Future Present: Perspectives from the Edinburgh Futures Institute

In this article

Chair of the Strategic Advisory Panel for the EFI Centre for Future Infrastructure, Professor Gordon Masterton considers the impact of the pandemic on our tolerability of risk and the implications on our response to climate-change.

EFI is publishing a series of blogs that invite our community to respond to the existing crisis of COVID-19 through a variety of lenses. These lenses, economy, sustainability, creativity, history, health, justice, education, democracy, societies, are some of the themes critical to recovery. Members of the EFI community from across the University, different Schools, disciplines and experiences, will share their work and insight and help us consider our present future.

Chair of the Strategic Advisory Panel for the EFI Centre for Future Infrastructure, Professor Gordon Masterton, considers the impact of the pandemic on our tolerability of risk and the implications on our response to climate-change.

Covid-19, future infrastructure and our cities

When I first took the Chair of Future Infrastructure I vowed never to attempt to predict the future. “It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future”.1 All predictions made pre-Covid-19 would testify to that. But adapting to a Covid-19 state is certainly going to be necessary unless, and until, a vaccine is developed. Until then, our tolerability of risk will be dominated by our perception of the risk of being infected.

Short-term v long-term

That said, other risks to our future health, wellbeing and prosperity remain. The probability of an untimely death in a road accident has almost certainly reduced since Britain locked down, but as we get back in our cars – perhaps in greater numbers while we remain nervous of public transport – that risk will most likely increase to pre-Covid-19 levels again. And using non-electric cars in greater numbers for longer journeys is the worst thing to do if we are to reduce carbon emissions to mitigate the existential threat of climate change. But it is inevitable that we will be balancing our personal tolerability of risk on the basis of perceived risks to us and our loved ones that are immediate and have deadly consequences. We will always find it difficult to offset short term against long term risks, even when the latter are manifestly and rationally greater to the wider community.

But somehow we must find a way to respond appropriately as individuals, as communities and as nations, to manage and mitigate both the short term risk of infection and the existential impact of climate-change. This will not be easy where natural protective and survival instincts create conflict, so this is a wicked problem.

Return to a different normal

What does this mean for infrastructure and cities? Covid-19 has revealed our ability to adapt to new work-life patterns with positive consequences on energy and transport use. Choosing to travel across the country for a two-hour meeting is already seeming like a throwback choice. I chaired a theme discussion in a recent UKCRIC webinar2 which concluded that urban populations in a Covid-19 world should have the ability to physically distance or isolate, access clean air and public spaces, while ensuring social equity and mental well-being. Safe routes for increased walking and cycling need to be built, and public transport must not only be safe, but be perceived to be safe. A return to car use by default must be avoided. Industries and workplaces must build a rapid understanding of changed demand and adapt their working systems and practices appropriate to new expectations of wellbeing. These are all huge challenges to address, and the Centre for Future Infrastructure under our first Director, Professor Sean Smith, already has them in its sights.

EFI’s challenge-led ethos

From the outset the Edinburgh Futures Institute mission has been to convene heavyweight intellectual power to address such wicked problems and existential challenges and our multi-disciplinary pool of talent is better equipped than most to tackle this through our research, our convening power and our thought leadership. The Covid-19 world will be different. We need to try to make it a better, smarter world with no increased risk to life – not just in the short term, but in the very, very long term.

1Old Danish proverb. Author unknown. Many later variations attributed – eg Niels Bohr, Sam Goldwyn, Yogi Berra, Mark Twain

2UK Collaboratorium for Research in Infrastructure and Cities Webinar 21 May 2020

Gordon Masterton

Professor Gordon Masterton

Chair of Future Infrastructure

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