Bringing infrastructure to life in the public imagination

Do you thank your lucky stars, pump your fists or dance with joy when you fill a glass of tap water, flush the toilet, have your rubbish collected, switch a light on, wash your clothes, heat your home, arrive at work on time, return to a flood free home, successfully stream a movie, or receive delivery of items you purchased online?

Do you stop to think how your water reaches your tap? Picture by Dori
Do you stop to think how your water reaches your tap? Picture by Dori
  • Updated: 09 August 2016
  • Author: Dr Ellie Cosgrave, Liveable Cities Research Associate & Dr Tom Dolan, International Centre for Infrastructure Futures Research Associate

It is unlikely that many of you answered “yes” to the above questions because we simply expect these things to happen. Even as engineers we often fail to understand the human value of the infrastructure we provide, and as such the way we plan for it is often insufficient.

The purpose of infrastructure is to help enable the positive outcomes that we as a society expect. All societal and economic activity is to some extent enabled by infrastructure and we know infrastructure decisions we take today will directly inform our future society. Despite the clear importance of infrastructure, very few citizens have a view about the infrastructure we should demand to enable the quality of life we expect. Indeed, for the most part, we only notice the importance of infrastructure when it fails to provide the flow of benefits that we have all come to depend upon. However it cannot be assumed that citizens are indifferent because we all have clear expectations of what level of infrastructure service we deem unacceptable.

So why does infrastructure fail to spark the public imagination? Why does this matter? And what can be done to change the current status quo? Let’s take each question in turn.

Infrastructure in the public imagination

We know that when political figures announce reform to education or healthcare provision they are met with strong civic responses. The public are generally informed and passionate about these issues, are able to protest, lobby and debate decisions – and ultimately hold political actors to account. Infrastructure, although equally embedded in everyday life, is met with a much less sophisticated political and social narrative.

Paradoxically even though infrastructure is a physical asset, it is often invisible. We are not emotionally connected to our sewers, roads, trains, pylons in the same way that we are connected to our social welfare systems.

When we consider what is needed for a fulfilled and happy life, infrastructure may not be top of the list. This shows that as a society we are not inspired by infrastructure as a concept and undervalue or ignore the significant role infrastructure plays in enabling the quality of life we expect. More needs to be done to bring infrastructure to life in the public imagination and to fully understand the social justice and economic implications of poorly planned infrastructure.

Why does this matter?

Infrastructure has an important contribution to make if we are to successfully address the many important systemic challenges that we currently face (and will continue to face in the future). For example, how we develop a resilient society, achieve carbon mitigation targets, reduce the risk and impact of flooding, and provide the long-term foundations for sustainable improvements to our quality of live and economy are all contingent on the infrastructure decisions we make.

Therefore, infrastructure decisions need to be elevated in public and political discourse. Engaging the public with these challenges and the important role infrastructure can play. However, nuanced and informed public debate is needed in order to explore, identify and reach consensus regarding the diverse range of outcomes that society expects infrastructure to play a role in enabling. Particularly because such discourse can provide a basis to purposefully align infrastructure performance measurement, decision making and future needs assessment with societal expectations.

What can we do?

The challenge we now face is how to engage the general public in systemic, cross-sectoral, society-wide discourse related to what we expect from infrastructure and the important role it can play in response to the systemic challenges we face.

Recent progress in raising the profile of infrastructure is very positive, particularly the appointment of a National Infrastructure Commission and the swathe of academic research currently in progress by groups like ICIF, iBUILD, Liveable Cities, ITRC and UKCRIC. However, more needs to be done if we aspire to high level, systemic, cross-sectoral discourse, policy, vision or strategic thinking on the purpose of infrastructure and the types of societal outcome that we in the UK collectively want to enable through infrastructure provision.

Infrastructure needs a re-brand in the eyes of the public. Currently, we do not sufficiently emphasise the beneficial social outcomes infrastructure enables. The seemingly trivial questions at the beginning of this post, illustrate this point. But can we go one step further, can we use past experiences of infrastructure failure as an opportunity to turn standard infrastructure narrative on its head and create stories that illustrate the broader societal value of “fit for purpose”, resilient infrastructure?

The Liveable Cities research programme interviewed citizens to explore their aspirations for the future city. A similar approach based on two questions can be used as to engage citizens with infrastructure. These are: What do you need for a fulfilled and happy life? And, to what extent does infrastructure enable this life?

These apparently simple questions, by challenging individuals to think about their personal priorities, will attract many different responses and create a starting point for public discourse on the type of society we expect to live in, and therefore, of the range of desired outcomes that we expect infrastructure to enable.