Social impact is one of my primary interests, professionally and personally. There’s a social impact aspect to almost all social and economic processes – companies, investment, decision-making, organisational structures, you name it. The diversity of projects I get involved in is generally united by this overarching interest in social impact.

Much of the work we’ve done within RDS Partners has engaged us in developing approaches to community and stakeholder engagement that support dialogue over often difficult, intangible issues.  Examples include community perceptions of the social impact of industry development; helping groups balance difference value sets and goals in decision making; reviewing projects and strategies for their social impact; and unpacking the perceptions and realities of environmental impact of industry development with disparate stakeholders.

These issues, and the challenges they present for those involved in industry management and development, are often grouped under the term “social licence to operate”.  While this term has gathered some awareness and taken on a life of its own over the past few years, it can work to obscure the fact that, at the core, these issues are about interactions between value sets and sets of relationships –  such as between producers or companies, regulators and community stakeholders.

I would argue there is no one single “licence” that can be ‘granted’ or ‘withdrawn’. Rather we have to be aware of a range of community interests, issues, values, and the ways in which these change and interact with the interests, issues and values of industry sectors, the science and research community and government regulators.

There is no question that high community standards and expectations for environmental management and social impact are increasingly important considerations for regulators and industry members.  Experience in Tasmanian aquaculture, and more broadly across the Australian seafood industry, shows that understanding community expectations are amongst the highest priorities for industry members, the science community and regulators.

We know that social media has dramatically altered the social environments in which we live and work, and a series of damaging stand-offs between industries and communities played out through social media mechanisms are likely to have diminished community trust in science, government and industries. Much recent community engagement, values and perceptions work in Tasmania has pointed to the low levels of trust in information provided by industry and Government regulators and, in many cases, the science community itself. The risk here is that the capacity for dialogue and for addressing the complex challenges we all face together will be eroded.

From a social impact perspective, this situation suggests that we, as a society, have some work to do to build the creative, productive dynamism, imagination and problem solving processes needed to address the complex issues we face.

Industries now clearly face imperatives to adapt to shifts in public perceptions, and to anticipate and respond to these before major issues develop. Industry leaders, business owners and governments must develop new practices and expectations for staying in touch with shifting public perceptions and expectations. Management and decision-making practices be able to adapt to a changed and changing environment – especially practices that support and foster proactive engagement before major issues develop.

Working with social impact issues requires a new set of working principles and assumptions[1]. Understanding how to work with different knowledge and value systems is core to adapting effectively to this emerging environment. Developing this kind of intelligence is a foundation for alleviating potential conflict before it gets out of hand and erodes the opportunities for intelligent debate and dialogue about sustainable industry development, social impact and environmental values.

This is about good risk management. And I suggest that proactive stakeholder engagement can also assist in problem solving and innovation – I’ll talk about that more in a future post.

Maree Fudge is a Director of RDS Partners. She specialises in social impact work including evaluation, research and project development.

[1] E.g. Aslin and Lockie (eds.) 2013 Engaged Environmental Citizenship Charles Darwin University Press, Darwin, N.T. AUST.

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