Research and Insights


Urban infrastructures, comprising technical networks including water, energy, transport, and digital systems, along with social pillars including education and healthcare, shape daily life and are the material connections that sustain urban life (Graham & Marvin 2022). Despite their ubiquity, infrastructures often go unnoticed until they fail, subtly influencing places and societies in different ways. 

As socio-technical systems that connect people and space over time (Larkin 2013), infrastructures can drive societal prosperity but can also become a burden over time. Particularly in times of growing urban populations and the urgency of the climate emergency, cities often struggle with ageing infrastructure networks and unsustainable practices solidified by specific infrastructural configurations. Scholars advocate for socio-ecological infrastructures to address the limits of economic growth within planetary boundaries (Essletzbichler 2022).

The need for transformative change to meet global climate goals is increasingly recognised by scholars and policymakers as an urgent endeavour, emphasising systemic shifts across sectors, scales and actors. However, the inherent network, scale, and lock-in mechanisms of infrastructures pose significant barriers. Coupled with the habitualisation of practices and cultural norms through infrastructural configurations, this makes them relatively stable. In addition, infrastructures interact with institutions, including legal frameworks, and thus with power structures that determine the provision and design of infrastructure systems. 

Transforming infrastructure away from a mere catalyst for urban and economic growth offers an opportunity to meet basic needs while enhancing wellbeing and safeguarding planetary boundaries. However, this transformation requires challenging entrenched cultural norms, and is often met with resistance and protest. In Paris, France, the banning of cars as an anti-pollution measure for large parts of the Seine quayside led to a significant backlash from pro-car advocates and some suburban majors (O’Sullivan 2017). In the UK, Oxford’s Low Traffic Neighbourhoods were even linked to conspiracy theories by residents who feared a ‘climate lockdown’ that would trap them in their neighbourhoods (Stott 2023).

Addressing anti-environmental populism and discontent is imperative in the pursuit of infrastructures that prioritise societal wellbeing and environmental sustainability. This requires a re-evaluation of growth-centred models with broad public support. Alternative approaches to economic development have recently gained prominence, conceptualising the role of infrastructure in aligning cities with planetary boundaries and social justice considerations.

Rethinking infrastructure through alternative economic development approaches

Traditional economic models view infrastructure as a driver of growth, supporting employment and productivity. However, there is a growing awareness of their limitations, including their impact on environmental degradation and social inequality. Recently, several alternative development approaches have emerged from the academic debate on the limits of growth, advocating for a paradigm shift towards sustainable, resilient infrastructures that prioritise wellbeing and ecological balance.

The Foundational Economy, for example, places essential infrastructures, including electricity, water, housing, and healthcare, at the centre of economic debates, emphasising collective provision and challenging the current economy's focus on unlimited wants over fulfillable needs (Essletzbichler 2022, Foundational Economy Collective 2019). Critics point to gaps in environmental considerations, but recent developments integrate a more nuanced understanding (Calafati et al. 2021). Similarly, Community Wealth Building, as an alternative economic and social model, seeks to empower local communities and redistribute economic power (Redwood et al. 2022). Infrastructural transformation in this approach involves community-led initiatives, local investment, and the development of co-operative enterprises. By activating community assets, anchor institutions and appropriate governance structures, the model seeks to address locally specific economic, social and/or ecological challenges.

Concepts that explicitly refer to planetary boundaries are growing in popularity. Doughnut Economics emphasises ecological limits to growth (Wahlund & Hansen 2022), while the Wellbeing Economy calls for holistic measures beyond GDP (Crisp et al. 2023). Both highlight eco-social infrastructures that promote wellbeing and align economic development with sustainability. Similarily, the Post-Growth paradigm questions the feasibility and desirability of perpetual economic growth, and advocates for alternative indicators and values (Durrant et al. 2023). Strategies such as degrowth, circular economies, and sustainable development are intertwined with infrastructures. Scholars emphasise the need to reimagine infrastructures to achieve these goals by decoupling wealth from resource consumption and emphasising qualitative improvements in living standards (ibid.).

A major challenge lies in designing infrastructures for societal wellbeing while mitigating environmental impacts. Rapid urbanisation often outpaces development, causing problems rooted in underfunding, austerity, and the dominance of private sector language (Neumann 2020). Despite global agreements, including the Paris Climate Agreement and the SDGs, concrete actions often conflict with sustainability goals. Short-term priorities, including maintaining profit margins or habitualised practices, hinder transformative change. Despite widespread commitment to climate targets, governments continue to expand emission-intensive infrastructure.

Transformative change is urgently needed, emphasising qualitative ‘deep change’ (Evans et al. 2023) with the necessary speed, depth and breadth required to decarbonise the ‘whole economy’ (Andersen et al. 2023) in line with global mitigation targets (Fazey et al. 2018). The destabilisation of dominant unsustainable structures and actors must go alongside creating and supporting alternative transformative innovations (Gosh et al. 2021, Novy et al. 2022). 

Change from above and from below in policy and practice for infrastructure transformation

To achieve ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable urban and regional futures that prioritise human and planetary wellbeing, an eco-social transformation of basic underlying infrastructures is urgently needed (Hirvilammi et al. 2023). Central to this transformation are the mutually reinforcing powers of change ‘from below’ and ‘from above’ (Novy et al. 2022). This includes debates on social innovation (SI), which responds to societal needs by reshaping social practices and institutional arrangements (Webb et al., 2023), and social policy as the framing conditions integrating societal practices in spatial, political, economic, cultural, and legal contexts, with a focus on inclusivity and societal needs (Howaldt and Kopp, 2012; Marques et al., 2018; Pel et al., 2020).

SI is crucial for holistic local development and operates at different levels, including action, organisation, framing, and knowledge. The effectiveness of SI strongly depends on how resources are activated, how reflexive the actors involved are, and how socio-material relations are recognised (Suitner & Krisch 2023). Despite occasional criticism, it is considered useful for studying social change and essential for enabling transformative local development, supporting a social economy, inclusive decision-making, community engagement, and institutional transformation (MacCallum et al., 2009, Exner et al. 2020, Oosterlynck et al. 2019).

From an analytical perspective, SI provides insights into place-based approaches, covering the entire process from problem identification to structural and institutional change. This approach holds potential for achieving transformative change at the local level through community involvement and collaboration. SI has been recognised for promoting progressive, non-neoliberal, and non-extractive economies, including approaches such as the Foundational Economy, Degrowth, and Doughnut Economics, with social innovations serving as examples rooted in new social values (Nelson and Chatterton, 2022).

Despite its potential, SI struggles with scalability and power imbalances arising from its localised nature, which limits its capacity for transformative speed and scale, particularly when addressing developments within planetary boundaries at the community level. SI often operates within existing infrastructure networks and political structures, limiting its capacity (While et al. 2010). Recognising that SI alone cannot address pressing issues, a combination of different mechanisms, instruments, and pathways needs to be developed. Collaboration between SI research and more recent research on sustainable welfare and eco-social policy is crucial for shaping transformative innovations (Büchs 2021, Hirvilammi 2020, Koch et al. 2023). A multidimensional approach is advocated, linking human health and wellbeing to planetary wellbeing, which is still often overlooked in current welfare state policies (Helne, 2021). This aligns with post-growth urban and regional studies that envision social-ecological transformation by improving societal wellbeing and reducing material and resource consumption (Savini et al. 2022, Durrant et al. 2023).

Understanding how social innovation and eco-social policy can effectively address emerging eco-social risks while transforming political-institutional structures is crucial (Mattioli et al. 2020). The overarching concern is how to achieve an eco-social transformation that encompasses economic, environmental, and social sustainability while ensuring no one is left behind (Skjølsvold and Coenen, 2021). This transformation must be democratic and equitable, driving profound changes in breath, depth, and scale, both locally and globally (Chilvers & Kearns 2015). Climate change, coupled with social and regional disparities highlights the urgent need to reconceptualise the economy within ecological limits, focusing on the embeddedness of the economy in society, the biophysical environment, and urban infrastructure development, in order to reshape human-nature relations.


In conclusion, there is considerable resistance, rooted in cultural norms and established practices, to transforming urban infrastructure. This discontent is a significant challenge, but alternative approaches to economic development, such as the Foundational Economy, Community Wealth Building, Post-Growth or Doughnut Economics, offer promising solutions. These models challenge growth-centred paradigms, prioritise collective provision and align economic development with sustainability goals, addressing both societal wellbeing and environmental concerns.

Despite the challenges of designing infrastructure for wellbeing in the context of rapid urbanisation and funding constraints, the urgency for transformative change is underlined by the need for qualitative 'deep change' to decarbonise the economy as a whole. Social innovation (SI) is emerging as a critical enabler, providing insights into transformative strategies, and promoting non-neoliberal, non-extractive economies. However, SI faces challenges of scalability and power imbalances, requiring diverse mechanisms and collaborative efforts. Collaboration between social innovation and welfare state research will be crucial in shaping transformative eco-social innovations that address human health, societal wellbeing and planetary boundaries.

Overcoming resistance requires alternative development approaches, embracing social innovation and fostering interdisciplinary collaboration. This transformative journey must be democratic, equitable and capable of driving profound change locally and globally. By reconceptualising the economy within ecological limits and emphasising the embeddedness of the economy within society and the biophysical environment, urban infrastructure development can play a key role in reshaping human-nature relations for a sustainable and just future.


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Disclaimer: This article is a translated version of the intervention that was originally published in German language as part of the Economists For Future Debate Series in the online magazine Makronom. Hence, some of the linked references are in German. 

About the author:

Astrid Krisch is a spatial planner, working at the interface of urban and regional planning, urban studies, human geography, political science, foundational economy and health and wellbeing. She has worked extensively on urban experimentation for sustainability transformations, social innovation for transformative governance approaches, institutionalising urban infrastructure systems, structures for healthy and climate-friendly living and foundational infrastructure provisioning.

She is currently at the Global Centre on Healthcare and Urbanisation at Kellogg College, University of Oxford, working as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow and contributing to research on creating healthy cities and linking sustainable urban development to health and equity issues.