Infrastructure, Learning

Katy Knight and Sal Khan on Infrastructure, the Digital Divide, and More

Posted on Thursday, October 15th, 2020

This week, our Executive Director Katy Knight appeared on Homeroom with Sal Khan to discuss key findings from our whitepaper on multidimensional infrastructure, her own personal career pathway into philanthropy, and more. The conversation ultimately covered a far-reaching set of subjects, including the digital divide, working in philanthropy, and what it means to be an “infrastructure nerd.” 

Compiled below are some highlights from Sal and Katy’s conversation – watch the full episode of Homeroom below, and read the full whitepaper on multidimensional infrastructure at

On the big “a-ha” moments that have come from our work on infrastructure [9:05]: Once you start to dig for details about how infrastructure works, things get “fascinating really, really quickly,” says Katy, referring specifically to her own long standing fascination with the New York City subway system. The more SFE continued to explore what it would mean to consider the built environment alongside a lot of our ongoing work in learning and workforce, she says, the more we started to realize just how much the digital, physical, and social elements of infrastructure intersect with and rely on one another.

On the definition of social infrastructure [11:25]: Katy defines social infrastructure as the relationships, networks, and interpersonal resources that shape our communities and ability to participate in the broader economy. Things like access to childcare or collaborative co-working spaces don’t often get described as infrastructure, even though they’re just as critical to helping people contribute to the economy as roads, public transit systems, and broadband internet. Our new framework for multidimensional infrastructure challenges this thinking, and argues that all of these factors are equally important, and impact each other significantly.

On opportunities to improve infrastructure in the United States [14:18]: Although the big picture on infrastructure isn’t always so rosy, there are already many examples of places that can offer guidance for successfully implementing this new multidimensional framework: lots of towns and cities have access to high speed internet, and many library systems can be treated as case studies for reinforcing the social fabric within communities. Overall, Katy says, we have an opportunity to rethink the way we spend on building new things, and to start making investments that have payoffs on each of the social, digital, and physical fronts.

On the urgency of addressing the digital divide [22:42]: The COVID-19 pandemic has brought renewed attention to the importance of closing the digital divide, and ensuring widespread access to high speed internet and the digital tools necessary to engage remotely with school and work. Katy describes the roles that actors from the private sector, government, and the nonprofit sector all have to play in order to solve this problem, and the responsibilities that all fields have to maintain and manage the vast web of infrastructure resources going forward. While this issue is getting a lot of attention right now, there’s still a long way to go, and the only way to close the divide for good is to keep the urgency up – even as things start returning to “normal.”