We Need to Change Our Conversations on Societal Infrastructure - Institute on Governance

We Need to Change Our Conversations on Societal Infrastructure

With contribution from IOG Fellow Dr. Sara Filbee.

We are living in uncertain and challenging times in which sustainability and resilience are more important than ever before.

COVID-19 has shown us the gaps and fragilities – the antithesis of sustainability and resilience – in our society.

Reports on the climate emergency increasingly call for immediate and significant action. Putin’s declaration of war on Ukraine has irretrievably shattered the global order which has been the foundation of our economy and political relationships. In all of this, we need to take a critical (and I would suggest urgent) look at who we are as Canadians, who we want to become and what it will take to get us there.

And if we want something different, something better, we need to change our conversations and be prepared to challenge what we have previously taken for granted.

One area ripe for re-examination is our societal infrastructure, the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities needed for the operation of our country. While I am hopeful that the much-needed debate is happening in the back rooms of the Nation, these issues affect all sectors and all Canadians and thus are worthy of a broader discussion. The pandemic showed us that our infrastructure is insufficiently resilient – particularly as it serves the vulnerable in our society. Climate change and global political shocks will further challenge these structures.


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Before considering how we resource and invest in infrastructure, we must first define it.

The usual focus is on bricks-and-mortar such as the ports and airports, roads, highways, and bridges that connect us and the hospitals, health care facilities, universities, and schools on which we all depend. Infrastructure, however, involves much more and what is now necessary for a healthy, inclusive, and prosperous society is different from that of 20 to 30 years ago.

Digital infrastructure is the perfect example. To state the obvious, the pace of digitization in both public and private sectors has significantly increased through COVID-19 and access is now more essential than ever for individuals to fully participate in society. Its accessibility, inclusivity, resilience and increasingly, its sustainability, are now fundamental to our prosperity and social cohesion.

While the digital economy has been a lifesaver for many, the lack of broadband particularly in remote areas as well as the digital divide which disproportionately affects our more vulnerable populations has left many behind as both employment opportunities and the delivery of public and private goods and services have moved further online. 

There has been some recognition of this including a focus on increasing broadband accessibility. However, much remains to be done and what has already begun must be accelerated.

Beyond digital infrastructure, we also need to recognize the crucial importance of the social infrastructure that supports us in coming together in community.

COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of social capital, the networks, and relationships between people in our society, in meeting the health care challenges of the pandemic, keeping the economy going and maintaining our mental health. Community gathering places such as libraries, restaurants and bars, gyms, arenas and curling rinks, cultural presentation spaces and so on are fundamental for the social relationships and interactions these places and spaces enable.

Many have been stressed and, in some cases, lost during the pandemic.

Lastly, and just as important (actually, more important) as the physical assets, are workers.

The majority are among the lowest paid in society and often lack benefits and security of tenure. The current levels of burn out and flight from the health care sector is just one indication that our social infrastructure is badly ailing with serious implications for all. It has become almost trite to say that standing on the doorstep applauding health care and other essential workers is easy to do – but we need to do much more.

If the moral imperative to make sure that all are able to participate fully in our society does not drive us, then sheer practicality should.

We can have the most up to date and beautiful buildings and yet, with no one to operate them, we are no further ahead.

None of this suggests an easy answer and we would be naïve to expect one. We do need however to re-examine what we consider to be the essential societal infrastructure needed for us to be the healthy, prosperous and inclusive country that we aspire to be. Only then can we start to discuss how it should be provided, resourced and maintained.

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