Infrastructure and cities for a COVID-19 world

How will the world change after COVID-19 and how can we make the new normal work for our society?
Infrastructure and cities for a COVID-19 world
UKCRIC Convenor, Professor of Geotechnical Engineering (University of Southampton)

The COVID 19 pandemic has changed the way we conduct our lives.

It is difficult to see a quick or easy path out of the lockdown scenario, unless a vaccination, medical interventions or 'herd immunity' are developed. It is likely that in the short to medium term we will instead follow a slow and tentative path to a 'new normal', in which proximity to others is avoided or discouraged. This will have implications for society, the economy and the way we live. Activities involving uncontrolled proximity to strangers (e.g. concerts, theatres, sporting events and public transport as we know it) will be particularly affected. In the longer term, this may translate into a major rethink about how people can live and work at high densities in towns and cities, including the need for and provision of transport, leisure and open space.

Even if the new normal has similarities with the old normal, people will have learned that they can use digital communications for at least a proportion of activities that previously involved travel and meeting face to face. All sectors will have opportunities to pivot their business models to capitalise on ‘delivery through digital’ and to increase the resilience of their supply and value chains enabled by digital technologies. Furthermore, resilience to some future pandemic will be need to be proactively factored into future infrastructure and cities decision making. Indeed, building resilience into business models to enhance preparedness against a broad range of future risks will become an increasing focus across all enterprises. More widely, individual and societal values will have changed and the appetite for different, and potentially far better, ways of operating might provide opportunities for a stronger emphasis on sustainability as well as resilience. The stewardship and governance of all these changes will need to be continuously owned and reviewed over a few decades for them to be effective; this does not sit easily with current structures so work will need to be done on options for governance reform.

UKCRIC has started to think about the research priorities for infrastructure and cities in a COVID world; there will be both short term and longer term adaptation needs. Some specific questions that have been identified so far include:

• How do we retain the “green transport” benefits on the lockdown in the “new normal”? (early data from China suggests a migration from public transport to private car, which will have the opposite effect)

• How do we rapidly adapt public transport to densities at which people feel “safe” and encouraged to use them (e.g. a reversal of the last 20 years of packing in passengers onto shorter and more crowded trains)?

• How do we design spaces that people can both live in and work from, facilitating a reduction in the need for daily travel?

• How do we design communities that encourage and enable people as far as possible to use active travel options (walk and cycle) for their daily travel needs (work, school, shopping, leisure, etc)?

• How do we reimagine the High Street in a world where more shopping is done online and delivered to your door or a local collection point?

• How do we include vulnerable and less able people in this new normal?

• How do we provide safe open / green leisure space for people living in cities with a high population density?

• What do we need to do to expand the digital infrastructure to cope with increased demand?

• How do we develop circular economies for waste and resource that are less dependent on fragile, often global, supply chains for vital and other goods?

• How might we create infrastructure systems that provide affordable benefits for all and support the aim of ‘levelling up’, both locally and nationally?

• What does infrastructure investment look like in a COVID-19 world, and what is the optimum level of investment?

• How prepared should infrastructure be, and how do we measure infrastructure preparedness?

We are holding a virtual event to develop the above into a UKCRIC prospectus for infrastructure and cities research for a COVID world. Please join us.