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  • Emma Bowkett

Kickstarting Social Infrastructure What we have learnt so far

At Neighbourly Lab we are working on an exciting project funded by the National Lottery Community Fund. The project is focused on kickstarting social infrastructure in order to build good, equitable social infrastructure that enables local communities to connect and thrive.

  • Our approach has been deeply exploratory: we are conducting qualitative research and delivering workshops with stakeholders across England to explore local social infrastructure and identify gaps that our project can intervene and invest in.

  • We are at the development stage of this work, so we have been spending time and engaging with local authorities, VCFSEs and private sector organisations to understand how social infrastructure is understood, valued and built across England.

How we define and understand social infrastructure

We define social infrastructure as the places and spaces where people connect and build social capital.

This means that these places and spaces must enable us to connect and build social capital, but they do not necessarily exist solely for these specific reasons. So almost always the places that act as social infrastructure also do another job for people.

Within this definition social infrastructure can be:

  • Publicly owned or Privately owned

  • Enduring for a long time or Short lasting

  • Stable or Shape-shifting, it can go dormant and come back when it needs to

  • Big or Small

  • Physical or Digital

We also find it helpful to separate out two different types of social infrastructure:

The qualities of good social infrastructure

While our definition tells us what is and isn’t social infrastructure, it does not differentiate between what makes good and less good social infrastructure. We think that social infrastructure needs to be evaluated through a whole systems approach, since good social infrastructure is a system of units which, together, meet the needs of the community. What this means is that good social infrastructure should contribute to the aggregate good in the society it inhabits and therefore shouldn’t be measured by its unit value. The aggregate good we are interested in is the ability for social infrastructure to serve those who need it most, not necessarily to serve everyone equally.

We have identified three integral qualities which make good social infrastructure, which are:

So what does this all mean?

Now that we understand the qualities of good social infrastructure, we are seeking to understand what is needed in order to enable and maintain it , in order to have the necessary good qualities.

We see a connection between good social infrastructure and "the right way to bring it about". So social infrastructures inception and development determines the quality and success of what comes out.

In order to determine what the right operating model is to enable the qualities of good social infrastructure, that can be built in partnerships between a Local Authority, the private sector and the third sector.

In our next blog post we will share some of the enablers that we have uncovered through our fieldwork including our workshops and stakeholder interviews.

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