Covid-19 has been a jarring shock to the world, against the excitement and promise of a new decade. Governments, businesses and individuals have scrambled to respond, with countless miscalculations and misjudgments along the way. The world’s lack of adaptability and resilience has been a tough pill to swallow and as we pick up the pieces, we are still far from being out of the woods. Where does Covid-19 leave us in terms of sustainability thinking and more importantly, sustainability practice?
Reform the economy to embed sustainability principles
The Covid-19 recession will be the deepest since that of World War II, and more than twice as deep as the recession associated with the 2007-09 global financial crisis. Now that we are injecting trillions to stimulate the economy, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fund the transition to a sustainable future while relaunching the economy. Carbon pricing and taxes in Finland, Denmark and Sweden have proven effective at reducing income taxes and instead of causing an economic slump, it has encouraged the diversification of energy mix towards clean energy sources, a strategic move given the uncertain geopolitical climate. Consider providing bank loans and grants to green and sustainable enterprises as well, and tie cash injections to Covid-hit sectors to carbon targets. Authorities should ensure infrastructural spending is tied to sustainability, baking its metrics into organisational fabrics.
Leverage digital technologies to create smart and sustainable cities
Greater investment in data-driven technological solutions to develop real-time urban intelligence and creative technological solutions presents an exciting frontier in improving urban sustainability. Amsterdam sets an admirable standard with autonomous boats that manage waste in its canals and smart energy grid projects with solar panels and hybrid heat pumps. And beyond hard technological solutions, Covid-19 also highlights new forms of collective intelligence as people shift to digital realities, such as the open sharing of information about the pandemic on online platforms, mobilisation of community-led responses and participation in the collaborative economy to meet new needs. A healthier, sustainable future must involve citizens meaningfully and constructively, not as passive service users, but as data sensors, testers of new technology, policy writers in civic hackathons, and even coders creating bottom-up technological solutions to urban challenges using open-source data.
Reimagine the urban landscape to accommodate new functions of urban spaces
Experiments with car-free initiatives that repurpose roads and pavements into walkable and bikeable neighbourhoods, augmented by scooters and other new mobility technologies, portends a shift in our urban sensibilities of the city. However, we cannot easily change the capacities of existing built infrastructure cannot be easily changed or reduced, and it is unsustainable to constantly pursue greenfield developments or reimagine a completely different urban environment – the landscape is a palimpsest after all. What can be done instead is refashioning current infrastructural systems to assume new functions and services to make them more viable for a healthier and sustainable future? Urban spaces can be redesigned with multi-functional and flexible features to meet different needs at different times. For instance, office spaces can also double-up as decentralised mini-warehouses for retail outlets – this not only decreases environmental footprints but also increases the speed of last-mile deliveries to customers.
Perhaps the future lies in what CopenHill, a Copenhagen heat and waste power plant with an artificial ski and snowboard slope on its rooftop, has managed to achieve. Marrying recreational purposes with a pollution-free, clean energy plant allows such infrastructure to be located in the middle of the city. It is a counterintuitive but extremely innovative use of urban space that challenges the status quo of relegating heavy industries, energy plants or utilities infrastructure to the periphery of the city.
Covid-19 has reminded us of our human frailties and how easily existential threats can disrupt the way of life that we are accustomed to. There is no use preserving normalcy in an environment where normalcy is no longer appropriate – new ways of imagining and doing things will be part and parcel of the experience of breaking new ground. At the same time, we must remain conscious and mindful of how these broader transformations and opportunities continue to be situated on axes of social differences, bringing up issues like access, inequality and the digital divide. Ultimately, we are at the crossroads of change and beyond improved policies and reforms, the world needs to galvanise support, rebuild trust and work together to create a more sustainable post-pandemic future for everyone.