How Coronavirus could shape the next generation of infrastructure

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When the YPP formed two years ago, we agreed among ourselves to try to answer the question: what does a generational shift mean for the future of infrastructure? We wanted to think big – not to be hemmed in by existing definitions, practices or behaviours. Yet here we are, publishing our response to that question in circumstances that none of our unhemmed thinking came close to imagining. The Coronavirus crisis is undoubtedly a global tragedy; it has already had very real, negative consequences for people all around the world. The pandemic is rapidly reframing our original question, and we find ourselves wondering… what does this mean for the future of infrastructure?

Man in health mask looking at mobile phone

Surely the two questions are one and the same. Some of the behavioural changes that we talk about in relation to a generational shift – things like flexible working, use of digital tools and networks, changing retail habits – are being accelerated across all generations as a result of Coronavirus. Meanwhile the public’s concern around climate change and air quality, which has gained noticeable traction in the last two years, also maps onto the pandemic which has indirectly reduced carbon emissions and improved air quality (…for how long, we don’t yet know). And all of this is now framed in the context of a very uncertain economic future, which is likely to mean turning up the dial on infrastructure spending to mitigate the economic damage the pandemic is doing right now. Whilst the full implications of this aren’t fully known, the opinion pieces published alongside this article remain relevant in the world that emerges.

One of the most heartening effects of the Coronavirus crisis has been the coming together of communities across the UK and across the globe to support each other through this difficult time. For many, neighbourhood WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages are pinging away with offers of support for those in need, interspersed with topical memes (some better than others…) to pass the time. We’ve developed a very strong sense of being ‘in this together’ which cuts across generations, a feeling which may just outlast the immediate crisis. The power of an engaged and united community cannot be underestimated.

There’s a lot at play here, with too many moving parts to reasonably digest. But what is undeniable is that we are right now seeing an extraordinary pace and scale of change across the globe. Whilst we cannot underestimate the negative impacts of this tragedy, which has caused chaos, angst and uncertainty for people around the world, it also presents an opportunity to harness the change we’re seeing for the better in a way that we hadn’t previously imagined possible. There is a window of opportunity, and we need to seize it.

Conditions for change

In the last century or so, there have been several major events that have impacted citizens and cities on a worldwide scale. These range from other global health crises like the Spanish Influenza of 1918, to world wars, to economic tragedies like the great depression and recent economic recession of 2008. Each of these have had a dramatic impact on policy, spending and infrastructure.

The Spanish flu and outbreaks of cholera and tuberculosis catalysed upgrades in sanitation and medical infrastructure in major cities like London and New York. The world wars resulted in infrastructure investment and house building programmes on a massive scale, to rebuild demolished transport infrastructure (bridges, railway hubs, etc.) and eliminate bottlenecks in industrial production all while bringing about economic growth and employment.

Person sat in health mask with bike

Unlike earlier wars, pandemics and recessions, we now have the ability to realise creative solutions using digital technologies. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, which heavily impacted East Asia, led not only to the upgrading of physical medical infrastructure but also to the development of new digital methods of mapping disease. Extending this approach presents an opportunity to better understand how communities interact with each other and with the city environment, with a chance to address inequalities for vulnerable groups – a concern made very real by the Coronavirus crisis.

It’s typical for governments to respond to major economic crises by ratcheting up spending on infrastructure projects which generate jobs and attract investment in the short to medium term whilst creating the opportunity for further economic growth in the long term. In this context, it’s worth considering the specific conditions we find ourselves in – partly due to Coronavirus, and partly due to its timing – that could set the scene for a major change to the way we do infrastructure:

The current imposed break from our usual patterns caused by Coronavirus provides scope to reflect. Can we bring these threads together into a clear and cohesive vision that realises a sustainable, resilient and prosperous future for the UK’s infrastructure?

Watch our video below to hear our thoughts on what this all means for the future of infrastructure.

Overview piece by Annette Jezierska, Co-founder of The Future Fox; Charlotte Mitchell, Associate at Quod; and Sakthy Selvakumaran, a Chartered Civil Engineer currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Cambridge

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