We all feel (or have felt) frustration at the interruption of our regular work routine, our chosen leisure pursuits, our social round, our holiday plans during the social confinement induced by the Covid-19 pandemic . Many employees and self-employed people round the world have been denied the opportunity to work and earn. Some have endured harm to their physical or mental health. However, if we look past our personal circumstances, the period of lockdown and isolation does offer a good moment to rethink and reshape our ways of living, working, travelling and consuming. Some of the short term adaptations we are forced to make now give us a clue as to the long term, systemic changes citizens and governments could embrace. Such changes would contribute hugely to an eventually carbon neutral economy, be good for the environment more broadly and benefit society.
We currently experience not only disruption but also interesting changes of behaviour during the Covid-19 induced lockdown and deepening economic downturn. We are replacing many physical business meetings and much business travel with teleconferences and video conferences. Information intensive services such as education, banking and government are largely delivered online. Even exercise classes, cookery instruction, concerts, plays and medical consultations are portrayed and conducted via a screen and loudspeaker or headphones.
Which changes will stick? Which changes should government, including local government, encourage to persist?
On the assumption some adaptations we have recently undertaken will endure, or at least that their endurance could be facilitated, we may now contemplate previously unimagined opportunities for doing things differently on a permanent basis. Here are two types of revolution which businesses, institutions and policymakers could evaluate, with carbon neutrality, environmental benefits (especially for air quality) and cost efficiency in mind:
1. A new approach to space in office, retail and educational buildings
The lockdowns imposed during the Covid-19 outbreak have shown us that increased home working and home study are not only feasible but also convenient, less stressful and potentially more productive. We begin to witness the digital era’s equivalent of a rapid mass literacy programme – now in the shape of a giant, hands-on training programme in how to use IT. We should profit permanently from this human capital windfall – if only managers will appreciate its magnitude and tolerate the “loss of control” on their part, which they may perceive it to entail.
If many of us can work for a lot of the time efficiently from home and order our purchases through home or mobile internet enabled devices, are all the buildings currently used for offices, education and shops going to be needed in future?
Take the example of local government offices. Is there scope for municipal authorities sell off their buildings or their land for affordable housing close to city centres, divert the proceeds to much needed public works and social assistance and occupy a minimum of office space elsewhere for hot desking? In many towns empty floors of buildings above shops, or indeed shops themselves, are already available at discounted prices. In some cases the council will already own those premises?
Lots of commercial office space too will not be required, if desk jobs continue to be performed from home, or on a rotational, part time attendance basis. This office space, much of it located close to the urban centres and to public transport, could then be turned into flats or redeveloped for housing. Such dwellings could substitute for flats and small houses, often pushed out to greenfield sites with no sustainable infrastructure in the countryside. The reduced carbon footprint of the urban dwellers would be an added benefit, on top of the avoided environmental impact of greenfield construction.
In the city where I live, Canterbury in England, we may also wonder why we need such a huge footprint of educational buildings, even if tens of thousands of undergraduates and schoolchildren study here, coming from all over the district, indeed many from all over the world. Now that we know pupils and students could for much of the academic year work online from home or shared space (once social distancing is relaxed) there is enormous scope to utilise these buildings more productively or to convert them. Do we need big lecture theatres anymore? Could students in different faculties or different institutions share teaching space and libraries? Or rotate in their physical attendance between weeks, seasons or even periods of the day?
2. Reducing travel and staggering and varying travel times
We are seeing during lockdown such profound changes in patterns of human activity socially, economically and workwise, that I think we must also reflect on the implications for travel needs, and even the justification for travel (especially at set times) in the future.
One way in which remote working may boost productivity is by making it cheaper for businesses to scale up geographically, and in reducing the wasted time and the stress involved in employees travelling to a communal place of work. Most deskbound workers have been empowered during this crisis to forget the congestion they normally encounter in pursuit of their daily duties. Similarly, students and schoolchildren and their parents have not been obliged over this period to compete with other commuters for road space or a seat on the train or bus.
Even food shopping is of necessity more evenly spaced over the day, in keeping with the social distancing enforced in supermarkets, farm shops and corner shops alike. Meanwhile shopping for most other items has been driven online, and thus requires only journeys to multiple residential destinations by the same delivery vehicle, rather than multiple trips to shops by individual drivers and passengers.
So, given a free choice, why would citizens, whether as managers, employees, freelancers, teachers, students or shoppers ever again wish to subject themselves to the deprivations of a morning, afternoon or evening “rush hour”? Might we conclude that a core component of a future sustainable transport system, in addition to modal shift, must be a reduction in the incidence of journeys, especially journeys by car at times of historic congestion? If we can all do our work and procure the supplies we need without filling town centre or out of town car parks, think of the further potential for releasing land for housing within existing conurbations and near to existing public transport facilities.
Finally, under the sustainable transport heading, we might reflect on implications of a revolution in the place and timing of our work and studies on our leisure and holiday travel habits. Would most visits to friends, family members and tourist attractions still need to be restricted to weekends? Must family seaside and overseas holidays be crammed into traditional school holidays? If all the trips involved were more evenly spaced out across the day, across the week and across seasons, while private travel for work and shopping would have diminished, does our society really need to plan for incessant extension and widening of motorways and additions of airport capacity?
Thus, could we not, in place of enhanced public spending on grand physical transport projects and expansion of road networks, invest more in IT training and building faster, higher capacity broadband networks?
Beyond repurposing our building stock, reducing the need for new construction and rethinking our travel patterns, further opportunities for reducing carbon footprints, environmental improvement and societal reform arise from learnings during the lockdown period. Briefly, these include:
• A reduction in our overall consumption of goods, especially cars, clothes and household items
• Fostering local and shorter supply chains
• Zero waste business and household models – for example by incentivising re-use and repair of products, introducing “pay to get rid of” mechanisms and mandating recycling of separable commodities
• Offsetting the lower wholesale price of petroleum, natural gas and petroleum derivatives by raising carbon taxes on retail hydrocarbon products and/or expansion of carbon emissions trading systems into new sectors of the economy.
All views expressed in this article are personal to the author and are not to be attributed to any of the clients he advises nor to any association he represents.