By Professor Martin Parker, Lead for Bristol Inclusive Economy Initiative
All our lives have changed this year, because of something which is 120 billionths of a metre in size. Despite the death and suffering, and the clear evidence of inequalities, many of these changes have been positive. We will have driven and flown less, bought less, walked more, cycled more and cooked at home more. The air is cleaner and our cities are quieter. We can hear the birds, and the sky is not slashed by contrails. We might have spent more time with our families or housemates, helped neighbours or joined some mutual support or volunteering group.
Perhaps we will have done some more gardening, crafts, art or caught up on decorating or DIY. We might have read a book that we always wanted to read, or seen a film that has really made us think, and that we wouldn’t have bothered with in busier times. We will have wondered what we really need and remembered to value some very ordinary things that we miss.
At the start of lockdown in the UK, in March 2020, I asked people I knew from academia and civil society whether they would be interested in writing short essays about the possibility of a better future after COVID. I told them that I would be requiring their contribution very soon and that I would only allow them 4000 words and very few references.
I also worried that, in the middle of the chaos, my forced optimism was tin-eared, misunderstanding the gravity of the times. I even thought about calling the book ‘covidtopia’, deliberately jarring so violently with the mood that my intention could not be mistaken. I also worried that this was a bad idea, an opportunistic excuse for another book that no-one needs, and that I should do something else instead. Like collecting shopping for elderly neighbours, or learning how to make facemasks from old tea towels.
But within a week, I had received well over twice as many offers of chapters as I needed. Other people seemed to be thinking the same as me. Lots of other people wanted to preserve something good from all this horror. Even by shrinking the chapters and growing the book, I still had to reject half of them. So imagine this book twice the size, ten times the length, with essays on changing legal structures for companies, on play, on children, on transport and holidays, on consumption and marketing, on compassion, nature, housing, meat, activism, social media, universities and a host of other topics.
It has been common to suggest that the coronavirus crisis is really just a dress rehearsal for the much bigger climate crisis to come. Moving towards a zero carbon economy will involve many of the changes that we have seen over the past few months, but it will be necessary to embed those into the structures and routines of our lives in enduring ways.
For example, if more people are working at home, then this suggests that a great deal of the office space in the centre of cities will no longer be needed. The University of Bristol has been functioning from home offices and kitchen tables across the south west since mid-March. This doesn’t mean that we won’t need workplaces, but perhaps that we won’t need to think about buildings next to car parks as the dominant model.
But what happens to city centres if we use them less? Can the empty retail and office blocks become spaces for apartments, repopulating the city centres? What sorts of transport might we need, if the 9-5 commute is no longer a routine? What sorts of housing, schooling and care might help people work successfully from home, or local workspaces? As soon as we begin to change one element of our lives, all the other assumptions need to change too. This is the opportunity that the little virus has given us. Whether we make the most of that opportunity remains to be seen.
This post was originally published on Transforming Society.
Life after COVID-19 edited by Martin Park is available to order for £7.99 on the Policy Press website.