Should COVID-19 change society's direction of travel?

Author: Kate Leighton FIStructE

Date published

30 March 2020

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Should COVID-19 change society's direction of travel?

Date published

Kate Leighton FIStructE

Date published

30 March 2020


Kate Leighton FIStructE

What we can learn from the Covid-19 pandemic "lock down"? Kate Leighton gives an opinion from a UK perspective.

On 29 March the UK government advised us that we may be in lock down until June, and that it might be six months before society (as we knew it before Covid-19) settles back to the normality we had.

These times of uncertainty are testing the world we live in and the world we know. Whilst it is too early to learn from this pandemic and the terribly tragic outcomes that will result, I cannot help but try and ponder on the positives.

Rethinking how we live, work and interact

From its conception I have sat on the Structural Futures Committee where we have discussed what the future might hold for engineering, for society and for us. I have never before been able to convince those around me that there is no reason we need to continue in the same trajectory.

Many have discussed how we better shape our cities, improve infrastructure, reduce pollution, very simply put how do we improve the situation that we are already on course for. Maybe we could never envisage that society’s course could so dramatically shift in such a way - that we could rethink how we live, work and interact.

Well, it is happening right now. We are quickly adapting and rethinking. As the media speculates how long it might take for us to return to normality, I can’t help but ask the question: should we?

Meeting emission targets

Since we began to socially distance, reduce the need to leave our homes and find new ways to interact with our families and friends we have seen impacts for the better on our planet.

Scientists have identified a significant drop in green house gas emissions, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have demonstrated huge drops in Nitrogen Dioxide in the atmosphere.

Over Europe and China this drop is being estimated at 20% reduction in emissions, whilst this is only an indicative estimate at this stage, it is one that we need to consider. Bear in mind the UK government target for a reduction in all six Kyoto greenhouse gases is 100% by 2050.

I have always envisaged that in order to achieve these targets we need to not just simply better design the world in which we live, but that we need to go back to the drawing board.

We need to rethink how society operates. We need a reduction in travel. We need to revert to a simpler, more sustainable way of living, and at the heart of this replan is our home.

For some of you trying to work from home at the moment with children keeping you company I know this might seem a frightening thought. I have been interrupted several times as I write this simple thought piece, so what I am not suggesting is a change in our education system.

Commercial premises and housing stock

But are cities a requirement in this plan? Do we need to congregate for work and use valuable building space for 8 hours a day that remain vacant for the other 16 hours?

Should we spend a fortune moving people from one place to another, resulting in high emissions of green house gases, or should we actually be investing in high speed internet and robust spaces for storing data?

Shared spaces could be available in the days for meetings and in the evenings for social gathering, as it is important for our mental health to have some human interaction.

Do we really need smaller more efficiently designed homes and larger open plan office spaces, a common trend at the moment? Or should we be repurposing commercial premises and our existing building stock to house our ever expanding population?

Would even this be enough?

The result of this shift would be a complete change not only in the way we work and the behaviour of society but also in the type of projects we are working on. Could we make this shift for the greater good?

However I leave this here with one question, would it even be enough?

For now we have a 20% reduction. How the heck do we achieve 100%? If you need to distract your children at this time we would love to see their ideas for how a new home should be planned, what it should contain and how it might look.


Additional information



Blog Climate change Best practice Structural Futures Committee Covid19

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