Why do we need infrastructure?

Why do we need infrastructure?

We had our first evidence session of the Local Infrastructure Commission last week, discussing the relationship between infrastructure, wellbeing, needs, quality of life and all manner of other definitions describing the way we live a good life. For simplicity I’ll refer to it as wellbeing throughout this post but recognise that there are many different interpretations. These blogs reporting back from evidence sessions will most likely be longer than my usual blogs but bear with me while I try to convey the breadth and depth of discussion we had.

At this session we were particularly interested in how wellbeing is understood and how people think that infrastructure can or does contribute to that wellbeing. This merits attention because wellbeing is cited so frequently to justify infrastructure but these claims are generally very poorly evidenced. And perhaps equally importantly, it’s not at all clear how the notion of wellbeing drives decision making compared to other much more established outcomes like economic growth, for example.

Before reflecting on the content of our discussions, I thought it would be worth mentioning the format. We invited four speakers to present evidence but rather than asking them to give a formal presentation, we asked for a five minute overview of their key insights after which they fielded questions from our Local Infrastructure Commissioners. This was at the suggestion of our very astute commissioners who wondered what we would do if the speakers didn’t address any of the questions in our call for evidence during their presentation.

The quality of discussion and debate that resulted from this format was far above the usual one-way transmission of often tangentially relevant information. It also encouraged the speakers to debate key issues amongst themselves and a much clearer narrative came out of the discussion as a result. I think this was strongly influenced but the quality of speakers we had but the format did seem to help too. We’ll be using this at future evidence sessions and I’ll certainly be pushing it at other events too.

Despite the seemingly diverse nature of work the speakers presented, a very clear narrative did emerge of the need for clarity about what we mean by wellbeing; the importance of using this clear understanding of wellbeing to derive a vision for a place; the importance of that vision driving planning and decision making; the importance of understanding the place-specificity of how we derive wellbeing; the challenge of managing wellbeing at different scales; and how the process of developing infrastructure is as important as the infrastructure itself in deriving wellbeing.

Defining/understanding wellbeing

Each of the speakers came with a different perspective from community to internationally, from different infrastructure sectors, including energy, transport, community infrastructure and from different disciplines. Perhaps unsurprisingly they had very different understandings of what wellbeing was and how it related to infrastructure. Nevertheless, these different definitions highlighted some very important points that the commission needs to consider when talking about infrastructure and wellbeing:

Needs vs satisfiers: we tend to think of wellbeing as being something universal that everybody might achieve no matter where they are. However, the place specificity of wellbeing was mentioned several times for example, those in a remote rural community might feel that their wellbeing was dependent on connecting with others and with decision makers, whereas those in an urban area felt their wellbeing was dependent on the poor air quality keeping them inside on certain days. This could make understanding wellbeing very difficult, if different metrics are needed in different places. However, Lina Brand Correa presented a really useful framework that separated needs from the means of satisfying those needs (shown in figure 1 below). This is based on some really interesting thinking in her paper on human needs and energy use and on Dan O’Neill et al’s paper on wellbeing and planetary boundaries.

The conception of needs that Lina used is universal and designed to be relevant across all contexts. Taking our examples above – the need would be ‘social participation’. The means of satisfying those needs are very context-specific, depending on resources and culture, but this allows a universal way of measuring needs but allows for local specificity in how to meet those needs. Again in the example above the satisfier of connecting in a rural community might require transport or digital infrastructure to enable residents to physically or virtually speak to people, urban dwellers might require an improvement in air quality to enable them to leave their house to connect with others.

Figure 1: Disconnecting needs from satisfiers.

Dynamic: wellbeing is not a static notion, nor is it isolated from the dynamics of society and politics. This was articulated really nicely in a figure (see Figure 2) presented by Louise Reardon, which built upon work by the Foresight department of the Government Office for Science. See her excellent paper on well-being and transport for more detail. In this definition, the ability to flourish (which is a function of the ability to meet our needs and feel happy) was affected by both external conditions (which can be affected by infrastructure illustrated in the red boxes) and personal resources (which can be affected by both infrastructure and the way that it is developed). Importantly, as these external conditions and personal resources change, so does our wellbeing. This has strong similarities with the framework in figure 1 above but highlights the fact that the means of satisfying our needs does not rest solely within our own control and can change significantly over time.

Figure 2: A dynamic model of wellbeing

Scale dependent: a very important issue when considering how to integrate wellbeing into decision making is the fact that our understanding of wellbeing varies according to the scale at which we are considering it. This was articulated very nicely by Anne-Marie Bagnall in Figure 3. These differing definitions of wellbeing at different scales can result in very different means of achieving wellbeing at each scale.

Figure 3: Defining and measuring wellbeing at different scales

Multi-faceted: wellbeing is not a simple metric and each definition used was complex and multi-faceted, which makes it challenging to understand and measure. A key example of this was the Sustainable Development Goals, which are an internationally accepted definition of sustainable development and wellbeing. Even in their most reduced form, there are 17 goals, which are supported by 169 targets and 241 indicators. However, it is important to embrace this complexity and represent the multi-faceted nature of wellbeing in strategies and plans.

Creating visions of wellbeing

A strong, unifying theme across all speakers was the important role of wellbeing as a foundation for creating visions of communities, cities and city regions. The different facets of wellbeing are ideal for use in setting objectives that form the basis of these visions, which in turn should be driving strategies and decision making. The fact that the means of delivering wellbeing, and therefore a vision of wellbeing, are so place-specific means that engaging citizens in vision development and objective setting. There are several good examples of this vision based planning, notably Melbourne in Australia and Amsterdam in the Netherlands but it is far from common and there is debate about the extent to which visions are truly driven by an integrated conception of wellbeing.

Visions also create a crucial opportunity to imagine alternative ways of deriving wellbeing or delivering infrastructure. This is important when thinking about how to make disruptive change, for example overturning the dominance of cars in the OK, allowing citizens and decision makers to think outside the constraints of current physical or political systems.

This highlights the importance of cross-sector collaboration – place builders are adept at developing visions of liveable places but do not control some of the levers or have access to the pots of funding necessary to deliver those visions (see for example this tweet about the Mayor of Manchester and Air Quality). Some places, like Manchester, are connecting agendas, such as health and transport to promote a wellbeing transformation and use shrinking funding pots more effectively. However, this can be challenging as a result of the very different cultures of sectors, such as the prioritisation of reducing travel time in the transport sector, which overlooks important wellbeing issues such as air quality.

Managing wellbeing at different scales

When talking about the different framing of wellbeing above, it became clear that the definition and/or objectives or vision might differ at different scales, such as communities, cities and nations. This makes defining wellbeing hard but managing wellbeing even harder – because not all visions of wellbeing will be compatible. Finding a set of criteria that are appropriate at different scales and understanding how these scales relate to each other is difficult but crucial.

Ignoring this interaction between scales could lead to wellbeing competition, where achieving wellbeing at one scale (e.g. improving access to work by building a faster cross-country train-line – a very national measure) could impact on wellbeing at another scale (impacting resilience by displacing communities and breaking social relations). How we assess the impact of projects on wellbeing at different scales is a real challenge. And how we deal with the people whose wellbeing suffers at the cost of an increase in wellbeing of others is very important too.

The importance of process and participation

A theme that resonated through all of the speakers presentations and the discussion was the importance of process, and particularly of engagement of citizens in process. So the outcomes of a decision are important, n terms of what infrastructure is developed, but equally important is who had a say in what or how infrastructure was delivered. This affects wellbeing in many ways. Firstly, having a say in a decision has a strong influence on wellbeing directly – it meets our fundamental need to participate in society. It also helps us to connect to a community and to a place. A good participatory process can go a long way to satisfying needs directly.

Engaging stakeholders and citizens more directly in decision making processes can also help to better understand locally relevant objectives and visions that will contribute to wellbeing and how projects could better contribute to those objectives.

Representation and power matter a great deal here because if people don’t have a say or their say doesn’t count, it can have significant effects on wellbeing . Representation at the right stage of development is also crucial. Consulting the public on a project that is crucial to a city-wide vision could be counter-productive if citizens haven’t contributed to or have access to that vision. We saw the effects of this in our workshops with the public, where they objected to particular transport schemes partly because they were not aware of the wider agenda to which this scheme was contributing. This requires better engagement in setting strategic objectives (beyond simply consulting on pre-defined objectives). However, this presents a number of risks to public bodies who have limited resource and limited experience of public engagement techniques. Far more work is required to enable bold experiments in citizen engagement across the lifecycle of decision making from setting visions and strategic objectives to details scheme design.