21st Century Infrastructure

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Infrastructure hard and soft

A new administration has stated that it is interested in investing to repair America’s infrastructure as part of its strategy to make the country great again. This will be a good thing provided we don’t just invest in national hardware like bridges, roads and rail. While these investments are surely needed to connect and smarten up our transportation system there is another type of infrastructure, what I like to call community software, which may be more fundamental to the success of the country and its communities.

By software I mean the locally integrated systems of energy, water, waste, food, information and money—the lifeblood systems of flows– that pulse through our communities. Powered by people systems these flows animate our communities and make them vital places within which to grow families, businesses and other enterprises to generate enduring local prosperity.

Aging, value-losing infrastructure

Imagine your community with its bridges repaired, and its highways re-paved but its social capital in tatters. The act of repairing the hardware will surely generate some construction jobs and result in more efficient safe and comfortable commutes for all. What’s not to like?

But imagine if a fraction of the millions invested in this hardware were put toward helping you and your neighbors create a shared vision for the future of your community that was based on your shared core values. Furthermore, imagine if the outcome of this work were specific projects—a food system that linked local farms, local food processors, markets and delivery systems to provide fresh, local and healthy food to your community; a community energy system that gradually phased out polluting sources, trained workers to become experts in renewables, and created a cluster of jobs installing, maintaining and monitoring energy performance; a community center where all generations could come together to collaborate on these projects, celebrate the local culture and provide education and recreation opportunities for all or an entrepreneurial cluster that provided seed funding and mentorship to start-up enterprises within the fabric of the community that created permanent jobs.

This Civic Ecology of systems would constitute one of the most important infrastructure investments your country and community could make. It would create jobs through retraining and entrepreneurship, enhance public health, lower the cost of energy, create new business opportunities and a host of other locally-realized benefits.

Learning, community-building, and sustenance-growing all in one!

To manage your investment imagine a community-scaled bank of funds seeded by an infrastructure initiative that could be overseen by a Civic Public Private Partnership (CP3) whose make-up was a group of you and your neighbors, in partnership with local businesses, religious and social organizations, the school board, your local government and local non-profits. You would have built a new basis for shared prosperity in your community and given it deep roots in the shared realm. You would feel a greater sense of control over your community’s vital systems and thus vital signs. You would have exercised your rights and responsibilities as a citizen to do more than just vote and pay taxes. You would have helped to build the place you and your neighbors want to live in together.

Consider this: when you invest in hardware like streets, bridges and rails, once you throw the switch and open these facilities to use these systems begin to degrade through wear and tear. But your community’s Civic Ecology, if done well, is the soft type of infrastructure that actually gets better with use. Why? Because the continuing act of working together on community projects, the build-up of trust and relations, the shared successes and the hard work deepen the social capital and make your community more durable. The benefit to the community will be intergenerational and outlive any physical infrastructure you build. To build truly resilient communities will require a local culture animated by its civic ecosystems that can be passed along to future generations.

Hard infrastructure is paid for with tax dollars and debt financing but our community software is paid for through hard conversations and sweat equity. Its return on investment may be immeasurable and the most important public works program America can undertake. We may be the infrastructure we have been waiting to invest in all along.

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