The Election is over, save for the conspiracy theories, but the COVID-19 pandemic is not. Both have stressed our physical, digital, and social worlds for the last year, and the underlying fissures they revealed represent ongoing and urgent challenges. Coronavirus cases keep rising, hospitals are full, and schools are empty. Social media is hardening our divisions, spreading inaccuracies, and smashing trust. Physical spaces aren’t entirely safe, and digital ones are still not accessible to everyone who needs them. Even as we attend to the immediate and overwhelming tasks at hand, we also have to build a stronger and more connected, resilient, and equitable society for the long term.
We’re accustomed to thinking of our physical, digital, and social infrastructure independently, but in fact they are inherently interconnected. Traditional physical infrastructure connects us to the people who and places that matter to us, and is increasingly augmented with and managed using digital technologies. Digital infrastructure moves through physical places and systems, including cell towers, broadband cables, computer networks, and artificial satellites. Social infrastructure—the communities, organizations, and public spaces that shape the way people connect with one another—increasingly relies on digital tools.
The incoming administration has pledged to “Build back better,” and hundreds of state and local governments, philanthropies, and businesses have made a similar commitment. In October, Aspen Digital, a program of the Aspen Institute, and Siegel Family Endowment convened a cross-disciplinary group of thinkers and doers from physical, digital, and social infrastructure, and their recommendations provide a sense of what “building back better” might actually look like. The focus of this convening was on the impact of an integrated approach, one that “recognizes the unity and interdependence of these three dimensions [such that] any decision or change in one dimension of infrastructure must consider the other two dimensions in equal measure,” as a recent Siegel whitepaper argues. We have to consider not just what gets built or connected but also the people we involve and processes we use along the way. Importantly, this new framework provides opportunities to use infrastructure as a way to increase equity and access for future generations.
This integrated lens for infrastructure is especially relevant to this moment. The Biden-Harris Administration has established economic recovery, racial equity, and climate change as priorities. In describing its agenda, the Administration shows an awareness of both the interconnectedness and equity implications of infrastructure. For example, it pledges to “Ensure equity in … bold infrastructure and clean energy investments” and to “Ensure that environmental justice is a key consideration in where, how, and with whom we build….”
While infrastructure is tremendously expensive to establish in the United States, low interest rates mean that it will likely never be cheaper than it is right now to pursue projects that reduce transportation times, deliver clean energy, close the digital divide, renovate and wire libraries, and create more public green space.
With this in mind, using the integrated framework, experts at the Aspen-Siegel roundtable raised the following guidelines for making new investments and strengthening existing ones.
1. Communities of color and under-resourced areas must be the first in line for new investments.
As NAACP Vice President of Civic Engagement Jamal Watkins said, “People of color are struggling in many ways. And guess what’s not going to fix it [alone]? The traditional investment in roads and bridges. That is a big piece of critical infrastructure investment, but there are other parts of business infrastructure that have to be invested [in] to create a new normal.”
Communities of color have long paid a high price for inadequate infrastructure:
- Long commutes because of poorly aligned and infrequent bus service
- Lost educational and career opportunities because of a lack of access to high-speed internet
- Widespread costs of chronic instability, which show up in school achievement data (among other places)
“We need all of the traditional infrastructure to be invested in,” Watkins explained. “But at the same time, we have to look at emerging technologies and new realities. Communities of color don’t want to be even more left out of the innovations in the development and the expansion of what infrastructure could and should look like.”
Gains in racial equity have to be part of our return-on-investment calculation for infrastructure spending. Smart Growth America President and CEO Calvin Gladney reminded the group, “The metrics of our infrastructure investment can’t just be cost-benefit analysis, can’t just be the typical metrics. We actually need to [incorporate] metrics that relate to racially positive outcomes as part of the decision-making tool.” New spending should also account and make up for the decades of disinvestment in communities of color. Equal spending in unequal places will not close the racial gaps that still shame this country.
2. Roads and bridges aren’t the only things that need to be maintained.
Although we still drastically under-spend on the upkeep of physical infrastructure, we at least recognize the need to fill potholes, repair bridges, and maintain railways. But all types of infrastructure depreciate over time, and we have to recognize that social and digital infrastructure also need support and preservation. Governments at all levels in the United States are often daunted by the “outsized costs for new projects,” Arizona State University Office of Applied Innovation Managing Director Luke Tate argued, “[which] too often shrink our imagination.” But the costs of not repairing these breaches is incalculable.
As Data & Society Research Institute founder and president danah boyd pointed out, “When we understand data as infrastructure, we can recognize the importance of also thinking about maintenance. That requires water; it requires power; it requires rare minerals; and it also requires a lot of human effort to ensure these processes are at play.” Ignoring upkeep itself has costs: “When you don’t pay attention to infrastructure,” she warned, “it goes to smithereens.” Budgets should account for the total cost of infrastructure through a holistic calculation that includes maintenance and performance management.
3. It’s not just about new investment; current resources should be allocated to increase the impact of infrastructure and ensure value on multiple levels.
It’s hard to recall an incoming administration that didn’t pledge to increase infrastructure spending. But executive branch aspirations don’t always survive congressional appropriations. That said, there are already billions of dollars allocated for building and maintaining infrastructure across the various realms. A multidimensional lens could help these existing dollars generate greater return on investment.
Take the example of streetlights in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. According to its Director of Mobility and Infrastructure, Karina Ricks, the city recognizes that streetlights (a classic example of physical infrastructure) can also integrate digital infrastructure such as mobile technologies and municipal fiber. As such, the streetlights can bring more “light equity” to neighborhoods that have literally been left in the dark, enabling residents to walk and socialize more freely in the evenings. When governments calculate the costs and benefits of physical infrastructure projects, they need to account for the potential digital and social value, as well.
The social value—or costs—of infrastructure will never be adequately determined unless community members are included in decisions about spending, siting, and maintenance. Centering on equity doesn’t just mean shifting dollars to disinvested communities. It also means listening to what people raise as priorities for their own neighborhoods. During the early days of the pandemic, Oakland, California implemented a “slow streets” program designed to increase pedestrian activity. It was a laudable goal, but essential workers and lower-income residents, many of whom could not work from home, objected because the program didn’t meet their needs. When it comes to infrastructure decisions, small or large, governments need to ask what people need, rather than guess.
An integrated lens helps us pay attention to the ways infrastructure influences every part of society, and get beyond our current piecemeal and reactive approach, especially when it comes to digital and data policy. With the right tools for measuring physical, digital, social, and equity gains, the admittedly daunting costs of infrastructure can be seen as right-sized, necessary investments in a nation that is connected by new and renewed social ties, as well as by roads and wires.
“I think there’s a space here for vision,” Civic Signals Co-Director Eli Pariser said at the conclusion of the conversation. “Infrastructure doesn’t have to feel like merely patching things, but can be a vision for a new way of doing things.”