Circles: Starting the Indian Revolution (Part 2)

Social Infrastructure

Eric Klinenberg, in his book “Palaces for the People”, discusses the importance of social infrastructure. He explains:

Public institutions, such as libraries, schools, playgrounds, parks, athletic fields, and swimming pools, are vital parts of the social infrastructure. So too are sidewalks, courtyards, community gardens, and other green spaces that invite people into the public realm. Community organizations, including churches and civic associations, act as social infrastructures when they have an established physical space where people can assemble, as do regularly scheduled markets for food, furniture, clothing, art, and other consumer goods. Commercial establishments can also be important parts of the social infrastructure, particularly when they operate as what the sociologist Ray Oldenburg called “third spaces,” places (like cafés, diners, barbershops, and bookstores) where people are welcome to congregate and linger regardless of what they’ve purchased. Entrepreneurs typically start these kinds of businesses because they want to generate income. But in the process, as close observers of the city such as Jane Jacobs and the Yale ethnographer Elijah Anderson have discovered, they help produce the material foundations for social life.

What doesn’t qualify as social infrastructure? Transit networks determine where we live, work, and play, and how long it takes to move between places. But whether they’re social infrastructure depends on how they’re organized, since a system designed for private vehicles will likely keep people separate as they travel (and consume enormous amounts of energy), whereas public systems that use buses and trains can enhance civic life. Although they have obvious social impacts, waterworks, waste treatment facilities, sewage systems, fuel supply lines, and electric grids are usually not social infrastructures. (We don’t congregate in these places.) But conventional hard infrastructure can be engineered to double as social infrastructure.

So, why is it important? Eric Klinenberg elaborates in an interview with Fatherly:

I think that when we invest in good, shared spaces we get all kinds of returns. We can build bridges. People who live around each other can create something that feels more like a community. And that’s important. In disasters, creating networks of care, and mutual support [is important.] But it also matters every day for people’s feelings of life satisfaction. We can give people access to happiness that they don’t get from just succeeding in an individualized market economy.

I think for a lot of people, good social infrastructure is a lifeline. It’s not just about relationships. A good library creates opportunities for personal fulfillment, for learning, and for mobility. That’s one of the reasons that the United States has invested so much in that in the past.

Parks created opportunities for recreation. But also for health. We have all sorts of evidence that people are healthier when they spend time outdoors and in green environments and a little less time hunkering down at home in front of a screen.

Even as India has not built its hard infrastructure, it has also under-invested in social infrastructure. Can we change this? What we need to do is to think how to create social infrastructure in post-Covid India – one where we are socially distanced but virtually just a click away. What would a 2020s shakha look like?

Tomorrow: Part 3

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.

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