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Practical Magic

Valuing the 'lived experience' in infrastructure decisions

"Companies are part of the solution and not the solution."

Jamario Jackson, TransForm

Jamario Jackson of Transform addresses a group as part of its project with Elemental Excelerator and Remix.

As discussions over the Biden administration’s $3 trillion infrastructure vision take shape, one principle central to the president’s ideas to help America "build back better" after COVID-19 is ensuring that investments shaping a clean economy are firmly rooted in social and environmental justice. 

What better way to actually do that than by more intentionally including historically disadvantaged low-income and BIPOC communities in the decision-making process?

That’s the foundational question underlying the "Square Partnership" development model championed by startup accelerator Elemental Excelerator as part of its broader commitment to getting portfolio companies to embrace equity and access as core values. 

Elemental’s approach brings together its startups, their customers and nonprofit advocacy organizations directly connected to the community that could be affected by a given solution — the accelerator largely acts as the project manager, among other things.

One example of a Square Partnership in action is the four-sided relationship between Elemental; transportation planning software developer Remix, which Via Transportation just bought for $100 million; an Oakland, California-based "liveable" community planning agency, TransForm; and several project advisers that interact with its customers, including The GreenLining Institute. 

"To really address equity issues, we believe it’s a combination of the government, nonprofits and the private sector working together," said Darnell Grisby, executive director of TransForm, named this week to the California Transportation Commission. "Nonprofits have to understand the importance of the private sector."

The purpose of the year-long engagement was to co-create better equity analysis features for Remix Explore, a mapping software module for urban planners. Rachel Zack, director of policy at Remix, said one question that her company sought to explore was how to better embrace people who don’t have a technical background but who can provide valuable oral histories within the planning process. 

"Transportation is the throughline through which we should be seeing all our social justice issues," noted one adviser, Tamika Butler, during a recent webcast with the various project partners. And yet, as she notes in a detailed brief about the project, the BIPOC community isn’t well-represented in municipal planning meetings.

"We are in rooms where people devalue our lived experience if it is not backed by the ‘right’ degree or statistics," Butler wrote. "We are engaged in conversations where power, privilege and equity are thrown around as things we strive for without direct and intentional work to integrate any of those things in the processes, people or organizations bandying them about. That must change."

Three case studies were considered during this project: making sure a planned new park served low-income earners in surrounding neighborhoods; ensuring that changes to a city’s bus service were equitable; and a deeper look at how oral histories about a community align with the data that planners use to make decisions.

Jamario Jackson, senior community planner with TransForm, said one a-ha moment was just how deeply connected decisions about public transit and transportation are to other planning decisions, especially housing and economic development. "It’s so important to work across disciplines," he said. "These relationships are dynamic and ever changing. Planners are supposed to be working on behalf of the public … That is a real opportunity for growth."

Another conclusion: the "shiny new thing" isn’t always the best solution. Sometimes, pitching new technologies can overcomplicate things, observed Hana Creger, environmental program manager with the Greenlining Institute: "Equity projects require a reframing of the traditional measures for success, such as speed, efficiency, cost-effectiveness." How well a solution actually meets a community’s expressed needs also must be highlighted, she said.

"Companies are part of the solution and not the solution," notes Sara Chandler, managing director for equity and access at Elemental. It believes the future success of equitable partnerships is rooted in six concepts:

  1. Multidisciplinary, multistakeholder collaboration for mutual benefit
  2. Clear, comprehensive processes for equity
  3. History and context that reflect a local community’s needs
  4. Transparency about outcomes
  5. Decision-making agency
  6. A posture open to diverse perspectives

As the U.S. and countries around the world commit trillions of dollars and yen and euros and so on to building back better, we would all do well to consider how spending decisions are made and to ensure that the communities most affected by the decisions have a voice in them. 

As I hope you’ve heard, exploring the opportunities for physical and digital infrastructure will be central to VERGE Infrastructure, the fifth conference within our annual VERGE conference. It will debut this year during VERGE 21, scheduled for Oct. 25-28 and expected to convene more than 15,000 leaders from the private and public sectors. 

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