Opinion: As gov’ts, private sector plan multibillion-dollar investments in infrastructure, it’s important to build better social infrastructure too.

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When the COVID-19 pandemic began a year ago, the federal government turned to community groups — the Red Cross, community foundations and United Ways — to channel $350 million in emergency funding across Canada.

With this support, food banks, women’s shelters and other community organizations were able to quickly meet increased and changing demands.

With lean operations and community connections, the charities, non-profits, social enterprises and foundations are governments’ natural partners. This shouldn’t only be the case in emergencies, but also in shaping and implementing the larger transitions ahead in the post-pandemic period.

Public policy and finance are understandably focused on resilient recovery and rebuilding, with unprecedented investments in infrastructure to create green jobs that address the imbalance between humanity and the environment. To fulfil the potential of this great transition, our social infrastructure needs attention too.

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“Social infrastructure” includes policies, practices and relationships that enable us to create a more resilient, inclusive and sustainable society, from the grassroots to the global, and spanning health care, education, culture and democracy.

COVID-19 has revealed systemic injustices and vulnerabilities including institutionalized racism, substandard seniors housing, the lack of paid sick leave and inadequate child care. To this list we can add Indigenous reconciliation, the income and wealth gap, and the life- and budget-sapping increases in chronic disease.

In the values-based economy that Mark Carney, Mariana Mazzucato and others are calling for, solving these challenges defines pathways to inclusive economic well-being. It’s imperative to broaden the scope of infrastructure funding beyond the physical, to catalyze socio-economic transition at the regional, community and household levels.

The 2018 Inclusive Innovation Report from the federal Steering Group on Social Innovation and Social Finance provided a modernization agenda for the social sector that could function as a blueprint as we transition through a post-COVID world. It calls for a federal social finance fund, announced in the fall 2018 budget update but not yet implemented, to invest in social enterprises — focused on such things as the construction of affordable homes, Indigenous entrepreneurship and microcredit for immigrants.

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In addition to capital and data, we need evidence. The report calls for the creation of “what works centres,” similar to those in the U.K. — where policy-makers, program designers and the public can access plain language summaries of current research on issues such as chronic disease prevention, early child development and mental health.

Government oversight needs to evolve from the current regime, where the CRA micro-monitors activities around charitable donations, to one that recognizes that the sector is increasingly networked, linking grassroots civic engagement to national priorities, in collaboration with all levels of government, the private sector and academia, to effect systemic change.

We are all stronger if we work together. In this time of societal transition, governments, businesses and the community alike need tools for collaborative innovation focused on systemic change.

The most important recommendation in the report — and something we need urgently — is a permanent social innovation council with government, and eventually the private sector too, so that Canadians know that the groups they support with their donations and their tax dollars are being heard on matters critical to social and economic well-being while we transition to a zero-carbon economy.

In light of the current crisis, we suggest that this be framed as a “transition innovation council,” involving all sectors in supporting community transitions in line with Canada’s commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It should be similar to and complementing the recently announced net-zero advisory body reporting to the minister of the Environment and Climate Change.

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Just as Canada’s health-care system integrates contributions by the public, private and community sectors, so too must efforts to recover and build a more inclusive and sustainable society.

As governments and the private sector plan multibillion-dollar investments in infrastructure, it’s important to involve the community in building better social infrastructure as well.

Andrew Chunilall is CEO of the Community Foundations of Canada. Julie Gelfand is former commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development. Diane Roussin is project director for the Winnipeg Boldness Project.

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