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Infrastructure for sustainable development


Infrastructure systems form the backbone of every society, providing essential services that include energy, water, waste management, transport and telecommunications. Infrastructure can also create harmful social and environmental impacts, increase vulnerability to natural disasters and leave an unsustainable burden of debt. Investment in infrastructure is at an all-time high globally, thus an ever-increasing number of decisions are being made now that will lock-in patterns of development for future generations. Although for the most part these investments are motivated by the desire to increase economic productivity and employment, we find that infrastructure either directly or indirectly influences the attainment of all of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including 72% of the targets. We categorize the positive and negative effects of infrastructure and the interdependencies between infrastructure sectors. To ensure that the right infrastructure is built, policymakers need to establish long-term visions for sustainable national infrastructure systems, informed by the SDGs, and develop adaptable plans that can demonstrably deliver their vision.

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Fig. 1: Current infrastructure stock and forecast future needs to 2040.
Fig. 2: The direct and indirect roles of infrastructure in influencing the targets of the SDGs.
Fig. 3: SDG infrastructure interdependencies.
Fig. 4: Process for infrastructure prioritization to meet the SDGs.

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Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available within the paper and its Supplementary Information.


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We appreciate the contributions of the Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium, which is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council by grants EP/101344X/1 and EP/N017064/1. S.T. thanks the United Nations Office for Project Services, specifically R. Jones, G. Morgan, S. Crosskey and T. Sway for providing useful suggestions that improved this manuscript.

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Authors and Affiliations



S.T. designed the study. D.A., S.T. and J.W.H. performed most of the analyses. J.W.H., S.T. and D.A. wrote most of the manuscript. All authors contributed to the development of the manuscript through methodological advice, analysis, comments and edits to the text and figures.

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Correspondence to Scott Thacker.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Table 1 and 2

Supplementary Table 3

Additional data (qualitative)

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Thacker, S., Adshead, D., Fay, M. et al. Infrastructure for sustainable development. Nat Sustain 2, 324–331 (2019).

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