This demonstrates organisational thought leadership and is achieved by ensuring that the insights obtained by different stakeholders are incorporated into the project studies and solutions. In turn, our approach ensures the social interventions or outputs of a project will be valued by the community. They strengthen the community by addressing their specific needs. This will help create a lasting and meaningful impact on people’s quality of life.
  • Build trust, public support and a sense of confidence between communities, relevant government and/or infrastructure authorities, and urban practitioners, improves a sense of ownership and the agility of the project delivery. This trust helps to make future development both faster and more straightforward. Such trusted relationships also bring financial benefits. Creating strong support for a project reduces risks of delaying project delivery (e.g. through protests or community objection), which in return reduces the risk of making a loss on the project.
  • Increase opportunities for new projects and attraction of businesses with parallel ethos and principles, willing to invest. There are also commercial benefits: creating diverse and vibrant places that people love to spend time in drives footfall and dwell time, and the environmental and social sustainability of a building can warrant a higher rental value.
  • Maximise the social, economic and environmental benefits of the project, through community outreach, local supply chains, and local investments and spend. Our approach can also enhance coordination, knowledge sharing and learning across stakeholders, promoting a holistic and integrated approach.
  • Enhance corporate reputation by demonstrating thought leadership, which improves staff engagement, retention and performance. This can bring huge returns for infrastructure authorities, urban practitioners, developers and investors. It can support the government’s planning powers and the interface with real-estate developers, by helping them ensure that the challenges associated with the delivery of new developments are deftly balanced to create social, economic and environmental benefits for neighbourhoods most in need.