Infrastructure is crucial for social change and development. From transport systems to power-generation facilities and water and sanitation networks, it provides the services that enable society to function and economies to thrive. This puts infrastructure at the very heart of efforts to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Encompassing everything from health and education for all to access to energy, clean water, and sanitation. In fact, most of the SDGs imply improvements in infrastructure.

Infrastructure plays a key role in all three dimensions of sustainable development — the economy, environment, and society. And now, as we seek to meet ambitious targets, such as the SDGs, infrastructure should be widely recognized. It should not be seen as an individual asset, like a power plant, a hospital or a water network, but as part of a system within a portfolio of assets that collectively hold great potential to deliver the three pillars of the SDGs: economic, environmental and social sustainability —

1. The economy.

Infrastructure would then create a wide-range of dividends, from the jobs created during construction and maintenance to the ability for infrastructure to generate economic activity. By connecting communities to cities, education, and employment, infrastructures such as transportation and telecommunications will become key to the national economic goals.

2. The environment.

In protecting the environment, infrastructural assets would play a key role in conserving natural resources and reducing the impact of climate change. By taking cars off roads, mass transit systems contribute to the reduction in pollution and generation of greenhouse gases. In the US, estimates are that if you commute 20 miles a day and switched from driving to public transportation, you would lower your carbon footprint by 4,800 pounds annually.

3. The Society.

With the integration of equity and assurance of access, society benefits from infrastructure since it delivers the services that are essential for sustainable development. Whether by providing the public transport that makes it easier for women in rural areas to participate in the workforce or the clean water and sanitation that reduce maternal mortality, infrastructure also advances gender equality.

While the economic, environmental and social profits of infrastructure are considerable, great challenges—from governance weaknesses to financing— make it difficult for communities and countries to meet the rapidly growing demand for infrastructure. All stakeholders have to collaborate in planning, design, delivery, and management.

Infrastructure should be seen not as an end in itself but a means of delivering essential services. We need to start making shifts to thinking about infrastructure as what it does—protects, connects or provides essential services—not what it is.