Towards Social Sustainability: A framework approach to building resilience

Green transition 29 April 2021 Patrick Moloney Line Dybdal

Despite its long history, social sustainability remains a somewhat abstract concept. Less vague but equally complex, the notion of resilience has risen in importance due to covid-19. This article explores both social sustainability and resilience to find the connection between to two – and in doing so - unfolding a framework approach to building resilience.

Expert columns
14 min

With interest building up around social sustainability, one would be surprised by the lack of clarity on this vital topic.

In tandem, resilience and the necessity to build resilience is becoming much more pronounced. In the last 12 months alone, it is a term that has become engrained in our consciousness. Prior to the onset of the pandemic, how resilience relates to climate change dominated its use within the broader sustainability realm.

We are now understanding that building resilience goes way beyond the context of climate change. The ability of a society to function or a business to prosper will largely depend upon the ability to absorb shocks and repel hazards, shock and hazards that come in many forms of which climate change and its consequences e.g. extreme weather, is just one.

But what is the relationship between social sustainability and resilience? Which drives which? Or indeed are they intrinsically intertwined? Herein we explain the relationship between both as well as highlight some shortcomings in defining social sustainability, which hampers our understanding of the relationship between social sustainability and building resilience.

Finding the Resilience and Social Sustainability Nexus

Resilience is the capacity of a system be that a city or a private enterprise to absorb shocks whilst continuing to develop and grow. But it also entails using such shocks and disturbances to spur renewal and innovative thinking i.e. to bounce back stronger as apart from “business as usual”. There are various methodologies used to determine the strength of resilience. Risk assessment forms an important part of any methodology be it physical risk, financial risk, transitional risk etc.

But why is it that we rarely hear of social risk? Surely a strong social fabric is integral to the ability of a system to not only absorb shocks but to come back stronger, to renew, to innovate. Is it not necessary to have a strong social contract in place to build resilience of a business or a community? 

If we struggle to define social sustainability and struggle to measure and quantify it, we will struggle to understand the integral role it plays in building resilience and, as a consequence, potentially overlook a key component of a resilient system be it a community, business or supply chain.

"But surely a strong social fabric is integral to the ability of a system to not only absorb shocks but to renew and come back stronger?”

Social Sustainability - Lack of a Common Definition

As indicated already, there is no common definition of social sustainability and, to many, it remains abstract and, perhaps, even vague. Although it has been a topic for discission and analysis for decades, how it is interpreted and applied differs considerably from sector to sector. This of course creates difficulties with respect to understanding the role that social sustainability plays in building resilience and indeed in prioritising social sustainability action in a broader sense.

When discussed within the realms of a city or public infrastructure, the emphasis is upon the citizen and a citizen’s quality of life, access to important services such as health or education, access to employment, to amenities etc. It is about ensuring that we all have an equal opportunity to live our lives in a safe and healthy environment, one that enables our youth to have opportunity, to have a future that is brighter than our own.

How social sustainability is interpreted from the perspective of the private sector, however, differs somewhat. There is, of course, a focus upon human rights and labour standards/conditions as well as an emphasis upon supply chain management. To many, however, social sustainability, when applied to the private sector, is perceived as compliance, ensuring that no laws are being broken, that standards are being adhered to. So essentially it is about doing no harm.

It is important to note that there are many private enterprises that do prioritise social sustainability and take concrete action to go beyond “doing no harm”. Such enterprises, however, are an exception to the norm. 

Protocols, conventions and indices that dominate the social substantiality landscape.

The above illustrates a myriad of protocols, conventions and indices that dominate the social substantiality landscape. All strive for equality and a better quality of life for all. But all, however, also approach social sustainability and indeed define it slightly differently from one another.

In many instances, the differences are subtle, in some instances more significant. Some of the above are geared towards society at large, others very private sector and supply chain focused. Some are embedded in legislation, others merely guidance. Many provide guidance to “compliance” whilst others remain aspirational.  Some can be measured quantitively, others qualitatively.

To truly prioritise social sustainability action and to illustrate its relevance to building resilience, it needs to be explained in a language that all segments of society, both public and private, can relate to and, most importantly, respond to.

Social Sustainability – A framework Approach

Be it a city or an industry, a pension fund or a government ministry, social sustainability is integral to their ability to function, prosper and deliver on their different mandates on behalf of their citizens, taxpayers, investors, shareholders or customers.  
But if a common framework does not exist, the value that prioritising social sustainability can create and its relevance to building a resilient welfare infrastructure, a city of a private enterprise will continue to be difficult to systematically quantify and communicate.

Four key pillars

Social sustainability, in essence, has four central components or pillars. The above protocols and conventions all address these pillars albeit using different terminology and language. Applying a common framework enables enhanced communication and cross-sectoral learning…

Quality of life, equity and diversity & inclusion are all core components of any socially sustainable entity. Be it a city or a supply chain, community or a manufacturer, all three components are integral.

Although the definition of each component may vary slightly from entity to entity and overarching policy may have different titles from sector to sector, the essence of each remains the same. All three feed into one another and require one another to develop and strengthen.

However, governance (to ensure the implementation of relevant policies and regulations), as well as engagement, is key to drive the other three pillars. The structure is important but so is communication, dialogue and transparency. When each of the four pillars are in place, social cohesion can be reached which contributes to a wide number of socially positive outcomes.

Social Cohesion the goal

Cohesion in its purest definition can be defined as when components work well together or fit together. Both public and private sector entities, supply chains and welfare infrastructure all strive for cohesion, of which the four pillars are integral to its enablement.   

In a cohesive unit, be that private enterprise or public body, stakeholder engagement is strong, communication is transparent, and leadership is both visible and effective. There is equal opportunity for all, be it, citizens or employees, diversity is embraced, and all feel a valuable and included part of the system.

The concept of social cohesion is one that fluctuates in popularity of narrative. Yet it is cohesion that must be the objective. The different pillars need to be addressed holistically, understanding the interconnection between the four pillars.

One component of the system should not necessarily be prioritised over another. Rather all four components should be tackled in sync with one another to create that socially cohesive unit. Social cohesion is not only integral to building resilience, one could argue that, indeed, but it is also a resilience imperative. 

Social Cohesion – A Resilience Imperative

Repelling Hazards and absorbing shocks

A strong social unit or state of social cohesion is more than the strength within. It needs to be constructed with heed paid to outside influences and potential threats. 

It needs to be constructed with an understanding that external influences; economic e.g. recession, environmental e.g. climate change, geo and socio-political e.g. Catalonian demonstrations or, as we are very much aware today, threats to our own health, are inevitable and indeed will increase in the coming decades.

Understanding how external factors can influence social cohesion is imperative to ensure that the social cohesion is strong enough to withstand such pressures and indeed strong enough to develop and prosper.

When building cohesion, an acknowledgement that it needs to be done so to both repel hazards and absorb shocks is of the utmost importance as it also places an emphasis on the depth of effort that an enterprise or public body would need to put in to creating a state of cohesion in the first place.

For a city, this could involve having a social contract and leadership structures in place to help cope with and recover from a natural disaster, whilst maintaining key services and functions. From a private enterprise perspective, as well as resources and leadership, would entail a committed and engaged workforce as well as strong supply chains.

Building Resilience

The Oxford English dictionary defines resilience as “the ability of a substance to return to its usual shape after being bent, stretched or pressed”. A broader definition is the capacity of a system, be it an individual, a forest, a city or an enterprise, to deal with change and continue to develop1

It is about the capacity to use shocks and disturbances like a financial crisis, climate change or indeed a pandemic to spur renewal and innovative thinking. 

A cohesive entity has a much greater potential to both repel hazards such as erratic weather conditions, or political instability and to also absorb shocks such as an economic recession or indeed a pandemic. Furthermore, without social cohesion, an ability to not only recover but to actually do so stronger and in a more innovative fashion would be very difficult indeed.

When discussing resilience and planning for its construction, the social cohesion of that particular entity or indeed lack of social cohesion is rarely the first component “put on the table” in the planning or review process. 

Yet quality of life, diversity, and equality as well as governance and engagement are integral components of a resilient system or entity. However, it also works the other way i.e. one will struggle to reach a state of social cohesion if outside influences are not recognised and planned for accordingly i.e. building resilience.

Risk of exposure and level of vulnerability to external circumstance and hazards needs to be assessed as part of the social sustainability and cohesion construct. Reaching a state of social cohesion and building resilience are intrinsically linked and intertwined. 

Moving Forward

A state of social cohesion is integral to building resilience. Be it a factory floor, an organisation or a city, if there is not equal opportunity, adequate labour standards or quality of life, clear lines of communication or strong stakeholder engagement, relevant governance structures or strong leadership, an enterprises or community’s ability to repel hazards and absorb inevitable shocks will be weakened.

“A state of social cohesion is integral to building resilience”

Furthermore, the ability of an enterprise or a community to recover and evolve post shock, more importantly, will be impeded. Yet, when planning for and building resilience the necessity for social cohesion and therefore the key pillars of:

1) quality of life

2) equality

3) diversity & inclusion

4) governance and engagement,

is often peripheral to the process or seen as “mere” compliance. 

Doing no harm is no longer sufficient. Our politicians and CEOs need to plan for and deliver a positive contribution to communities and employees. The role that social sustainability must play in building resilience is evident. Our politicians and CEOs, however, seem hampered by a lack of common language and a common framework which restricts and impedes “cross learning” and engagement with respect to both understanding and implementing social sustainability.

It is also apparent that building resilience, on its own, is not enough an incentive to prioritise taking social sustainability action. The value proposition, be it impact upon a community or a particular social group, be it increased productivity or customer loyalty, needs to be presented in a tangible and quantifiable manner so that everyone understands that prioritising social sustainability makes sound commercial, strategic and political sense.

1) Stockholm Resilience Centre

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