It’s arguable that Covid-19 has been one of the most impactful peacetime events in our history. It has transformed our business landscape in ways that no one could have imagined. Whole countries came to a complete standstill for months on end, leaving cities – our most vibrant economic and social hubs – as empty husks.
Even now, with restrictions lifted in many places, the pre-pandemic dynamism remains palpably absent. The economic and social impact has been devastating. Jobs need to be salvaged and new areas of growth discovered. Pandemic spending has risen to nearly £190bn in the UK alone. Globally, the figure has ballooned beyond comprehension.
With new ways of working and living and the continued need to adhere to social distancing guidelines, it’s impossible to return to a state of ‘business as normal’. Investment needs to be made in areas that will reinvigorate the economy while making allowances for new ways of life. But we can do this in ways that will create a positive environmental impact.
Pollution has been reducing dramatically during the period of lockdown. One look at the published pollution maps makes this indisputably clear. Across the world, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels have plummeted and our cities have become demonstrably healthier places. How do we maintain the environmental gains made, using them as the foundation for greener cities, all while combating inequality, joblessness and a weakened economic state amid a new way of life?
Green Infrastructure (GI) is broadly embraced as a means of sustainable development but it also has enormous potential for economic growth as well as wider societal benefits. Take cycling as an example. Many cities are already working to create a cycling infrastructure as a means of reducing pressure on public transport and helping to reduce coronavirus contagion points. Berlin, Paris, Brussels and Milan are among the major European cities rolling out both permanent infrastructure and pop-up ‘corona cycleways’, in a wave of investment that includes free bicycle repairs and even cycling lessons. These are worthwhile goals alone, but they have the potential to bring in many more benefits.
Transport is the world’s fastest growing source of energy-related carbon emissions. It accounted for 23 per cent of energy related greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 . Analysis for the Coalition for Urban Transitions’ recent report found that 16 low-carbon investments and measures in cities, including transport, could cut global urban emissions by 90 per cent by 2050. The ROI on these actions have a present value of almost $24 trillion – equivalent to nearly one-third of the 2018 global GDP.
Cycling has the capacity to bring more direct economic advantages too. A study by TLM calculated 400,000 new cycling-linked jobs could be created in the EU-27 in the future with the cycling share of modes of transport doubling.
Landscape-scale restoration in the form of cycle routes and walking spaces has the power to create a 36:1 social return on investment, according to two new reports from non-profit Restore the Earth Foundation and Social Value International (SVI).
Lastly, increased cycling has the potential to improve fitness levels in cities. A study of 264,337 people found that cycling to work is linked with a 45 per cent lower risk of developing cancer, and a 46 per cent lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Cycling 20 miles a week can reduce your risk of coronary heart disease by half.
These movements would support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals while building the economy and providing significant social value.
Redesigning commercial real estate
The way that we use Commercial Real Estate (CRE) is changing by necessity. Covid-19 has not only highlighted the flaws of having large numbers of people working in close proximity but also shows the genuine potential of distance and home working.
In the longer term, this opens the possibility of a reformed business structure, where companies could move into smaller, on-demand styled workspaces. This would remove the necessity of large office blocks, which would have a knock-on effect on NO2 emissions. As an additional plus, it could create a more congenial work-life balance, returning hours of free time to workers.
Covid-19 has unintentionally shown the genuine potential of distance and home working.
At the same time, the use of digital tools, such as Digital Twins, could be employed to better understand and drive top and bottom growth. CRE would be freed for other uses – now, that could be quarantine or testing facilities – and in the longer term, perhaps this is the way towards more affordable social housing.
Immersive multi-channel retail
Lastly, as we move away from a metropolitan focus and scenarios that see too many people in too small a space, we need to find ways to encourage retail growth without relying on the established model. Immersive and multi-channel retail and experiential retail is the obvious way forward.
Virtual reality is currently emerging as the preferred way to enhance customer engagement and experience. Shoppers in Asia-Pacific are already using VR to access malls from home. Mixc mall in Shanghai employs it to allow virtual shoppers to take 360-degree tours inside the mall. It generated nearly US$71,000 in sales through its VR channel over Valentine’s Day weekend. And this technology isn’t limited to retail.
We’ve all known for some time that the established format of city living is unsustainable. Pollution is growing at a frightening rate. Commute times have become untenable. And space has been at a premium for decades. As for the health implications, they’ve never been great, but in April 2020, the NY Times reported a correlation between mortality rates of Covid-19 patients and some of the most polluted areas of the US. While this may have been solely due to population density, it could be further evidence of pollution taking its toll.
Covid-19 has been a social and economic nightmare of the highest order. But green technology can help us work around the societal restrictions that lockdown has imposed, as well as improve the health of the planet.