Is it possible to use social infrastructure to catalyse economic growth?

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Docklands Library, Melbourne.

Docklands Library, Melbourne. Image: Dianna Snape

Community centres enrich lives and develop harmonious societies within our cities. Sadly, these facilities are expensive for cash-strapped local governments to maintain, and as such, investment in these critical facilities has been minimal. Are there other ways we can increase investment in these facilities?

Social infrastructure are important parts of our cities. They are places where connections can be made, lives are enriched, services can be accessed and those who are less fortunate are able to feel safe and be supported[1]. Social infrastructure, commonly in the form of community centres are often the “bread and butter” of local governments. Living in a fast evolving world which is undoubtedly fuelled by innovation, creativity and collaboration, as a society, we may need to look into alternative forms of community centers which encapsulate yet also provide a complementary function to the existing types. I will give two scenarios: one which depicts the status quo for the provision of community centres, and another which considers community facilities in a different yet complementary manner.

Scenario 1: What we currently do

Community facilities are proud places where residents can gather, access services, connect over topics which interest them and develop their hobbies. They are also places where those who are disadvantaged, less fortunate and those from culturally and linguistically diverse communities can be engaged and integrated into society. These facilities are commonly operated by state and local governments. For the purposes of this conversation let us focus on facilities operated by local governments.

These community centres are generally located in our urban centres but are also commonly found in our suburbs. Many of these such facilities are in need of an upgrade or expansion due to meeting the demands from changes in how our society operates and a growing population.

Newer community facilities have seen a convergence of previously disassociated programs and functions. For instance, the Docklands Library offers every function an ordinary library would, but it is by no means quiet. It is a place where there is the constant hubbub of conversation and discussion, where people can mix music and also learn how to use the latest technologies such as 3D printing. The trend in developing much more multi purposed and flexible community centres is expected to continue into the future.

Funding new community centres not only requires significant up-front costs (mainlyfunded from section 94 contributions and the rate base), these facilities also require ongoing maintenance, programmatic and HR costs. For cash strapped local governments, apart from a mandate to provide these facilities, there is little incentive to find additional capacity to fund new ones.

Scenario 2: What else we can do

The foundations of innovation and economic growth are largely influenced by collaboration, creativity, and the availability or the exchange of information. As such, the federal government and each of the state governments have developed policies for which to embrace the technological and social changes happening around the world in order to bring a new era of prosperity to Australians. These initiatives include the National Science and Innovation Agenda, Innovate NSW, LaunchVic.

These initiatives and the result of their products, even though are largely digitally enabled, must be undertaken at physical locations – likely in our larger urban centres where the value of agglomerate economies can be maximised[2]. Interactions undertaken at these locations will allow easy access to connected services which then affect the economic development of the area. Public sector facilitators, developers and built environment professionals together, then play a crucial role in the creation of the built environment and subsequently, innovation and economic development.

What if we can rethink the role of community centres so that they do not only serve as gathering places for local community associations, or places which only offer basic level or hobby based education? The effects of social infrastructure, particularly in the case of community centres can go far beyond community building – it can have a direct impact on accelerating economic growth – but the way we think about the ways community centre work and who they cater for needs to change.

As our world increasingly digitises, the norm of hybrid library based community centres will need to evolve to continuously cater for shifting social needs. Community centres, can indeed be hubs for creativity, innovation and economic growth – and, they can produce positive cashflows with significant flow-on effects at the same time. The base ingredients to achieve those objectives are still the same: encouragement of interaction and exchange/transfer of knowledge. What would be different is the target market of the community centres and the programs which are provided on site. What if these facilities provided places of impromptu gathering, multi-purposed meeting rooms, and collaborative work spaces? What if these places provided courses on the latest technology and digital innovations? What if there were designated networking sessions where people can mingle with industry and research leaders? Sound familiar? Yes! It is a co-working space!

Co-working spaces serve the same purpose as a community centre, only with different programs offered on site and for a slightly different target audience. They create connections, enrich lives, integrate those who are from diverse communities and improve the lives of those who are disadvantaged.

For local governments, co-working spaces can be a win-win opportunity. Local governments can leverage Voluntary Planning Agreements to deliver such facilities, as in the case of North Sydney Council’s St Leonards Precincts 2 and 3 Planning Study. North Sydney Council has identified co-working spaces as a suitable type of public benefit for St Leonards Centre which is to be provided by developers on locations where uplift has been given. Developers are beginning to see value in the provision of community centres in the form of co-working spaces due to the potential of the growing businesses overflowing into the other commercial tenancies within the development in the future.

Co-working centres can be run by specialist third party providers and desks/spaces can be rented out to provide a relatively stable return for the local government area. Local governments that invest in the provision of such a facility can also brand themselves as active participants in the economic development of the area. These facilities will provide knowledge and potential up-skilling for the local population. It can also provide ‘taster’ courses for individuals looking to select their career. Perhaps the biggest perk in the provision of a community centre in the form of a co-working space is the potential flow-on effects for the area in which it is located. Businesses that are commonly found in co-working spaces (generally digital, ICT and creative industries) have a higher multiplier effect on the local economy, where additional jobs will be created to support the growing businesses from within the co-working spaces. These roll-on effects will form part of the local government area’s existing income stream, which will then be used to roll out even more infrastructure to the rest of the local government area.

Is there then, an opportunity to build on existing community facility infrastructure to maximise the potential for economic development for our cities?

1. RDSA Regional Infrastructure Summit 2013, Role of social infrastructure in local and regional economic development 2013, SGS Economics and Planning, Sydney, Australia

2. Moretti, E 2012, The new geography of jobs, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York.


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