We can only get good infrastructure for a greener future if the public are involved

This post is by Dr Katy Roelich, associate professor at Sustainability Research Institute, Leeds University

In its 2015 report Opening up infrastructure planning, Green Alliance argued that “…public engagement is critical to finding common ground between different stakeholders and making infrastructure delivery successful in the UK.” Six years and three national lockdowns later, we’re even more aware infrastructure’s crucial role in our daily lives.

One particular challenge is the scale of change in how we build and use infrastructure to achieve the UK’s net zero targets, and now how to support a green recovery. Describing future infrastructure has long been the preserve of experts. But what might be technologically and economically desirable could have far reaching impacts for all of us. 

And, yet, meaningful debate about infrastructure’s development and delivery feels a long way off. In a recently published report, the University of Leeds has explored the challenges of public debate about infrastructure futures

Moving the debate away from experts is a good start
Good public debate about infrastructure is hard because it is both invisible and complicated; people rarely notice it if it’s working properly. There isn’t a universal understanding about what it is, or does, so people frequently talk at cross purposes. Agreeing a definition of what it actually is would help to move debate away from ‘experts’ and increase its visibility.

We think this definition needs to include physical assets (like roads and reservoirs) and the services those assets provide (like warmth and access), but also the rules and processes that guide their operation. This would open up the space in which to identify futures and solutions, providing more possibilities.

Infrastructure has some specific characteristics which make it difficult to talk about: it links different technologies, places and systems making it hard to define or to see how changing one element will affect another place or service. It’s long lasting in terms of its physical presence (think Victorian sewers in London) and the ideas we have about it (eg that roads are for cars). It’s collective, in that it provides services for many and contributes to collective goals, like economic growth and wellbeing. No regulator or department has an overview of, or influence over, all parts of infrastructure so many organisations are responsible for its operation and development. We argue that all these characteristics must be explicitly addressed.

How to open up meaningful public debate
We have made several recommendations, based on our own engagement exercises, to improve the quality and inclusiveness of public participation in infrastructure decision making:

1. Build better understanding of how things work
Instead of skirting around the complexity, people should have enough space and time to consider what infrastructure is and does. We did this by asking participants to talk about the infrastructure around them, and how it affected them. We gave prompts about structures or proposals, including their operation, to help unpick the complicated governance and politics surrounding this. As a result, participants feel more confident to articulate their views and balance personal and collective benefits. It can also reduce systemic inequalities, building the capability of a broader cross section of society to debate complex issues.

2. Take people away from the everyday
The longevity of infrastructure can make it seem very fixed. It is hard to imagine how narrow roads designed for cars that have been around for decades will ever be safe for cycling. It is helpful to give participants a creative task unconnected to current local infrastructure. We asked the people we worked with to design infrastructure in an anonymous city created using Minecraft. This was tangible enough to spark ideas and tease out the values shaping their aspirations, but abstract enough to avoid the current constraints that shape how they think about infrastructure.

3. Think about framing
It’s important to allow people to examine a broader range of issues, including the need for infrastructure. We framed our discussions more broadly than the physical assets, focusing on how infrastructure interacts with their lives, for example; how they need to move around a place and how infrastructure might help them?  Talking about social and political systems can make the concepts more tangible and engaging. Our participants became most animated when talking about how decisions were made and how to create a nice place to live. This framing may allow for the identification of more effective strategies that have a higher level of public support.

4. Address the interconnection between different infrastructure
There are benefits to exploring interconnections between different infrastructure systems. Our participants came up with strategies to exploit interconnections, for example, using space for transport, nature and flood alleviation, and treating food waste and wastewater together to generate energy. Consulting people about individual systems or assets might miss these opportunities and underestimate the public’s ability to imagine complex and creative solutions.

5. Focus on wellbeing
Infrastructure has a strong relationship with wellbeing but this aspect is rarely talked about. This should be discussed more explicitly, including examining the positive and negative effects of infrastructure, and debating the changes that might improve wellbeing. Our participants were astonished by how many links there were between infrastructure and elements of their wellbeing, from energy creating warmth, to the benefits of taking part in decision making. Focusing on these aspects can build confidence to participate, because people are all experts in their own lives.

We need to build better public capability to examine infrastructure’s complexity and allow people to articulate their preferences. Those facilitating should give those consulted more control over what is discussed. And all this is worthwhile because it will give us all more just and acceptable infrastructure for how we want to live in future.

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