London: 26 November 2013.

On the spoof TV series TWENTY TWELVE about life behind the scenes at London 2012 there was a running gag about: “what’s the difference between sustainability and legacy?”  Some said they are the same; others said they are completely different – and nobody could agree but they all thought it was massively important to argue about.

Now here’s a similar question but in a serious vein: “what’s the difference between legacy and impact?”

The other day while reviewing a research report I saw this definition:

“…in this report we attempt to distinguish two types of changes caused by hosting the event. We understand legacy as the physical, socio-economic or cultural long-lasting changes resulting from hosting the event. We use the term impact to describe immediate effects of public or private event-related initiatives on local economy, culture or environment.  An impact may be temporary or permanent, direct or indirect, reversible or irreversible, certain or uncertain, short-term or long-term. As opposed to ‘impact’ the term ‘legacy’ is often used in a positive manner and implies after-effects, often long-term rather than immediate ‘impacts’.”

I’m not sure I’m any the wiser!  Even the notion that legacy is good, impact is bad doesn’t really work.  If you are in marketing then you want your campaign to have impact.  Regarding legacy, you could be left with a pile of debt or a degraded, polluted landscape to clean up, which presumably is not good.  Or are these just impacts?

For me legacy means what is left behind for others to benefit from, or deal with.  It can be physical, economic, intellectual, or emotional – just as in inheriting from someone’s will and their lifetime.

In terms of events we have the following examples from the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games:

  • Physical legacy – new sports venues; new parklands; new infrastructure; new housing and amenities…
  • Economic legacy – funding for sport development or other projects; creation of institutional structures/programmes; support for business growth and investment…
  • Intellectual legacy – new standards, methods and tools (e.g. ISO 20121, carbon footprinting methodology, Food Vision and GRI Event Organisers Sector Supplement)
  • Emotional legacy – memories, pride, satisfaction, confidence, increased sense of community, identity and aspiration… (you might call this social or cultural legacy too)

Impact is the difference that has been made and can usually be quantified. For example: tourism numbers up by x%; volunteering up by x%; the actual carbon footprint of the Games; amount of waste diverted from landfill etc.  So the tourism legacy is that London/UK is more attractive to tourists; the impact is by how much visitor numbers and their spending have increased.

The removal of 52 pylons and 200km of overhead cables from the Olympic Park site had a hugely positive impact on the landscape.  The legacy is an enhanced visual environment.

While legacy is relatively simple to point at, impacts can be hugely complex to measure and attribute causality.

I am sure if you pick away at this there will be many overlaps and exceptions.  But the point is that people are using the terms loosely and interchangeably.  Does this matter?  In many cases maybe not, but when cities and governments are considering investing significant sums in bidding for major events (Olympics and others), it is as well to be as clear as possible what we are talking about.

So I’d love to hear from anyone with a good definition of impact and legacy – and if you can do sustainability and legacy at the same time, that would be magic.