Why is infrastructure key to realizing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

Infrastructure has its own dedicated Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 9) and is also listed as a way of achieving a series of other SDGs, including water and education. For example, SDG 4 on education includes as a means for implementation the following: “Build and upgrade education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all.”

Even SDGs where infrastructure is not referred to directly, such as SDG 13 on climate change and SDG 9 on infrastructure, highlight the importance of climate-resilient infrastructure. SDG 7 on clean energy has a target referring specifically to energy infrastructure, as well as another target on “substantially” boosting the share of renewables relative to other energy sources in the overall energy mix. The latter would require the supporting infrastructure for doing so, as opposed to infrastructure that supports the continued use of fossil fuels, which would also hamper the achievement of SDG 9.

Governments currently spend a significant portion of GDP delivering public goods, services and infrastructure. In OECD countries, for example, this spending averages at 13 per cent, according to figures from the OECD secretariat. Other countries sometimes spend even greater shares of their GDP. That money could either go toward traditional infrastructure assets and public services or toward more sustainable alternatives, which could play a valuable role in achieving the 17 SDGs.

Achieving the SDGs will require expanding and upgrading roads, schools, universities, railways, hospitals, water supply and waste treatment facilities. Better access to quality education, housing and health care are also essential for fulfilling the SDGs.

As we develop more sustainable infrastructure assets to meet the SDGs, we will also need to design these assets so they are adapted not just for today’s needs, but for tomorrow’s challenges. These same infrastructure assets will need to be resilient to changing climates, while public services will need to match the needs of tech-savvy citizens. Infrastructure development strategies are also essential for addressing income inequality and improving social cohesion.