It is increasingly understood that development does not always deliver the improvements in living standards for all sections of society that policymakers intend or expect. Indeed, social and economic disparities can be aggravated unless the needs of all groups in society are fully considered at the outset.
Awareness is emerging that a more inclusive approach to development and growth is needed so that a prosperous economy can also contribute to a more equal society, with the benefits shared more evenly. It’s a vision in which the needs and views of people who are often overlooked – the young and old, minorities and those from deprived neighbourhoods – get addressed.
Social inclusion is now fully on national and global policy agendas. Under the Equality Act 2010, public sector bodies in the UK have a duty to consider the impacts of their plans and activities on ‘protected characteristic’ groups. Meanwhile, five of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals call for developers to keep inclusion and equality in sharp focus. But beyond statutory duties and moral calls to action, there are sound commercial reasons why the infrastructure sector should take inclusion seriously.
Income inequality is bad for growth. Reducing the income gap between high and low earners by raising wages at the lower end, and widening access to employment opportunities across society, stimulates demand for goods and services provided by private companies. Simultaneously this reduces demand for support from the public purse.
Ensuring publicly funded projects maximise benefits and minimise adverse impacts makes practical sense. People who have been consulted and feel included are less likely to try to delay a project, which can be costly. And evidence shows that, when infrastructure is inclusive and accessible to a wide range of users, it is more financially sustainable.
Doing the right thing
Building a shared vision for inclusive growth starts by aligning the priorities of policymakers and communities through engagement and discourse. Out of that can grow a clear and compelling inclusion roadmap, with performance indicators to measure success.
‘Doing inclusion’ in the infrastructure industry isn’t easy. It requires changing the lens through which we view development. It involves taking a ‘people perspective’ and putting community considerations front and centre, rather than treating them as ancillary to design and development processes. It also needs to be recognised that benefits are sometimes difficult to quantify, at least immediately.
But none of this should dissuade attempts to deliver more inclusive outcomes. With public trust in public institutions and big business at a low ebb, there has rarely been a stronger argument or a better time to do it. Organisations that have taken this step have reaped the reward.
There is an African proverb that says: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ In the infrastructure sector, fast but short-term performance matters much less than sustained long-term achievement. That is why ‘all together now’ should be the industry mantra.