The role of infrastructure in levelling up

Ahead of an upcoming UK-US workshop co-hosted by the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC), Dr Rehema Msulwa from the University of Cambridge considers the role of infrastructure in levelling up.

Dr Rehema Msulwa, pictured, from the University of Cambridge considers the role of infrastructure in levelling up.

The UK is one of the most spatially imbalanced countries in Europe and the industrialised world with stark spatial differences in productivity growth – an important enabler for higher living standards. Within regional differences notwithstanding, places in the south-east of England have seen higher productivity than the north and therefore more prosperity, investment, and higher rates of employment. 

Equitable access to infrastructure

Patterns of inequality including spatial inequalities are decades if not centuries in the making. Entrenched patterns of productivity growth and development mean that underdeveloped places where productivity is low will tend to have a less skilled workforce with poorer prospects for increases in salaries or an organisation’s profits and overall wellbeing. 

In places experiencing low productivity growth this will lead to a vicious cycle that feeds persistent growing disparities, economic decline, and disinvestment. On the flipside, high productivity growth can lead to a virtuous cycle of opportunity. 

Piecemeal policies, financing and funding are not sufficient to bring about transformational change. Long-term, intentional, and systematic approaches to policy, appraisal and infrastructure financing and funding are required. This is the case for reducing the UK’s wide geographic inequalities in incomes and productivity – a government priority as stated in the Levelling Up White Paper published in February this year. 

How then can equity be achieved across all sectors of infrastructure, through the infrastructure lifecycle from planning to construction to operation? This and related questions will be discussed by academics and industry professionals at the UK-US Workshop this month. 

Broadly, the aim is to stimulate discussion that contributes to developing consensus on a uniform working definition of equitable infrastructure, determining performance indicators of infrastructure equity, and how infrastructure can be financed and funded while preserving and developing equitable access especially with the transition towards net zero. A series of white papers will emerge from the workshop and be available to all.

The transition towards net zero

The built environment has been and continues to be a significant contributor to the climate crisis. The recently published IPCC report recognises that in addition to being effective and feasible, climate-oriented solutions should conform to principles of justice, concerned with setting out the moral and legal principles of fairness and equity in the way people are treated, often based on the ethics and values of society.

It follows that a rapid and just transition to net zero must consider the need for resilience in existing and new infrastructure, while minimising harm, and facilitating inclusivity and widening access; and an overall levelling-up within, between and across societies. 


In the face of the rising frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, ranging from droughts to floods, infrastructure needs to be made more resilient and robust. This cannot realistically be achieved all at once, and needs a long-term strategy encompassing the targeted enhancement of vulnerable critical infrastructure and taking advantage of routine maintenance and renewals to make improvements more generally. 

Funding, financing and technological adoption

Deciding what the future needs to look like and setting about making it happen will require funding, financing, and technological adoption at scale. New technologies related to materials, sensing, communication, and computing are expeditiously emerging at an accelerated pace relative to past decades. However, the effects of emerging technology on enhancing infrastructure resilience, for example, can be difficult to quantify and are therefore not fully appreciated. 

Infrastructure is a socio-technical system

Infrastructure investment decisions have implications for people, places and the environment. Such decisions are not value neutral and they have the potential to produce both winners and losers. 

This calls for robust debate about how infrastructure decisions are made and ultimately implemented. 

What is meant by value in this context – whose perspective of value is adopted? How, by whom, and to whose advantage, or disadvantage is the perspective of value applied? 

As relates to digitalisation and the shift from physical infrastructure to digital infrastructure – what are the associated changes in social and business contexts? 

What are the implications of commodifying information and which parts of the value chain have access to emerging technologies? Who develops the standards? Who wins? Who loses? 

All these questions must be carefully considered by people at all levels of decision-making if intended benefits are to be realised. Great aspirations, high-level policy and policy goals without detailed delivery specifics are inadequate – we need more.

Dr Rehema Msulwa is research associate at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge.

The EPSRC–NSF funded UK-US ‘funding, financing and emerging technologies in infrastructure to improve resilience, sustainability and universal access’ invitation-only workshop, hosted by the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) at the University of Cambridge and the Cornell Program in Infrastructure Policy (CPIP), will take place in New York between 11 and 15 July 2022. Several plenary sessions will be shown live via Zoom webinar as part of the dedicated online programme. For more details about the workshop see CSIC’s website here.

If you would like to contact Rob O’Connor about this, or any other story, please email roconnor@infrastructure-intelligence.com.