Infrastructure: The overlooked tool for societal transformation

We are collectively facing pressing human and ecological challenges. Where the public discussion on societal change often targets the political and socio-economic structures governing our lives, one key determinant of human activity often flies below the radar of our transformative ambitions: infrastructure.

Societal or economic benefits?

Infrastructures are the building blocks of our economies. Efficient and reliable energy infrastructures directly facilitate the production and trade of goods. The Economic Policy Institute has tied the US planned annual infrastructural investments of $250bn to the generation of more than one million jobs at the same rate. Additionally, the rapid rise of digital infrastructure in recent decades has created a new and highly influential factor in economic activity. The rapid growth of the service sector, especially in developing countries, has been facilitated by the opportunities provided by new technologies.

Beyond just a fiscal stimulus, infrastructure creates the physical pathways and constraints for our daily behaviour. Across the span of an average day, we interact with infrastructure at almost every stage. In the morning most wake up in a house, which forms a part of our housing infrastructure. By the time we are brushing our teeth, we have already interacted with water and electricity infrastructure, and perhaps also with digital and telecommunications infrastructure if we read the news or check our social media in the mornings.

But what if our infrastructure is not catching up with the needs of the 21st century as fast as it should? Take this example from the Netherlands: in 2021, a new wind energy park capable of providing renewable energy to 370.000 households was built with government subsidies, but the vast majority of produced energy was redirected to new data centres instead. The rapid increase in energy consumed by data centres has created public uproar about the trade-offs between societal and economic interests.

Infrastructure incentivises behaviour

Transport, the most carbon-heavy industry, is dependent on the available infrastructure. For example, in the vast suburbia of LA, almost 70% of people commute by car due to historical decisions to construct freeways. This means that people are highly reliant on cars for transport. Simultaneously, underinvestment in public transit has meant that there are limited alternatives to these car-dominant lifestyles. In fact, recent data shows that the average commute by public transport in LA is 67% slower than commuting by car.

However, when these investment trends are reversed, people’s behaviour follows suit. In New York, a significantly denser city with much higher investment in public transport, only 22% of people commute by car, and the time difference between car and public transport commutes is much smaller. Decisions on what infrastructure to invest in are therefore also decisions on how people’s daily activities, and what the wellbeing and environmental impacts of our actions are.

Whilst transit infrastructure is only one of the many different networks that we encounter in our daily lives, this case exemplifies how infrastructure not only enables human behaviours. It also fails to recognise that despite infrastructure and economic activity being strongly linked, it is important to include the environment and humans in our decision-making processes as well.

What’s done is done?

Contrary to other structures in our societies, infrastructure’s physicality can hold us hostage to the past. If a city is built without sidewalks how can walking be incentivised over driving? If the urban grid is constructed to the brim, how can we expand natural and green spaces? If roads have been built a certain way, can they ever be demolished or reconfigured? When it comes to physical infrastructure it is easy to think that what’s done is done; that we just have to live with the decisions of the past.

But our decisions from now on matter. With economies still struggling to recover from the health crisis, and with war creating worldwide shortages, countries now have to decide how to spend their stimulus packages. Investing in infrastructure that doesn’t only serve the economy of the past, but actually reclaims, protects and regenerates planetary wellbeing is the only viable option.

At the same time, every city, every neighbourhood, and every region can build on its past. Policymakers, industry leaders, and researchers must come together to create exciting and regenerative innovations that put to use everything we know and can’t ignore anymore.

Infrastructure is overlooked as a tool for societal transformation because it is expensive to build and demolish. But, as an expression of human ingenuity in finding ways around obstacles — like mountains and seas — infrastructure can build pathways towards a viable and livable future that is definitely worth the investment.

Written by Nour Attalla and Aleksi Neuvonen


Feature Image: Yang Liu / Unsplash