When I first took the Chair of Future Infrastructure at the University of Edinburgh I vowed never to attempt to predict the future. “It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future”1. All predictions made pre-Covid-19 would testify to that. But adapting to a Covid-19 state is certainly going to be necessary unless and until a vaccine is developed. Until then, our tolerability of risk in our lives will be dominated by our perception of the risk of being infected.
That said, other risks to our future health, wellbeing and prosperity remain. The probability of an untimely death in a road accident has almost certainly reduced since Britain locked down, but as we get back in our cars – perhaps in greater numbers while we remain nervous of public transport – that risk will most likely increase to pre-Covid-19 levels again. And using non-electric cars in greater numbers for longer journeys is the worst thing to do if we are to reduce carbon emissions to mitigate the existential threat of climate change. But it is inevitable that we will be balancing our personal tolerability of risk on the basis of perceived risks to us and our loved ones that are immediate and have deadly consequences. We will always find it difficult to offset short term against long term risks, even when the latter are manifestly and rationally greater to the wider community.
But somehow we must find a way to respond appropriately as individuals, as a nation and as a planet to manage and mitigate BOTH the short term risk of infection AND the existential impact of climate-change. This will not be easy where natural protective and survival instincts create conflict, so this is a ‘wicked’ problem.
What does this mean for the City of London? COVID-19 has revealed our ability to adapt to new work-life patterns with positive consequences on energy and transport use. Choosing to travel for several hours across the country for a 2-hour meeting is already seeming like a throwback choice. I chaired a theme discussion in a recent UKCRIC webinar2 which concluded that urban populations in a COVID-19 world should have the ability to physically distance or isolate, access clean air and public spaces, whilst ensuring social equity and mental well-being. Safe routes for increased walking and cycling need to be built, and public transport must not only be safe, but be perceived to be safe. A return to car use by default must be avoided. Industries and workplaces must build a rapid understanding of changed demand and adapt their working systems and practices appropriate to new expectations of wellbeing. These are all huge challenges to address, and engineers of all disciplines have a role to play in addressing these, working collaboratively with others.
This will require heavyweight intellectual power to address such wicked problems and existential challenges and multi-disciplinary teams of researchers, practitioners and community and business leaders will be required to tackle this.
The Covid-19 world will be different. But the planet-sized risk of climate change has not gone away. We need to use our thought leadership and our networking to help to make a better, smarter world with no increased risk to life – not just in the short term, but in the very, very long term.
Professor Gordon Masterton
Master, the Worshipful Company of Engineers
1) Old Danish proverb. Author unknown. Many later variations attributed – eg Niels Bohr, Sam Goldwyn, Yogi Berra, Mark Twain
2) UK Collaboratorium for Research in Infrastructure and Cities Webinar 21 May 2020.
Image: Isobel Pollock-Hulf, 2020.