Infrastructure

Highlights from a Panel Hosted by Siegel Family Endowment and Aspen Digital

Posted on Wednesday, October 28th, 2020

Siegel Family Endowment (SFE) and Aspen Digital recently convened a diverse group of researchers, local leaders and policymakers, funders, and representatives of the private sector for a conversation on our new framework for multidimensional infrastructure. Following introductory remarks by David Siegel, SFE’s Chairman, and Katy Knight, SFE’s Executive Director, the event featured presentations by three thought leaders who are finding ways to reimagine infrastructure and ensure it better reflects our multifaceted and interconnected reality. While each has particular expertise in one dimension of infrastructure – physical, digital and social – they brought broad and generous visions and understandings of how all three realms function together. The conversation was moderated by Vivian Schiller, Executive Director of Aspen Digital, and Jennifer Bradley, Founding Director of Aspen Institute’s Center for Urban Innovation.

Tom Wright, President and CEO, Regional Plan Association
Transportation and other physical infrastructure can achieve greater impact by purposefully incorporating social and digital dimensions

While Tom’s organization primarily focuses on what we regard as physical infrastructure – including the roads, trains and bridges that help people move around – he knows that these all impact – and are impacted by – other dimensions. For him, transportation’s purpose is to make the city an engine of prosperity, ideas, and culture; transportation questions ultimately impact the shape and function of the city itself.

Drawing on the specific experiences of the New York metropolitan region, Tom spoke about the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has upended so many parts of life, including the way people commute to work and travel.

Before the pandemic, the majority of people traveling into Manhattan relied on mass transit to get to and from their jobs.The number of people physically working in Manhattan declined by about 1.7 million as COVID took hold of the region. In March, all forms of transportation declined precipitously as people sheltered in place. More recently, biking and driving have recovered to pre-COVID rates, despite fewer people overall making trips into Manhattan, and public transit ridership has plateaued below pre-COVID numbers.

As recovery begins, and jobs come back, whether people will continue to work from home is the biggest unanswered question and must dictate the type of infrastructure that supports the communities in and around the city. Recognizing this may reflect a new reality for metropolitan transit, RPA has recommended finding ways to use congestion pricing and High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) policies to better handle congestion while allowing the economic recovery to occur.

Solutions must combine an understanding of the social and digital aspects of infrastructure with the existing physical infrastructure, something that has historically been ignored in infrastructure planning. As Tom explained, “We need something much deeper than a tweak. The definition, design, governance, and funding of infrastructure need to be much more adaptable to start to cross boundaries so that we’re better integrating all of the pieces of infrastructure – digital, physical, social – together. I don’t have an answer for what the new structure should look like. But I think we ought to be willing to unpack that whole thing and think more creatively about the models.”

Tom ended by providing reasons that he believes New York will rebound, citing the vitality of urban density and diversity of its workforce. Of course, this can’t happen without the right physical, digital, and social infrastructure to support it, and now is the time to put it into place. “But all of this is really going to rely on making sure that we have an infrastructure system that can support us in the recovery, in the rebuilding. Maybe this is the wake up call we need to address these issues,” he concluded.

danah boyd, Partner Researcher, Microsoft Research, and Founder, Data & Society Data & Society
Digital and data systems simultaneously depend on and influence the social and environmental paradigms that underpin them

danah began by framing digital infrastructure as reliant on physical infrastructure and ultimately determined by social components and how people come together. Despite her focus on how technology and society intersect, she argued there is no way to separate the social, physical, and digital aspects of critical infrastructure. 

She posited that digital infrastructure is often a question of data and data management. Data allows us to see the world differently, but it also has limitations and biases that stem from the people who create algorithms and computer programs. In other words, data is inherently a social construct and a social tool. With this in mind, danah also discussed the ways that data infrastructure can become vulnerable to attacks and exploitation – especially once data is given power in society – and manipulations by those with economic, political or ideological agendas.

danah suggested we look at society through its networks – and then we can imagine and build what we want it to look like. She provided examples of moments in American history where social infrastructure has strengthened because individuals were made to interact and collaborate with one another in service of common goals.

As part of this endeavor, she reminded the audience that it isn’t just physical infrastructure that requires funding; once established, all infrastructure must be maintained physically as well as evolve socially. She explained, “The thing to understand about infrastructure is we only see it when it’s falling apart. But the flip side of that is that infrastructure is sound and functioning when it creates a level of stability that we take for granted.” This is equally true of digital infrastructure, which is dependent on processes that use resources, whether that’s water, energy, rare minerals, or human effort.

Finally, she added that a broad swath of society is experiencing a lack of stability – something known to communities of color for generations – and we need to think about the ways our tendency to prioritize speed, efficiency and innovation may be at odds with what we need from our infrastructure. While we normally talk about data infrastructure increasing our efficiency, what we actually need is resiliency, redundancy, and inclusion, which requires time and intentionality. And building healthy digital systems that serve the public’s interest requires considering the social and environmental paradigms that underpin them.

Jamal Watkins, Vice President of Civic Engagement, NAACP
Infrastructure should connect the dots between a communities’ needs and lived experiences to be able to unlock positive social outcomes

The NAACP has long been focused on what Jamal called the social, political and economic infrastructure of the nation by being people- or community-focused. Data has become core to their work, combined with input from residents, advocates, activists and volunteers, to drive advancement and racially inclusive infrastructure.

He talked about different kinds of infrastructure and, importantly, those constituencies most impacted by it. Expanding the concept of infrastructure to include things like clean water and broadband recognizes that these are critical assets and thus demand that no communities are left out. “If we don’t reimagine infrastructure and don’t think about it through an inclusive, forward-facing frame, then we’re going to be in a world of hurt years from now,” he said. “We have been stuck in a traditional framework that isn’t racially inclusive or expansive as it relates to definitions.

All too often, infrastructure is discussed in exclusively political or economic terms. Margaret Thatcher once said, “you and I come by road or rail, but economists travel on infrastructure.” However, he offered a vision for how to ground our approach to infrastructure in the positive social outcomes that it can unlock for communities. Reflecting on the impact of COVID-19 on businesses owned by women and people of color, Jamal raised the idea that we need investment in business infrastructure if we want to build back better from this crisis. He tied economic outcomes to better environmental conditions, reduced health disparities, and educational improvements.

Jamal reminded the audience that communities are truly facing existential threats right now, necessitating the prioritization of certain issues at the expense of others. He also discussed investment decisions for maintaining or creating new infrastructure and the need for direct government spending even at a time of shrinking budgets. Innovative ideas include expanded and new loan programs for non-federal entities and tax incentives for state and local infrastructure investment. However, we should not take our eyes off the people and communities most impacted by these decisions.

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Throughout the remainder of the event, participants continued to wrestle with what needs to happen for a multidimensional infrastructure framework to firmly take root and transform society. All agreed we most clearly see infrastructure and the way it impacts our lives and our communities when it is failing, and the pandemic has created just such a circumstance. The experts posited this particular moment has demonstrated the incongruity between our current infrastructure – and the systems that produce it – and modern society, its demands as well as our goals of making it more inclusive and equitable. But we have also been afforded an opportunity to “hit the reset button,” as Jamal said, and make changes to ensure society does not leave communities further behind.

 Siegel Family Endowment is excited to continue this dialogue and looks forward to many more such discussions with stakeholders from across sectors and geographies.