The coronavirus is the biggest shock in a generation.Peter Hennessy has said that we will look back and divide history into 'BC' and 'AC' – Before and After Corona.We are currently living in 'DC' - During Corona.Utilities are flat out on business continuity and resilience. But can we build a bridge through the pandemic to a more sustainable place on the other side?
We are still coming to terms with the new reality.It is too early to predict what may happen next week, let alone next month.However, the impacts of corona on sustainability and utilities – and how they deliver social, economic and environmental wellbeing - are already being felt.
Utilities have rightly been focusing on service resilience.Homes, businesses and the NHS are now absolutely dependent on secure energy and water services and digital communications.Companies have also rightly spoken of the need to support 'vulnerable' customers.
More broadly, the shock of shutting down demand and supply has already had a profound impact on the economy and society.The temporary 'nationalisation' of train companies, and possible air-line bailouts, highlight how nothing is now 'off limits.'In this war time footing, the relationship between the state, citizens and business is being redrawn; what works counts – not ideology.
The crisis is laying bare present-day fragilities for all to see. Should the reliability of essential utilities fail, or they struggle to respond with sensitivity to spiralling customer debt amongst people unable to get support from a creaking welfare state, the prospect of fundamental reform may stay on the table long-term.
Targeted support programmes, whilst vital, may no longer be sufficient.In the absence of radical measures such as universal basic incomes, there will be calls for intervention on household bills.Examples of poor corporate behaviour, or a failure to deliver public value, could tip the balance.
How long the relationship between companies and state stays like this is less clear.What is perhaps more certain, is the focus that is likely to go on key infrastructure as we come out of the pandemic to kick start the economy. Coupled with an investor flight to certainty and the need to address the economic shock on employment, we could see significant infrastructure investment 'After Corona' to boost GDP growth.
And here could be the rub.During corona, we are already seeing some improvements to the third dimension of sustainability; the environment.Emissions and air quality are improving as activity plummets.There are fish in the Venice canals.
Extending infrastructure to crank up the economy 'After Corona' will undoubtedly be attractive.Particularly for communities up-ended by the virus fall-out.However, it is vital to ensure that in doing so we don't just accelerate another crisis; the climate emergency.
Rather than cling to 'business as usual', we need to ensure that 'During Corona' and beyond, we start to ask how to reconcile our existing focus on GDP with the need to secure wellbeing in the round.
Stimulus packages to support post-crisis growth must future-proof against systemic climate risks. We must do things differently in the recovery so that smart, green and sustainable become the new normal in procurement. The environment cannot take a back seat. Inaction on climate cannot be allowed to destroy the next generation in the way the virus is decimating older lives.
A fundamental change in mindset is needed.We need to make connections in people's minds with the impacts of corona and the chaotic and no longer abstract impacts of climate change, such as the recent devastating fires and floods. Social innovations, and the connections being built up between generations as older people are in lock-down, such as grocery deliveries and telephone chats, may point the way. And the conversations we all may have as we face our fears and ask what holds a civilised society together.
This is a massive cultural shift.But as we go through common life changing experiences, social values change. The answers - to the nature of our essential utility services long-term, who they are there to serve, how we fund them and what their true contribution is to a sustainable future - may be radical, not nudge.
Sustainability First is kicking off a new work programme on 'Bridging corona to a sustainable future' to address the issues outlined in this blog.Please do get in touch if you would like to be involved.