This week, I wanted to reflect on the concept of social infrastructure. It’s a less known aspect of our work but one I believe is crucially important. Social infrastructure is a concept that is both elusive and contested. It is notoriously difficult to define, yet most voices across academia, the charity sector and government agree that the outcome of strong social infrastructure is cohesive and economically vibrant communities.
When we talk about social infrastructure, we mean an underlying framework, the ‘soil’ on which local action takes place. We think it’s built on three elements.
Social infrastructure as assets
In its ‘narrower’ sense, social infrastructure is primarily associated with the physical. This includes things like libraries, parks, markets, schools, playgrounds, gardens and communal spaces that are used and accessed by the people who live and work locally (for more on this ‘Palaces for the People’ by E. Klinenberg is a useful resource).
The concept of social infrastructure as physical space underpins certain planning permission rules, such as Section 106 and the Community Infrastructure Levy, which aim to mitigate the impact of new developments on the local community and infrastructure, e.g. by unlocking funding to develop new community spaces.
Social infrastructure as services
Beyond physical assets, social infrastructure can also include intangible assets, such as the public services that are available to people through public sector agencies, or via public financing through businesses or voluntary and community organisations. In Barking and Dagenham, services such as adult and children’s social care, and Community Solutions, which regroup the Council’s early intervention offer, work alongside commissioned organisations to deliver an array of essential services to local residents.
Within these commissioned services, the Council for Voluntary Service (CVS) has historically provided vital capacity building and wrap-around support for voluntary and community groups, as well as providing a communication and advocacy interface with the statutory sector.
Social infrastructure as values
More recently, Barking and Dagenham has seen the emergence of a new kind of social infrastructure, which identifies itself more in terms of the values that it seeks to promote, than a specific type of service or asset. This infrastructure emerged partly as a response to the government’s dramatic reduction of public funding, and the evolving relationship between public, private and voluntary sectors. This infrastructure, in which I would include BD Giving, espouses collaborative values of network building, participation and power sharing.
Every day, a lot of important social infrastructure work is being delivered across the borough. While the densification and evolution of the social infrastructure offer is a good thing, it also creates new challenges and questions about how we can join things up. This isn’t straightforward, but we’re resolutely committed to connecting each element of social infrastructure so that it becomes more than the sum of its parts.
We believe that when you look at social infrastructure as a connected network or system, of assets, services and shared values, then we can create the socially cohesive and economically vibrant communities Barking & Dagenham deserves.
BD Giving Notes is a weekly blog aimed at sharing some CEO Geraud de Ville de Goyet’s thoughts on running a social infrastructure charity. Each post focuses on a couple of things we have learnt or done in the previous week; what’s gone well and what didn’t.