We commonly talk about the three pillars of sustainability – economic, environmental, and social. Yet the social pillar tends to attract the least attention when we’re thinking about infrastructure projects.
Infrastructure is rightly seen as requisite for economic growth, and environmental protection is now seen as fundamental to the progress of projects. As it should be.
But too rarely is attention paid to who in society benefits most from economic infrastructure. The reality is that the dividend is unequal, and we all know that inequality breeds insecurity – and that poses a fundamental risk to society.
At the extremes, it provokes conflict between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ which can manifest itself in many ways from crime to civil disobedience and even war. It’s clear that the world is a more fragile place when it leaves large sections of society behind in the pursuit of growth.
But the link between environmental sustainability and social outcomes is even more crucial when you think of the importance of maintaining an environment in which we can enjoy healthy and prosperous lives. Climate change, air pollution, water quality, ecosystem fragility, species loss – all are issues that impact directly on our health and wellbeing, and thus on society at large.
The mass migrations we’re seeing are not just the result of conflict, but also of environmental degradation, the struggle to survive and the desire of people living at the margins to find a better life. In the infrastructure sector, we work towards building the communities of tomorrow, and what’s become increasingly clear in recent times is that we have an obligation to provide solutions that are more inclusive, and to play our part in addressing inequalities.
It’s easy to lay the blame for deepening inequality at the feet of others, but all in the infrastructure industry – clients, investors, consultants, contractors and suppliers – need to change the way in which we think about projects, and the way we conduct business. We need to help foster more socially inclusive outcomes.
At the end of the day, we need to remember that most, if not all, of what we do is about improving people’s lives – whether that’s providing safer water, reliable electricity, a better living environment, improved healthcare facilities or a faster commute to work.
In September 2015, the UN launched 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda. Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs are not just about the developing world. They apply equally to developed nations.
The SDGs are aimed at forging a path towards a fairer and more just society, and our industry has an obligation to contribute to their fulfilment. Planned and delivered with thought, infrastructure can enable outcomes that help resolve many of the challenges we face as a society today, and will face tomorrow.