Is it time for ‘Evolution or Revolution’ in considering the Social Impacts of Development?

Dr Sheridan Coakes at IAIA19 in Brisbane

IAIA19, held in Brisbane last week, attracted around 950 Impact Assessment (IA) delegates from industry, government and the private sector across 150 countries worldwide.

As a leading organisation in IA globally, IAIA’s annual conferences provide a place for professionals to share ideas, get up to date with the most recent research and thinking, and network with colleagues new and old.  With training courses, a range of committee and section meetings – including a World Bank forum – and a program packed full of conference theme presentations, there was something for everyone.

The annual event did not disappoint and presented an extraordinary opportunity to share ideas, allowing environmental and social IA practitioners from across the globe to integrate and converse with ease.

This year’s conference had a distinctly social theme with David Morris, CEO of EDO NSW kicking off with a powerful plenary presentation advocating for improved consideration of Social Impact Assessment (SIA) in the IA process.

Some key takeaways from the four-day program included:

  • The need for IA to respond to an ever-changing digital environment. Imagine a paperless world better tailored to stakeholder information needs and requirements.
  • Closure planning to commence early and to address transitional change appropriately, particularly concerning energy transition in the US and Australia.
  • Further clarity around social license – its meaning and measurement.
  • Greater involvement of aboriginal communities and other key stakeholders in closure planning and post-mining transition.
  • Improved integration of EIA and SIA within broader project development and operational teams – how early is too early?
  • The role of strategic assessments in better assessing and addressing cumulative impacts and the strategic value of SIA in regional development.
  • Consideration of future options analysis in IA.
  • The need for a greater focus on adaptive management and capacity building in communities in social impact management planning.
  • The role of program evaluation frameworks in SIA.
  • The need to put the ‘social’ back into science.
  • A call for certification of SIA practitioners nationally and globally.

The point relating to SIA certification as a technical specialty, received much traction in one of the conferences closing sessions on ‘How do we develop quality SIA practitioners’.  A request by practitioners for greater technical recognition and legitimacy, government frustrations regarding the quality of SIA reports; and market drivers for certification given recent government guideline development were common themes discussed in the session.

Discussions included recent research with community engagement practitioners in the infrastructure sector, one of the largest studies of its kind (NextGeneration Engagement), and IAIA’s more recent work on competencies and standards. All these areas relate to increasing role legitimacy and, by extension, improved uptake/integration of social impacts in significant project development.

In closing, and having generated much discussion throughout the conference, delegates were evenly divided as to whether IA should continue to develop gradually or whether a dramatic shift to an entirely new paradigm is required.

In essence IAIA19 was a great success, an opportunity for myself to meet up again with some of the early pioneers in SIA within Australia and New Zealand – Helen Ross, Nick Taylor, Frank Vanclay – that have so inspired my early practice. It also gave me pause to consider what has been realised in ‘Institutionalising SIA in the public and private sectors’ to date; and to contemplate on what is yet to be achieved.

While revolution in SIA may not be the answer, in the words of one conference delegate, maybe ‘Rapid Evolution’ is what is now required. With the introduction of new SIA guidelines by both the NSW and QLD state governments and the recent federal government senate inquiry on ‘Keep it in the Regions’, perhaps the time is right for some significant social change.

IAIA19 Brisbane

Dr Sheridan Coakes is the Social Practice Lead at Umwelt Australia. Sheridan has been an SIA practitioner for over 25 years and has contributed significantly to the development and uptake of SIA in significant project development across Australia.  Sheridan chaired a session at the conference on ‘Institutionalising SIA in Government Decision Making’ with presenters and colleagues from the NSW Department of Planning and Environment (Dr Richard Parsons), Dr Paul Vogel (Chairman EPA NT), Dr Ana Maria Esteves (Director, Community Insights) and Julie Keane (North Qld Bulk Ports).  Sheridan also presented in the session ‘How do we develop quality SIA practitioners’, alongside fellow SIA academics and practitioners – Dr Jeffrey Jacquet (Ohio State University), Professor Will Rifkin (Hunter Research Foundation, University of Newcastle), Chris Sunderland (Red Sun Land Consulting) and Associate Professor Sara Bice (Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU).