Tuesday, July 23, 2024

The West’s new infrastructure imperative

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An emerging debate about the definition of infrastructure suggests that Western democracies are starting to shift their priorities. The renewed focus on infrastructure and what it includes is to be welcomed — not least because it rebuts the claim the West has lost faith in the future.

Many argue that investment in traditional physical infrastructure — such as electricity grids, water distribution and transport networks — is no longer enough. There is now a push to fund social and cultural infrastructure — community assets such as libraries, schools, hospitals and care systems that were not previously categorized in this way. Meanwhile, the growing power of Big Tech has prompted discussions about the need for digital public infrastructure.

The word infrastructure, coined by French railroad engineers in the late 19th century, refers to a complex set of systems that enable a society’s functioning. This complexity is exemplified by the tangle of pipes and cables buried beneath city streets that construction crews occasionally unearth. The new gets layered onto the old: British drivers are still using roads first built by the Romans and tunnels and bridges constructed by the Victorians. Such durability points to the forward-looking nature of investment in infrastructure, which may exist for a very long time indeed.

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