Following the UK Government’s budget commitment to build five new garden towns, now is the right time to ensure we as an industry contribute to improving social inclusion and ensure the benefits of the projects we deliver are widely spread.

Cities throughout the world face the pressures of population growth. The technical challenges of meeting the needs of expanding populations are very real but understood. Finding the money to finance new and upgraded infrastructure to accommodate more people is increasingly difficult, however, even though it can generate enormous economic opportunities. Importantly, we must also balance economic growth with environmental and social gains. The myriad of challenges facing cities requires input from a diverse group to avoid aggravating social and economic disparities, and to deliver growth that truly benefits the many.

Harnessing the benefits of digital 

There are several reasons why a wider perspective is necessary. Cities increasingly struggle to access adequate physical resources, there is a burgeoning gap between rich and poor households, many, particularly the young, are disillusioned with local and national decision makers, and people are anxious about the growing influence of the digital world on their lives.

The speed of technological change, especially in robotics and artificial intelligence, is naturally making some people fear their jobs will disappear, but used wisely digital tools and devices have the potential to help address some of the challenges facing cities. Advances in technology and processing power can generate operational and efficiency benefits through the consideration of infrastructure as an integrated network, and the adoption of smart systems can save time, money and resources. Meanwhile, improved digital connectivity can make it easier for citizens, particularly in hard to reach groups, to have a voice in decisions that affect them.

Despite the benefits, we should always be mindful to use technology carefully. Access to data provides users with many more choices, but there is a danger technology is dictating development rather than meeting needs of the mass of people, some who do not have access to devices or lack the skills to make the most of the opportunities that connectivity can provide. We should also remember that technology can supplement communication but cannot replace the social interactions that are the lifeblood of city economies.

Spreading the gains widely

Creating sustainable and resilient solutions to the issues facing cities, and making the most of the opportunities provided by digital proliferation, requires us to look at problems differently to how we have traditionally tackled them. Cities have a different framework for success than typical commercially driven entities; they demand the outcomes benefit the whole community. That includes those in poverty, the socially excluded and the vulnerable, not just those who pay for services, tax payers, the employed, the engaged and connected.

This means we cannot purely use economic productivity growth as a barometer of success. We need to understand the economic benefits of social improvement and the cost of social failure. As increasingly cash constrained city municipalities look to private investment to finance improvements, there is also the need to review our conventional understanding of value to check that everyone is benefiting. “Why” and “who benefits” should be asked from the outset of any project, before we move on to consider the “what”.

It’s not going to be easy

“Doing inclusion” or “delivering “inclusive growth” in the infrastructure sector will not be easy and requires changing the lens through which we view development. One way forward is to reposition value and reappraise what growth means, and what we use to measure it. There should be a focus on both economic and social return.

Repositioning value to capture the potential gains from improved digital connectivity, for example, would include the gains from adopting agile working practices for employers and employees, such as improved staff satisfaction and retention, and lower premises costs. Those are not the only benefits. Enabling people to work in ways that best suit their needs without the traditional limitations of where and when tasks must be performed would reduce travel peaks, minimising the risk of capacity failure and deferring need for upgrade investment. More remote working and less frequent but longer commutes would release value in more remote communities. Time saving could also improve citizens’ work-life balance and provide more opportunities to be involved in community activities.

Creating more green and blue spaces in developments is good for cities well beyond the project boundary. They help mitigate flooding and the urban heat island effect, the phenomenon where temperatures in densely built areas are considerably warmer than the suburbs or the countryside. Green environments improve health by helping to reduce air pollution, an increasing concern in many cities. Outdoor spaces can also lead to greater human contact, reducing isolation and improving wellbeing. 

These benefits can be valued and monetised for the benefit of the city. However, we must make sure that the processes created to capture this value reflect enhanced social outcomes.