It felt fitting to gather at a repurposed building in central London to discuss the (not always happy) marriage of investment and place. This PlaceLabs event was hosted by Iceni Projects, a multi-skilled consultancy that helps to deliver better places, and whose Farringdon offices are in the lower level of a former car park: the existing architectural fabric worked into the redesign, exposed pipes mixed with sleek furniture, and a lovely colour scheme focused on a spring-leaf green fridge to breathe new life into a forgotten space.
Investment, then. Nothing less. Our tacitly agreed starting point was that capital investment was necessary to drive development, hence social value also needed to be commercially viable. This, of course, opened up questions like what is social value, whose social value do we mean and indeed who defines it?
Defining social value
Our first two speakers, using different examples from their own practice, gave their view on this. Michael Cowdy of McGregor Coxall suggested that, as opposed to other industries, “historically, the urban world hasn’t used usage statistics as a platform for delivering social benefit.” He exemplified this with a pedestrian shopping mall in Sydney that had fallen out of use, was no longer fit for the demographic and behavioural shift that had occurred. More important to Michael, however, was the requirement to consider places’ impact more holistically: that is, considering the city-wide context, include (and use) forgotten spaces such as alleyways, and understand the interconnectedness of all elements (say, how the redevelopment of an urban marshland can affect the habitat of migratory birds).
Smart cities and data, gathered through new technologies, can give a sense of social value, but Stephanie Edwards’s practice, Urban Symbiotics, adopted a more research-and-interview based approach to understand what the social value of a particular place might be. “As designers and architects,” she said, “we thought we knew what users needed … but we didn’t.” In dialogue with “users,” (for example, in Kensington & Chelsea where they were tasked to design a 21st century estate) she found that young people felt ignored from considerations and powerless to effect change. “These places that had been designed,” Stephanie said, “were actually threatening to them; people described the places as ‘dangerous’.” Stephanie wondered whether “we were designing out the people we were supposed to design for.” She urged us all to become more self-reflective, aware of possible (unconscious) bias, and to put the users and their real needs at the core of every decision – from design to investment – which is how a place gains its social value.
From social to commercial value
Stephanie also showed how a user-centric approach could increase commercial value. In her example, the developers of a student accommodation building she worked on had one goal: to maximise occupancy. Stephanie suggested on-going participation by having students sit on a kind of board, empowering them to have an impact on the design and continuous re-design. It must be remembered that, as Stephanie said, “current needs aren’t future needs.” The social value of a place depends on its flexibility and ability to adapt to its community, which in turn leads to long-term commercial value.
Quantifying social value
The inherent problem is that social value is alwaZahoor Rahimtoolays a risk factor, which is at odds with capital investment — at least in current models. As Zahoor Rahimtoola, an impact entrepreneur at Barclays, pointed out, “anything we do has to make commercial sense. We have to make senior executives understand the [commercial] value of helping people live better lives.” This would, in the long term, require a fundamental shift in mindset (like mortgage lenders understanding that they are really in the business of helping people to start families build a home for their family), as well as a new set of metrics by which we measure success (such as including Quality of Life in indexes). In the short term, however, this means driving impact through business. First, it involves quantifying social value, as Michael Cowdy did, for example, using big data and statistics to measure how green spaces per capita reduce health costs. Second, Zahoor said, experimentation had to be conducted on a small scale so as to de-risk it financially, making it “very hard for decision makers to say no to trying it.”
Bethan Harris, of Collectively, observed that “corporates [developers] are good at spending a lot of money on an agency’s idea and pushing it through, […] then they find out it doesn’t actually work.” In her view, small-scale, piecemeal projects and labs offered an alternative. In cooperation with Lendlease, she runs the Loneliness Lab to test ideas for tackling loneliness in London. They are individual projects whose impact can be observed more directly. The arguably greater advantage of this method: labs are cheap, there is hardly any financial risk involved: a strong argument to spark the necessary mindset shift.
Delivering socially valuable places
All this pointed at another question: to whom do we look for investment? Perhaps small-scale experimentation and community-based projects are more easily driven by entrepreneurs, rather than the real estate industry. Here, David Barrie gave us ideas for alternative sources of funds and investment models. From the combination of public and private money, via sequential investment (where several bodies build on work sequentially), to local crowdfunding and Angel Investors’ clubs that screen for local benefit. More importantly, David felt it was possible to harness skills and talent more effectively. This could take the form of “sweat equity,” where people give time and effort in exchange for goods (like the People’s Supermarket), to looking at “franchise equity,” that is tapping into the skills of otherwise hidden communities like video game players.
As so often at the PlaceLabs, the engaging roundtable conversation that followed the talks raised more questions than it gave answers – and rightly so. This was where ideas and examples flowed freely, where thinking was done aloud, where the diversity of perspectives on the subject led to insight, where controversy could be fruitful. For instance, when the PlaceLabs’ Payal Wadhwa suggested that “gentrification is a good thing […] but it depends who delivers it.”
Perhaps, if it were possible to sum up, we might also consider the dangers of “fetishising” social value, turn away from ideas of “fully designed” (even with the best intentions) and remember that what drives place is often immaterial: it is the people. The goal of placemaking might be working towards a more empowering culture. Investment, then, comes down to each and every one of us: from businesses showing their “social licence to operate,” as Jake Heitland from Lendlease suggested during our roundtable conversation — “we have to make a profit, of course, but we must show that we’re here to do good” — via small entrepreneurs, lab runners and non-profits, all the way down to ourselves, as individuals, as residents, as users of place.
Written by Julien Clin