COVID-19 has challenged the resilience of the global community, and, in many ways, helped us realize the urgency to transform into a sustainable, inclusive society.
Next-gen infrastructure projects, education system transformation, decarbonization and digital revolution must become top priorities to avoid and sustain future challenges.
COVID-19 woke us up to new realities. In the course of only a few months, we saw how non-resilient our global community could be.
Countries shut down, opened up, and shut down again. Governments pointed fingers at their people, then at each other, and responses to the crisis raged across the entire spectrum. Multi-national companies that secure some of our most critical infrastructure were powerless to help and watched their operations and their services come to a sickeningly quiet halt. There was panic in the streets.
But just as much as it has exposed these high-level deficiencies in the fabric of our communities, it has also revealed the extent to which inequalities in our society make the impact of events like COVID-19 all the more unbearable.
Now more than ever, we know that we can not even speak of “development” without the word “sustainable”—and everything that entails. Indeed, “development” that does not take a holistic approach, working to reinforce the weak points in our society by delivering social and environmental value in addition to economic value, is not development at all. It is simply getting by, until the next disaster.
At the most basic level, the pandemic happened because we didn’t think it would. The world had not seen a global pandemic in over 100 years, and we were overconfident that the virus would burn out. What is troubling is that more recent “mini-pandemics”, such as SARS and MERS, did indeed burn out, but we didn’t take much notice because the people affected, the people dying, were not considered part of our community. This time, the virus broke through regional blind-spots and, because we did not have fail-safe measures in place, it consumed us.
And, generally, its impact had the most terrible effect on those in our communities who were already marginalized due to poor access to basic community infrastructure, such as health, education and economic opportunity.
There have been and there still are numerous recovery packages being assembled by private-public partnerships all over the world. Europe’s landmark Next Generation EU deal, a €750 billion stimulus plan, is a shining example of these. Still, it is imperative that these funds are allocated towards the building and improvement of infrastructure that provides benefits for all members of our community.
So, how do we do that?
At the most basic level, it means we measure a project’s value as more than a “business case.” We consider them from a bird’s-eye view, seeing what materials are being used, where those materials come from, who is making them, and what impact their production is having on the surrounding environment—both natural and social.
We need to consider the project operations, if they will be extractive or constructive, what is its energy intensity and profile, and what are the alternatives if that becomes unsustainable. We need to consider project use and safety, how it can adapt to crises, and how it can be part of the solution in a crisis.
We need consider how the project cany add value to our community not only during its lifecycle, but—if and when it reaches the end of its lifecycle—how it can evolve or be incorporated into other projects.
Education as a Right
One of COVID-19’s most serious economic effects came tangentially. Schools closed. And the students had to stay home. And their parents had to stay home, too.
Like many companies, Sintecnica was prepared to switch to smart working—but we have also been quite honest with each other that ‘smart’ working is not always a smart as it seems. The demands of handling family-life during COVID-19 lockdowns have meant inefficiencies even in the most procedurally efficient companies.
And in many places in the world, those who could not switch to smart working—whether due to lack of technology, job type, organisational readiness, or otherwise—the sudden appearance of children 24-7 at home meant job loss and even bankruptcy.
There is also the gender factor: it is no secret that the duties of managing the homelife, at the expense of work, have fallen largely on the women in our communities.
It is our duty as we rebuild to reconsider our educational system. Remote-learning is still very much in its infancy and, with the recovery funds and imminent post-COVID policy and program changes, we have the opportunity to create a resilient education system that does not simply transfer the burden of every crisis to the shoulders of the parents, grandparents and families.
Indeed, we should seek to create a dynamic system that makes lessons outside the classroom a normal activity—and those not just at home or in ‘field trip-like’ cultural settings, but utilizing technology and even private-public partnerships to make sure school groups are able to continually operate, learn, and grow no matter what challenges we face in our society.
The correlations between COVID-19 and the effects of climate change are more than readily apparent. If a virus can exacerbate the inequalities in our communities so quickly and with such violence, the long-term effects of climate change will be devastating. This should be a great wake-up call to both the public and the private sector that we must engage in rigorous planning and strategy to effect decarbonization as quickly as possible on a global scale.
At the most basic level, this means global investments to scale renewable energy production, focusing on both traditional sources like wind, solar and nuclear to emerging technologies such as hydrogen. Our transmission and distribution structures need massive investment as well, alongside the transformation of heat production, both industrial and domestic.
Transportation must continue its trend towards electrification, but efficiencies must be greatly improved and charging sources must rely solely on renewables, which is unfortunately far from reality.
In terms of corporate leadership, we are encouraged by continuing reports that the world’s top are finding commercial efficiencies and cost-savings in reducing their carbon footprints, with a 2-1 percentage ratio of carbon reductions to capital cost savings.
The New Digital World
The world has been waking up to the power of digital—and, more slowly, the power of data—for the past 30 years.
From a digital standpoint, COVID-19 has proved that lack of access to digital services, even those as simple as broadband connections, can have life-threatening effects on our most vulnerable community members. It is essential for creating a better world that we accelerate the delivery of basic digital services to every corner of the globe, and that we build and promote the support networks that cut through misinformation and protect our most vulnerable citizens.
We must also realize an entirely new set of experiential realities related to work, travel, retail and leisure which reduce both the carbon cost and inherent risks in all these activities, building sustainability into our solutions through a ‘digital first’ approach to service building. We also need to continue to develop user-curated access to utilities, in-home and out, in which users have the ability to choose sustainable solutions over non-sustainable ones.
To support these changes, we need to champion data to realize many of the aforementioned efforts. Data, how we harvest it, how we analyze it, how we model it, and how we share it, holds the key to unlocking so many of the possibilities that can better our communities, reduce the impact of climate change, protect us from pandemics like COVID-19, and point us towards a truly sustainable future.
Simply put, data leads to better decision making. As leaders, just as it is our duty to protect the privacy of our fellow humans, it is also our duty to make the case for and gain their support to access this critical information and use it to model our societies and the processes that support them to improve our strategies and secure better outcomes for our world.
As an engineering company, we are also eager to see the reduced timelines, and reduced impacts, that data, digitalization, and automation can offer for project management and delivery in the relationships we have with our clients.
The Bottom Line
We would never say that COVID-19 has been a blessing. Its continued effects, its destruction and disruption on our world, are arguably more damaging than any challenge human society has faced in recent memory. We have been collectively humbled by this unexpected disease.
Our great calling now is to learn what can be learned in its wake. To give speed to the recovery, to remember who has been most deeply affected, and to build the bulwarks that will ensure they need not face such adversity again.
As an engineering solutions company, we are committed to ensuring that this calling is realized. And we promise our own company will help lead the way.