The Importance of Social Infrastructure for Policy Making

1 February 2023

The Importance of Social Infrastructure for Policy Making

Reported by Karl Dagher, CSaP Policy Intern and Sevcan Birdal, Communications Manager

The Centre for Science and Policy continued its series of in-person Policy Fellows seminars held in collaboration with the British Academy on 17 November 2022, where researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy and the Institute for Community Studies presented their work on the ways that communities define social infrastructure and how this can inform UK policymakers. Dr Charlotte Sausman, Associate Director, Policy Fellowships, chaired the discussion.

Richard Harries, Director of the Institute for Community Studies, and Owen Garling, Knowledge Transfer Facilitator at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy began the seminar by describing their research on how communities across the UK define and interact with social infrastructure. In collaboration with the British Academy, the researchers conducted a series of interviews with international stakeholders on what social infrastructure means to them, in addition to peer research in four areas in England: Barking, Bristol, Liverpool and Newcastle.

Revealing that there are different definitions of social infrastructure, the research demonstrated how social infrastructure breaks down the idea of public and private spaces, managing the tensions between the different purposes that these social infrastructures can be used for. Garling and Harries explained that the peer research entailed community members conducting the data collection entirely, from the choice of which questions to ask, to which participants to include. This has the advantage of providing a fine-grained look into communities’ interactions with social infrastructures, in addition to the macro picture obtained from interviews with international stakeholders. As an example of the micro view that peer research provides, Harries noted that the peer researchers do not use the term ‘social infrastructure’ – a term seldom used outside academic and policy circles - but instead, described spaces using their names and purposes.

Highlighting the importance of maintenance and measurement within the scope of the social infrastructure, the speakers stressed that social infrastructures require constant investment to ensure maintenance just as in other forms of infrastructure, such as roads. . According to them, the challenge lies in devising measures to demonstrate to central government departments the value of social infrastructure to local communities. Since social infrastructure may not generate traditional revenue streams, it is interpreted as an ever-present maintenance cost that can be turned on or off according to budget constraints. Garling and Harries explained how their research develops robust methods of evaluation that could translate value at the hyperlocal level and help central government move away from the vantage point that treats social infrastructure as a cost.

During the discussion, attendees were keen to include companies and the private sector within the definition of – and understanding of – social infrastructure, reflecting that “it’s not just about the state”. They argued that privately run spaces have a part to play in building community bonds and discussed that a local supermarket can provide an important community space and the means to engage and connect people, as illustrated by the pandemic.

They further discussed whether we have scenarios which include the role of the private sector beyond commercial opportunities and highlighted that the onus of building social infrastructure is not just on the state or the private sector. They emphasized that both sectors need to work with communities and community representatives in order to help build and maintain social infrastructures that meets the needs of different citizens and communities. Garling and Harries also suggested that there might be creative ways to fund spaces using the systems and mechanisms currently in place and sharing the knowledge we have. Their research suggests that there are reasons for optimism about the community aspect of social infrastructure, particularly looking at the existing success stories and the various interesting ways that local governments manage to channel resources into social infrastructure.

Image by Scott Graham from Unsplash