Making Social Impact Projects a Strategic Priority
Creating positive social impact is rising to the top of many corporate agendas—driving broad executive priorities and permeating every project. PMI research shows 87 percent of project professionals say social impact is a concern for their organization.15
“Companies need to serve more than just their shareholders. They need to be driven by purpose,” said Kamil Mroz, director, program management lead, early patient value missions team at global biopharma UCB, Brussels, Belgium.16 Customers and communities are increasingly demanding proof of social investment as a condition of loyalty and future business. “Companies need to show how their product or service impacts their broader community and brings value to society,” he said.
London-based design and engineering giant Arup, for example, embeds environmental and social sustainability goals into every project plan. “The metrics for project success are leveling up,” said Richard de Cani, global planning leader. It’s no longer enough to look at how many vehicles a road can carry or how many commuters fit on a train. A project also has to contribute to efforts to reduce carbon emissions, improve access for socially disadvantaged communities, and drive economic growth.
UNOPS’ Abdollahyan notes that many of the projects his team supports help small communities gain economic growth while also addressing climate change. Building solar water pumps and irrigation systems increases production, creates secondary markets for maintenance, and provides clean energy. “We can combat climate change and increase GDP through sustainable investments that make these countries more resilient,” he said.
One unexpected boost to climate control efforts came from COVID. With the world at a virtual standstill, greenhouse gas emissions plummeted, air quality shot up, and ecosystems thrived sans intervention. The progress proved temporary: as Asian cities emerged from The Great Lockdown, the BBC reported that traffic— and accompanying air pollution—started spiking.16 But some government leaders took it as a call to action, with urban planners in Italy, Kenya, Greece, France, Argentina, and the UK carving out huge swaths of their cities for areas dedicated to pedestrians and cyclists.
Making social impact projects a strategic priority also helps companies create a more agile and resilient business. At global engineering and construction firm Black & Veatch, teams routinely analyze how the company can align its business strategy to address emerging developments. Out of that work came the company’s November 2020 announcement of new pledges to support environmental, social, and governance goals in the company’s sustainability strategy, which is aligned to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These include achieving carbon neutrality by 2025, reducing water usage across projects and operations, improving diversity and inclusion on teams, and reprioritizing anti-corruption efforts. “[The pledges] will also inform solutions that Black & Veatch will offer to customers,” said Rob Wilhite, SVP and director of global distributed energy, Black & Veatch, Charlotte, North Carolina, United States. “The demand is growing for those kinds of services.”
AI is proving to be a key tool in climate change mitigation efforts. “Clients are transitioning from thinking about short-term reliability to longer-term resiliency,” Wilhite said. “AI has become an important part of adapting to known and unknown threats.” A number of clients now require the building of digital replicas of real-world energy assets to model how the systems will react to big environmental events under various resiliency enhancements. “If a hurricane knocks out power to a large part of a US state or region for several days, each day you’re talking about almost a billion US dollars or more in total economic losses,” he said.
We’ve seen how tools like AnalogFolk’s BigUp.AI can bolster equality efforts. Poorly designed AI, in contrast, can perpetuate social inequalities, particularly when it relies on biased historical data to inform future decisions. In 2020, the UK government was forced to ditch its AI grading system after it spurred nationwide protests; roughly 40 percent of the grades awarded fell below teacher predictions—with the biggest victims being students with high grades from less-advantaged schools.16
IBM’s Astorino acknowledged the difficult road ahead. “There is still a lot the industry needs to do to detect bias and make sure algorithms can be trusted,” he said. Stronger governance of AI applications and building “explainability” of the model into the design can help mitigate the risks. “If you can explain why a decision is made, or why someone is accepted or rejected, it brings trust to the process.” Astorino pointed to IBM’s Watson OpenScale—an open platform that helps remove barriers to enterprise-scale AI—as one such tool that’s designed to help developers mitigate bias in models as well as explain their outcomes in natural language.
15. Pulse of the Profession® In-Depth Report: Why Social Impact Matters. PMI, November 2020.
16. “From lockdown to gridlock: Asia’s traffic resumes after fall in pollution,” BBC, May 15, 2020.
Companies need to serve more than just their shareholders. They need to be driven by purpose.