Posted by Pierre on February 13th, 2012
The events surrounding the Keystone and the Northern Gateway pipelines point to the emergence of social licence as a key business consideration.
When evaluating large scale development projects, decision-makers focused on the economic and regulatory aspects of the project. If both of these conditions could be satisfied, project leaders would feel confident with the decision to proceed.
Social licence – people consenting to a project in their community – has emerged from the regulatory shadow to become the third leg in decision-making on large scale infrastructure and energy projects.
The concept of social licence is not new. Municipalities have a lot of experience in this field as do natural resource companies. Yet, what was once a secondary consideration has become a primary consideration.
Why is social licence evolving?
The evolution of social licence is a function of the convergence of social, technological and political forces overtaking mature democratic societies.
1. Our concept of community has evolved
People accept the environment as something beyond borders or jurisdictional limitations. In many respects, we are all astronauts looking down at the earth and seeing it as one. When you add the Internet and the social network to the mix, community has moved beyond the purely local/regional to include national and even international.
Securing social licence once meant working with the local communities, often indigenous, to get approval to proceed. With today’s massive energy projects, organizations seeking social licence must now engage on a mass level. Keystone’s community is North-American. Northern Gateway’s is international.
2. Web 2.0 makes it easy for people to learn, organize and mobilize
People concerned about an issue or a project have access to low-cost or no-cost social networking tools that make it easy for them to find and join like-minded groups. There are over 600+ million Facebook users and Canada is number 10 on the Facebook users by country list. If you Google “Northern Gateway Pipeline” today, you’ll find “Pipe Up Against Enbridge” on the first results page. Canadians are connected and they know how to mobilize digitally.
Decision-makers who fail to understand the web 2.0 dynamic will find themselves facing an army of David’s with web 2.0 sling shots. “Spin”, the Goliath of public relations, is no match for the social web.
3. Our public processes don’t connect with popular expectations
Our current public consultation processes are based on public meetings and submitting letters. These processes have failed to adapt to people’s expectations around communications in the web 2.0 world. The websites that do offer consultations are seldom user friendly, often constrained by the imperatives of a corporate “common look and feel” and fail to offer the opportunity for authentic and open dialogue. In today’s communications environment, when concerned citizens and organizations come up against antiquated and poorly designed public engagement processes, they can easily set up their own.
4. Our regulatory processes have become lightning rods for public policy
Governments’ failure to engage in substantive and open conversations about complex public policy issues are pose a challenge our regulatory processes. We find ourselves in a situation where people passionate about environmental, social and economic issues are looking to participate in government-led conversations. In the absence of conversations about energy policy or climate change, our regulatory processes have become the lightning rods for social licence activity.