Social and Cultural Infrastructure

Volunteers talking at a table in an urban farm
The British Academy's social and cultural infrastructure work engages with a growing body of evidence on the critical role of spaces, services and structures that support thriving communities, address deepening spatial inequalities and contribute to recovery from COVID-19.
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The theme explores the importance of social and cultural infrastructure for policymaking and how social and cultural infrastructure policy interventions can address deepening spatial inequalities and contribute to recovery from COVID-19. Social and cultural infrastructure refer to the spaces and structures that bring people together and strengthen the social and cultural fabric of our communities. It has been brought to the fore by the British Academy’s work on ' Cohesive Societies' and the ' COVID Decade' evidence review and policy reports. 

These programmes showed the importance of understanding the role of identities, norms and cultural practices within communities and the cross-cutting role they play in the development of social and cultural infrastructure. There is a wealth of SHAPE expertise available to support research on different aspects of social and cultural infrastructure and their role in improving the wellbeing and resilience of communities across the UK.

Social and Cultural Infrastructure programme

Phase One

The British Academy and Power to Change came together in early 2022 to collectively explore questions relating to social infrastructure and its value to different communities. The two organisations jointly commissioned the Institute for Community Studies (ICS) and the Bennett Institute at the University of Cambridge to undertake two related research projects. The first of these explored examples of international policy interventions that aim to strengthen social infrastructure to draw out learning for UK policymakers. The second involved peer research into community definitions and understandings of social infrastructure in England. The research sat alongside a series of roundtables aimed at exploring the importance of social infrastructure for key policy challenges including Levelling Up, COVID recovery and access to digital infrastructure.

In January 2023, Space for Community: Strengthening our Social Infrastructure brought together the findings of these two research projects. The report aims to deepen our understanding of social infrastructure, and so give policymakers (national, regional and local), civil society leaders, and communities themselves the insights needed to strengthen this infrastructure and help meet current and future challenges.

The report explores three aspects of social infrastructure: 1) the use of social infrastructure to support the social fabric of places, 2) treating social infrastructure as an infrastructure, and 3) defining the purpose of social infrastructure. For each of these three aspects, policy considerations arising from the findings of the research have been drawn out.

Phase Two

Following the culmination of Phase One, the British Academy is now undertaking a second phase of work in this area. Valuing People, Places and Spaces will explore how social and cultural infrastructure can best be measured and valued, and what role different institutions and sectors play in creating, supporting and enhancing this infrastructure.

Research funded by the Academy and undertaken by the Bennett Institute, University of Cambridge, will investigate how social and cultural infrastructure can be measured to improve understanding of its purpose, presence, scale and value. It will also consider how this measurement can be represented in ways that can inform effective policymaking. Additionally, ⁠London Development Trust have been commissioned to carry out a project investigating how children and young people conceptualise social and cultural infrastructure.

The Academy will carry out a series of policy-focused activities to take place alongside this commissioned research. This will include a series of roundtables focusing on the role that different institutions and sectors, and the actors within each, play in sustaining and building resilient social and cultural infrastructure. The first of these roundtables, focused on the higher education sector, took place in October 2023, and this publication summarises the key themes to emerge from that discussion.

A series of workshops exploring how social and cultural infrastructure can contribute towards tackling specific policy challenges will also take place.

A collection of nine discussion papers, Social and cultural infrastructure for people and policy, was published in May 2024. Each paper explores, from different disciplinary perspectives, how policy interventions can support the role of social and cultural infrastructure in strengthening the UK’s social and cultural fabric.

Together, the project on measurement and the Academy-led activities will enable us to explore how we can best create, support and enhance social and cultural infrastructure. It is anticipated that this phase of work will conclude in late 2024.


The Academic Lead for the social and cultural infrastructure work theme is Professor Dominic Abrams FBA, Professor of Social Psychology and Director of the Centre for the Study of Group Processes at the University of Kent​. Professor Abrams was previously a Co-Chair for the Cohesive Societies programme and also the Academic Lead for the COVID Decade work.

Other members of the social and cultural infrastructure steering group comprise:

  • Professor Jane Millar FBA, Professor of Social Policy, Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath​
  • Professor Fiona Stafford FBA, Professor of English Language and Literature, Somerville College, University of Oxford​

Understanding Communities

Find out more

Understanding Communities is a collaboration between the Academy and the Nuffield Foundation aimed at exploring how local communities function and can improve people’s lives. It has a focus on producing tangible, evidence-based insights for policy and practice.

As part of the collaboration, the Academy is delivering a series of activities aimed at supporting the teams to identify policy-relevant insights and successfully engage policymakers at all levels with their research.

The six funded projects were developed at workshops for early to mid-career researchers, policymakers and practitioners. Applicants were encouraged to create multidisciplinary teams, capture residents’ lived experience, and use innovative methodologies, such as art-based approaches and social network mapping, alongside traditional research methods.

The projects are now in progress and will complete in 2024. A mid-point seminar organised by the Nuffield Foundation brought together the project teams to discuss the themes and questions emerging from projects.

British Academy and Wellcome health policy workshops

In collaboration with Wellcome, the Academy is currently undertaking a series of workshops to explore the future relationship between health policy topics and research in the humanities and social sciences. Each of these events brings together a select group of researchers, policymakers and practitioners.

Key aims of this collaboration are to create a space to explore the importance of the humanities and social sciences (HSS) to health policy, to challenge existing health policy frames, and to begin to set an agenda for HSS-inclusive health policy.

The programme has previously held an interactive workshop on pandemics in January 2020, which explored the vital contributions of social sciences and humanities to pandemic preparedness and response. A short overview of this event is now available.

A second workshop was held on health justice in February 2020, which focused on the role of law and legal services in mitigating health inequalities, and a summary note of this workshop is now available.

A further workshop on how real and virtual spaces can promote good mental health took place in May 2021, and a summary note is available.

The most recent workshop, on successful social care in the UK, took place in January 2022, and a summary note of this workshop is now available.


Social and cultural infrastructure for people and policy: discussion papers

This collection of nine discussion papers considers social and cultural infrastructure from a range of disciplinary perspectives.

Universities as social and cultural infrastructure

This publication forms part of the Academy’s work on social and cultural infrastructure, and focuses on the role of universities.

Space for community: strengthening our social infrastructure

The British Academy and Power to Change came together in early 2022 to explore questions relating to social infrastructure.

Social infrastructure: international comparative review

This international comparative evidence review examines what constitutes ‘social infrastructure’ in the UK and internationally.

Social infrastructure: community perceptions of social infrastucture

The British Academy and Power to Change came together in early 2022 to explore social infrastructure in different communities.

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