City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

10: Another Green World

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Afternoon walk, Stockholm 3 April 2020

Slow cities, flightshame, fast and slow layers, energy-use describes the permanent weekend, the acceptance of essential infrastructures and Universal Basic Services, and is the coronavirus forcing us to sketch new forms of governance?

Can we grow a slow city over the summer?

As I mentioned in this piece, when working with Brian Eno on the UK’s industrial strategy, the ‘slow city’ was one of our key goals. Elegantly sidestepping the transport policymaker’s natural tendency towards efficiency, speed and vehicles, Eno said:

“Perhaps we could instead imagine a place in which everyone and everything moved around a little less, and a little more slowly …”

Although there’s an inadvertent crossover between the aspirational sustainability and health co-benefits described in an industrial strategy and what the virus has forced cities to become, it is not what anyone would want. Streets should be full of life, either noisily alive with people or quietly alive with greenery. The former are simply not there, en masse anyway. Nor is a temporary reduction in traffic worth the cost of a single human life, never mind thousands (this thinking is the inverse of Vision Zero, almost). So no, this has not been achieved in a way that anyone would want at all. But removing vehicles—and thus pollution, accidents, obesity and antisocial behaviour, waste of space, and so on—enables citizens to experience aspects of the streets we could have.

Whilst that experience may be enlightening—though again, not at this price—we don’t yet know the medium-term impact of the virus. The hygiene issues that COVID-19 is heightening will be making life very difficult for public transport, as well as the shared mobility sector, such as car-sharing, e-scooters and shared cargo bikes, all of whom have seen sharp drops in usage, and a flight of skittish VC funding accordingly.

We are now about to face another wave of challenges to public and shared transport, with awkward questions of hygiene pointed at both. The private car, with its personalised and individualised cocoon, may seem appealing again to many.

Image from catalogue for ‘Cars: Accelerating the Modern World’ exhibition, V&A Museum

Already, motorists groups are lobbying for the congestion charge and parking fees to be lifted in Stockholm, during the virus. That outcome would be highly problematic. (Ignoring the absurdity of the suggestion, that these come from usually male-oriented motoring organisations suggests a deeper question: how does the fact of a temporarily housebound Sweden provide a crowbar to prise open the grip of men, who have historically controlled discussion of mobility and the city, with research indicating their violence in doing so.)

Yet what do we suggest for hygiene in shared vehicles? Ultra-violet lights installed in the back of taxi cabs, activated in-between passengers, indicating where to swab down with a sanitiser? That seems unlikely. Yet design has often had to adjust to such systemic shocks, positively and negatively.

Despite the logistical difficulty, now may be precisely the time to pursue the streets transition projects that many of us are working on across the world. There is almost no one on the streets out there, with very little movement of traffic, relatively speaking. The Citymapper mobility index indicates significant drops in the cities the app runs in (although doesn’t break it down by mode.)

Citymapper mobility index for 3 April 2020

Many architecture offices, sustainability consultants, and construction companies might need work by the summer, and could be engaged in the envisioning, design, build and test of street improvements. We currently need parked cars removed to enable nice wide pedestrian and bike-friendly streets to enable social distancing. Over time, as the virus recedes, we can slowly reduce the biological distancing between people and plants, and increase the anti-social distancing that exists between you and a car.

As the authors of the US Green New Deal note, “The path to net-zero is easier with every car we take off the road.” In Sweden, the national transport agency notes we need to reduce the volume of cars by 30%; many would say it needs go much further than this, in reducing total volume, in order to reach the country’s own current targets, never mind what comes next. As Project Drawdown notes with respect to electrifying transport: “unless use of these modes of transport is curtailed, the efficiency improvements will be devoured by increased consumption.”

This means a rapid series of street adjustments, as described in detail here, with outcomes of green and blue infrastructure, more diverse use of the street, richer mobility choices and so on, for positive impacts in culture, community, and commerce, as well as health, climate and social justice. (It means also testing how to move forward coherently whilst ‘not-planning’.)

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Ironically, due to the streets being temporarily clear, the speed may be increasing for some car drivers — which is making things difficult for healthworkers, who are asking for speed limits to be reduced accordingly. This also maps another trend in many cities, towards slowing down (through speed limits, different slower modes, or even geofencing) and so again, potentially reinforced by the virus. Cycling and walking can be carried out with social distancing, particularly with redesigned streets that move cars out of the way. Foot traffic is down, of course — but it won’t be, ultimately. Humans are social species, and although some of our rituals might be altered, our core desire to be around other people.

There’s an opportunity to rebalance the way we move around more fundamentally, across the four main modes of private car, shared mobility (shared bikes, cars, scooters), public transport (bus, subway, train, shuttles autonomous and otherwise etc.) and cycling (e-bikes, cargo bikes, ‘pushbikes’ and others.) Cars are not moving around much; shared mobility has taken a huge hit, almost to zero; public transit has likewise seen huge drops in ridership. Bikes, as ever, are the most resilient and are moving around in all but the most locked-down of towns. Emerging on the other side of the Corona curve, we could see a large drop in private cars, a pickup in shared mobility if hygiene problems can be resolved, and ditto with transit. And bikes could maintain or extend their mode share, given the experience of ‘World B’ in the Slowdown.

Those curves indicate a possibly story for vehicles, but also use of space. Since the 1930s, we’ve inadvertently given over the street to traffic—but streets are not about traffic: Put traffic engineers in charge of the street and you get traffic. If we put gardeners in charge of the street, we’d get gardens.”

So how might the proportions of activities change, based on different use of space? The curves below indicate the kind of spatial balance many of our street projects have been moving towards, globally, with a huge shift towards promenading/walking and conviviality, and the biodiversity of super-green-and-blue infrastructures, with increased flora and fauna (see Barcelona Superblocks, for example.) Equally, we need increase in the proportion and diversity of space given over to commerce and culture, those two mainstays of the street, along with community. Vehicles are still there, but much reduced, and tending to slower and smaller, whether public or personal mobility, or logistics and maintenance. All of these moves would generate multiple forms of value through transforming the ecosystems of the street, enabling the most basic unit of the city to function as resilient infrastructure.

Our work in Sweden, with ArkDes and numerous other partners, will be looking at exploiting tactical dynamics (parklet-style interventions) with strategic changes in what I call the ‘dark matter’ of legislation, planning, organsations, directly engaging with the 40,000km of street that already exists in Sweden. The obvious levers into those structures, like parking spaces, provide handy spaces for many of those threads above, and particularly biodiversity. As reported in Drawdown, by drawing on both Toyota’s assembly line process and Akira Miyawaki’s approach to working with indigenous flora, Shubhendu Sharma’s company Afforestt has developed an open-source methodology to enable effective three-hundred-tree forest ecosystems “in areas the size of six parking spaces”. What if we started some version of that in six actual parking spaces?

The emphasis on walking above might seem odd, but it is a marker for conviviality as well as movement, promoting the numerous health benefits documented in neuroscientist Shane O’Mara’s recent book ‘In Praise of Walking: The new science of how we walk and why it’s good for us’ (2019), but also the intellectual, convivial, and aesthetic spaces opened by walking, recognised in Daniel Kahnemann’s work, and in this lovely essay for Aeon by John Kaag and Susan Froderberg:

“Still, someone might say, what is the point of simply meandering? This would be like asking what the point of watching a sunset is, or asking the value of gazing at a Rembrandt, or smelling a rose. The answer is simple: for the experience alone. The point is to perceive. Nothing more and nothing less than this … (Yet) walking, simply for the sake of a walk, can be a brief respite in our otherwise frenetic lives, allowing us to detach so we might see life for ourselves again, not unlike a child does. This, according to Kant, is the freedom of any form of art. But we don’t need to visit a museum in order to be absorbed in artful perception and contemplation. We can just step out the front door, pay attention, and perceive and feel for ourselves.” — John Kaag and Susan Froderberg, ‘For the full life experience, put down all devices and walk’, Aeon, 20 March 2020

As everything is connected, making space for walking generates further space for biodiversity, for culture, for commerce, for conviviality, for community, with multiple co-benefits in all directions — these things are not as mutually exclusive as the curves above imply (whereas space for vehicles is generally mutually exclusive.) These new curves unlock that most fundamental urban condition of propinquity — a sort of ‘neighbourliness through meaningful proximity’. (In terribly sad news, as COVID-19 washed up in New York, Michael Sorkin, who did as much as anyone to understanding and articulate the value of propinquity, was one of the early losses delivered by the virus.)

These shifts in mobility, and use of street space, are happening all around us, in the response to the virus. But as with almost all corona-related actions, they are not exactly happening strategically. Perhaps this is what happens in something akin to a ‘wartime’ situation, after all.

“I think they should be just throwing money at people and businesses that are in the front line. Cash has to be given out to households. Cash has to be given out to small businesses. Cash has to be given out to gig workers. I don’t know what the figures are for Uber drivers, but they are probably catastrophic … You can’t think in normal terms. This is more like a wartime crisis than a normal economic situation.” — Ian Shepherdson, Pantheon Macroeconomics, ‘The Coronavirus Calls for Wartime Economic Thinking’, New Yorker, 16 March 2020

Yes but wait. Should we be throwing cash at Uber drivers? The people that were previously Uber drivers, yes. But the “Uber driver” component of that sentence?

In a so-called ‘wartime crisis’, money is not thrown at just anything. While it is thrown at things which defeat the enemy, first and foremost, it is not simply the pointy tip of weaponry that is funded — in this case vaccines, hospitals and healthworkers — but the entire system that pulls in that direction. Following Tarkatower’s definition of strategy versus tactics — the latter is what you do when you know what to do, the former is what you do when you don’t know what to do — in a wartime crisis, strategy is almost not needed. It is clear what to do. It is clear where to set your North Star. (In fact, it is apparently “a military truism that amateurs talk strategy while professionals study logistics … In wartime, logistics eats strategy for lunch.”)

If we are to pursue the wartime analogy, there are several enemies gathered. They might appear to be cloaked by the all-consuming virus, but because of this systemic interdependence, they are also brought into focus by it. The climate crisis, various health crises, the crisis of social justice — we are, and have been in a war with these for years.

Approaching this system of risks, we would not throw money at Uber drivers. That is, in turn, throwing money at Uber, a handsomely capitalised corporation which has directly contributed to all three of the above crises. We may choose to distribute money to the drivers themselves, but instead paying for their labour as kind of expanded public transport, of various kinds (in this particular case, taxis and shuttles that are properly part of integrated and local public transport systems. Why not? That case has been made before, in less intense moments than this. This is hardly ‘a nationalisation of Uber’, as the drivers are not employees of Uber. Hoist on their own petard.)

With this approach, people continue to make a living, but public transport also receives the support needed during the time of the virus. That simple redirection of support funding would address climate, health and social justice as system, as we pull out of the Corona curve.

Another example of tactics that could be turned into strategy concerns the humble bike lane. In New York, Mayor de Blasio put out the message that cycling would be a preferred mode for getting to work, given the virus, leading a large increase in those cycling. However, without a concomitant increase in good cycling infrastructure, cyclist injuries immediately increased 43% between March 9 and March 15, according to NYPD statistics. Here’s a good example of a tactical response, leading to the unforeseen negative outcomes that such tactical urbanism can often generate, rather than the win:win that strategy strives for. New York City started rapidly painting bike lanes a couple of weeks later, to patch up the problem.

Learning from this, we must send the behavioural messages whilst building supporting infrastructures at the same time. Such infrastructures enable, encourage, and ensure lock-in for the new sustainable habits. That would be both tactical and strategic together. If we act sharply and subtly, we may be able to ensure that cars do not return to the streets in the same numbers, which in turn creates more space for resilient biodiversity, community, and culture, beginning the radical transition of cities.

Daylighting Melbourne: how we can transform our cities, street by street

Following Eno’s starting point, I now also recall the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa’s “six themes for the re-enchantment of architecture at the turn of the millennium” (1994), inspired by Italo Calvino’s earlier ‘Six Memos for the Next Millennium’. Pallasmaa’s themes were slowness, plasticity, sensuousness, authenticity, idealisation, and silence. These are perhaps stereotypically Finnish — not in a bad way! — and need to be counterpointed with other notes and timbres, yet they are perhaps worth dwelling on right now.

What Slowdown + Flightshame does for our perception of regional, national, and intercontinental space and time

The enforced lockdown of commercial aviation has thrown an already fragile industry into a tailspin. Massive bailouts are planned in an attempt to reanimate business-as-usual, but with clear, quiet skies above us due to a largely grounded fleet, many are asking serious questions about the value of flying, as never before. Within one month, many have found alternatives to flying that feel just as productive, cleaner, safer, healthier, and frankly a lot less hassle.

This was not a decision shaped by policymakers, however. Aviation before the virus was shaped by taxes and laws, but the market was essentially allowed to expand like a gas, with consumer demand the only real limiting factor. And consumer demand can be stimulated a long way. Policymakers did not have to make a particularly active or binding decision about the scale of the commercial aviation industry; that abstraction, the market, apparently decided supply in line with demand.

Aviation during the virus was clearly impossible, very quickly, and so the scale of the aviation industry diminished overnight. Again, however, this happened without policymaking having to make an active decision about scale. As the borders were shut, so check-in was closed.

‘Grounded — Beyond Flygskam’, Maria Wolrath Söderberg, Södertörn University, and Nina Wormbs, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, 2020

Many citizens had started querying air travel, well before the virus took hold of the skies. The Swedish social movements that created the cultural phenomena of ‘flightshame’ last year (‘flygskam’ in Swedish) had already started to have a meaningful impact. Swedish airport operator Swedavia reporting passenger numbers at its ten airports in October 2019 were down 5% on the previous year. A survey in the US, Germany, France and the UK conducted by UBS found that 21% had reduced the number of flights they took over the last year. (Read more on Flightshame in this paper, which indicates it is not so much driven by ‘shame’, as such, which is thus perhaps the wrong word. Instead, the research indicates that the actions are driven by a strongly-informed desire to address the climate crisis, an emotion which might even have an antonym of shame associated with it, such as ‘pride’ in alternatives to flying.)

“The most commonly mentioned reason to change behaviour was knowledge and insight. This insight occurs not just with the accumulation of knowledge, but in connection to a realisation of the problem’s urgency. This realisation can in turn come from personal experience of climate change and is often related to strong feelings and fear.” — ‘Grounded — Beyond Flygskam’, Maria Wolrath Söderberg, Södertörn University, and Nina Wormbs, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, 2020

More obliquely, our sense of time and space has transformed, for those of us in some form of lockdown at least. Not simply in the rediscovery of the immediate neighbourhood, or the discovery that many can productively work from home, or that neighbourhood, much of the time, but also in the sense of actively contrasting the heedless urgency and rush so inherent to contemporary urban life. These problems have been picked apart endlessly in recent years, so I won’t dwell on it.

But the experience of the Slowdown enable the comparison, which in further undercuts the idea of cheap, easy and speed-obsessed air travel, possibly reinforcing these pre-virus trends for slow travel over long distance, with rail in particular looking strong, for national and international travel, including the return of the night train.

Map of Europe in which real distances seem shorter thanks to the high-speed train. From ‘Barcelona: The Urban Evolution of a Compact City’, by Joan Busquets, (Harvard University Graduate School of Design).

It may be possible to keep trains relatively hygienic too; anyone who has seen a Japanese Shinkansen being cleaned between trips, rapidly and effectively by a well-trained crew, rarely forgets it. The sheer speed of the Seven-minute miracle enables the slower speed of rail (though a bullet train can only be thought of as slow compared to planes, of course. It is plenty fast enough.)

The Seven-minute miracle crew, cleaning shinkansen

After the virus, then, there is an active decision to be made by policymakers, framed by this common experience: what size should the aviation sector grow back to? Should the aviation sector fire up the engines right away, and just go back to where they were? Or is it a sector we look at now, in the spirit of A/B testing, and realise that we don’t need as much of it.

Given the wider climate crisis, perhaps it should not be back up to 100% right away. No-one in the aviation sector has a serious story about how it performs genuinely sustainably, any time soon (no, offsets don’t count). It is more or less the hardest transport choice to transition to a zero-carbon, non-polluting condition. It is not only a carbon dioxide emitter, but other pollutants emerge from the industry’s contrails: nitrogen oxides, black carbon, water vapour in actual contrails, and on the ground, crushing noise pollution and enormous land-use. Many heroic research and innovation efforts are addressed at this sector, but in the meantime, it continues to pollute, and heavily, well into the red zone of the climate graphs. In fact, total carbon emissions from commercial aviation have grown by 32% in five years, much faster than predicted. On that trajectory, the sector’s total emissions could triple by 2050.

So the only effective way to mitigate against that is via demand-side measures i.e. limiting how much flying happens.

We do need to visit our families who live overseas. An overseas holiday is fun. Cultural exchange is particularly meaningful. Aviation persists. But did I need to fly to that academic conference in Zagreb? Did I need to fly to Palo Alto for that meeting? Should I fly from Stockholm to Umeå for that workshop? Or could my new-found sense of valuable time, emerging beforehand but enforced by the Slowdown, mean that of course I get the train. Or of course I give the lecture over Zoom. Of course I watch the annotated livestream of the conference discussion. Less time flying is more time for my home, my work, my family, my friends, for slower but more pleasurable movement, for a richer local culture, for my immediate environment as well as the atmosphere.

We have just discovered that we can flip entire sectors to work-from-home, or to distance learn, within a week, if necessary, and so some of these elements of the Slowdown can easily continue into the future. Perhaps, once we get a chance to move forward with our lives, we should fire up the trains first, then the buses, and finally the planes. It may be that actually nationalising national carriers is the strongest option available to the sector, as well as the strategic option for the rest of us. Ultimately, this may be the most effective way of ensuring that aviation is finally flying within planetary boundaries.

As COVID-19 is likely to hit in a series of curves, commercial aviation is also likely to be a stop-start business for a while.

That would be an existential threat for much of the aviation sector, though not all of it. Watch out for particularly intense lobbying here. But then the aviation sector, unless it significantly transforms, is an existential threat to us.

Can we use this faster-moving behavioural layer to start informing, directing, and questioning investments in our slower-moving infrastructural layers?

Bill McKibben also quickly indicated not just the possibility in changes in these faster moving behavioural layers, but also how they are linked to our perception of slower layers, like the speculative real estate industry for office parks and buildings:

“It’s worth noting how nimbly millions of people seem to have learned new patterns … The idea that we need to travel each day to a central location to do our work may often be the result of inertia, more than anything else. Faced with a real need to commute by mouse, instead of by car, perhaps we’ll see that the benefits of workplace flexibility extend to everything from gasoline consumption to the need for sprawling office parks.” — Bill McKibben, The New Yorker

So after this first flattening of the curve via behaviour, the subsequent curves need to address the harder layers, the infrastructural, the built. These various layers are not disconnected — everything is connected — but they do have different dynamics. We can use the speed of change in the lighter layers to shift perception about the heavier. This is classic strategic design-led pace layers thinking, but still rarely applied in policymaking, in practice. Now there is a chance.

If much of the world, in the knowledge-oriented sectors at least, builds a meaningful habit around the practiced realisation that we can work perfectly well from home or equivalent, for one or two days per week, this takes a enormous load off transport systems and commercial real estate. Perhaps even a four-day working week swings into view? This could undercut the largely wasteful speculative real estate sector for commercial office buildings, and help downsize enormously expensive road-building projects.

Again, we have known for decades that our use of commercial office buildings is unsustainable, and our development of them even more so. The easy revenue, and speculative financing, in that sector keeps the market ticking over effortlessly, handsomely supported by already carelessly directed public funding. This is a massively polluting sector, incentivised to build more space than we actually need. Property developers and construction companies will already be lobbying for bailouts, but will the Slowdown enable us to take stock of what we have and rethink?

The fact that much construction will be hibernating for the rest of the year, and that financing will take longer to re-emerge, actually gives a chance to rethink unnecessary projects, only re-commissioning the most sustainable, and forcing us to think about the way we actually use space.

This is one example of fast-moving layers of behavioural change — where to place your laptop — directly affecting slower-moving layers — whether to build that freeway, or publicly finance Hudson Yards. You and your colleagues working from home is directly connected to the viability of long-term property and infrastructure investments. Let’s discuss how to do this differently while we can.

Spread from Arup strategy report produced for Gemeente Amsterdam Sloterdijk urban development project

Similarly, at the end of his book The Myth Gap, Alex Evans describes his version of another green world. He reaches for the usual high notes of coal-fired power stations as museums, carbon sequestration via soil and trees, pollution taxes rather than incomes taxes, universal basic incomes, and so on. Yet he commences the passage with:

“To start with, each of us lives much more lightly than we do today. We buy less stuff. We throw less away. We eat less meat. We save and invest in ways aligned with the common good. We take more time over things.” — Alex Evans, The Myth Gap (2017)

Save the words “eat less meat” perhaps, some version of that is happening right now, with many embodying that starting paragraph, albeit forced to do so for the worst possible reasons. But what if we planned and prepared for this, rather than being thrown into it by a pandemic? And how do we deal with the awkward fact that many people like to buy stuff? Can we still consume, yet avoid rather more awkward facts like viruses and climate crises?

As is often the case, our stomach leads the way. Given we eat unhealthy food and then waste much of it, after overproducing it in the first place, produced by probably the most polluting industrial sector of all, can the Slowdown indicate some other possibility?

Perhaps it already is. Research published by Accenture on Friday, into corona-driven shopping habits, indicates that 71% of consumers have shifted their behaviour towards limiting food waste, and that 88% of those who changed state that they are likely to continue the habit post-virus. 50% say they are making more sustainable choices in the last two weeks, and 89% of those state they will continue post-virus. Closer neighbourhood stores are being used (39% increase) and shopping is 43% more cost-conscious. 23% of consumers are increasing their purchase of ‘Small local brands’, versus 0.2% preferencing large global brands.

These surveys tend to be far from reliable (though this was ~3500 participants across 15 nations/markets) but they often reveal a lead worth pursuing. Given it is rather hard to avoid, for everyone, food is perhaps the arena through which we most clearly and vividly articulate our broader interests, concerns, and possibilities.

“For many, these past few weeks have been a shock: a moment when almost everyone in the country felt at least a bit insecure about food, and started to realise that the fountain could dry up.” — Bee Wilson, ‘Off our trolleys: what stockpiling in the coronavirus crisis reveals about us’, The Guardian, 3 April 2020

Look at what is emerging around us; what do we take forward with us? How might this enable us to transform food systems for resilient production and supply chains, food security, distributed farming and farm-ownership models, diverse food cultures, permaculture and regenerative practices, reducing meat and dairy consumption in line with planetary boundaries, fermentation and storage, clean logistics, urban and peri-urban farming, new food types, dealing with soil and water pollution, ecosystem services, and so on.

My work (at Vinnova), along with many others in this area, was already pushing in these directions. But now, many of these activities are suddenly happening, almost in real-time, in response to the virus, as short-cuts are taken, powerful yet arbitrary boundaries are just knocked aside. Even questions of what food is “essential” are in the mainstream.

“(UK Health Minister) Matt Hancock, commented that people should buy only “what they need and not more than what they need”. You can tell that something radical has shifted in our attitudes to food shopping when the Conservative party — which for so long has defended the right of the food industry to sell us anything it likes, regardless of its effects on our health — starts asking people to restrict what they buy for the sake of others.” — Bee Wilson, ‘Off our trolleys: what stockpiling in the coronavirus crisis reveals about us’, The Guardian, 3 April 2020

Food is an archetypical example of a complex system that can be explored in tangible, meaningful everyday ways. Get it right, and we unlock new approaches across the board. Get it wrong and it can go very wrong indeed. Shared global concerns over national food security, thrown into harsh relief very quickly, could drive positive system change — or something much worse:

“Hitler’s concept of Lebensraum (‘room to live’) has its roots in Germany’s experience of being blockaded in World War One, which led to acute worries about its food supply. To prevent this from ever happening again, Hitler set out to seize vast areas of Eastern Europe and transport its produce to Germany, thereby lighting the touch paper that would lead to World War Two.” — Alex Evans, The Myth Gap (2017)

But many positive things are happening on the ground, and very quickly. As ever, some version of William Gibson’s statement applies: the future (of food, in this case) is already here, but not evenly distributed. That latter part — “evenly distributed” — has a particular resonance in the Nordics, of course, and so the tactical rush towards future practices has to be followed closely by a strategic impulse, to ensure equitable development and systemic change, and to ensure that some of those tactical responses don’t produce negative outcomes next. That’s what’s currently framing my work. How could the Slowdown act as a signpost towards another green world for food systems?

Does the intense demand reduction caused by the Slowdown show how to better power another green world?

Data from the UK’s national grid last week, analysed by academics at the University of Birmingham and Swansea University, indicates that the Slowdown is now demonstrating the possibility of a different energy system.

I’ve quickly redrawn their chart, simplifying a little (below). It indicates a roughly 10% drop (the blue line for week commencing 23rd March 2020) in weekday electricity demand already, as compared to a few weeks earlier (the red line for week commencing 2nd March.) It also notes the peaks flattening, with weekdays taking the profile of weekends. Peaks within the days are also spreading out, as electricity articulates how morning routines are diversifying, as the use of electrical showers, kettles, lights and heating is distributed over a greater number of hours.

UK energy demand, March 2020. From ‘We analysed electricity demand and found coronavirus has turned weekdays into weekends’, The Conversation, 31 March 2020. NB. In my discussion with the researchers, I queried why the drop in electricity demand wasn’t greater. They replied that, “The majority of Britain’s heating and public/domestic transport is still covered by fossil fuels at point of use.” There are likely even greater drops occurring in other countries.

“The last time demand was this low for the month of March was back in 1975, a further indication of how the coronavirus measures are changing people’s routines, and the energy they use to underpin these. April is likely to be lower still, taking Britain’s electrical demand back to the 1960s, to a period before daily data became available.” (my emphasis)

Equally, the authors note that there is a likely “incredible short-term drop” in liquid fuels, primarily for transport, where April is expected to record the lowest monthly liquid fuels demand since data started in 1998. This could mean a 40% reduction or more, if the Slowdown continues in Britain.

We need to be careful about the language here: although “back to the 1960s” is clearly comprehensible, it could inadvertently imply a step backwards. Instead, it would be a step forward to achieve this reduced level of demand. Just as Sydney uses less water now than it did in 1970 through more careful water use, yet its population is far bigger. That is clearly a step forward; framing is important. Similarly, of course, ‘slow’ can be positive — slow food is a good parallel — but can also be interpreted as intrinsically negative.

Still, this drop in energy use is fairly extraordinary, and actually very useful in terms of the ‘A/B test’. A more balanced system like this, at lower levels of demand, could not only enable a smoother, faster transition to cleaner energy sources, but also reduce total volume of energy use overall. This new diversification of energy use maps onto our increasing diversification of societal patterns of living and working; in effect, it hastens existing trends, motivating us to realise positive outcomes.

In energy use, we have had the goal of shaving the peaks, to enable transition to cleaner energy, balanced with other systems. Shaving the peak is the same logic as flattening the curve, more or less. So we can plot these two interactions, as again, everything is connected. The curves below indicate the choppy weekday-weekend energy demand pattern being smoothed and reduced in size by the slowdown, thus enabling a quicker transition from a polluting power sources to a greener energy system as the world emerges from corona, a system fully oriented around distributed renewables, and with reduced and smoothed demand overall.

Post-virus, we don’t have to fall back into the 20th century mode: Nine–to–Five workdays, five days per week, commuting to office spaces in city centres, difficulties for working parents, low productivity, deaths of high streets, and so on. Instead, instead we slowly move out of corona curves continuing some of these patterns: working from home one to two days per week; perhaps even four-day weeks; more diversified work days; remote working; local co-working spaces; mixed-use neighbourhoods, diversified learning, and so on.

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In this way, we stand a chance of not only achieving greater resilience overall, via diversity, but faster, more valuable transition to super-local microgrids and other forms of distributed networked infrastructure. These ‘non-grid’ forms of infrastructure can be smaller, cheaper to purchase and run, designed to be adaptable, and thus also open to new ownership models, including cooperative and community-owned.

Reducing demand fundamentally changes the dynamics of the energy transition. I know from bitter experience on allegedly ‘world class sustainable urban development projects’ that, for many in the relevant sectors of energy, government, real estate, and finance, there is a preference for the technical solutions on the supply side, as opposed to getting involved in the messy business of ‘demand reduction’. The latter involves people, with all their irrational, subjective, and unpredictable (AKA wonderful, human) patterns of behaviour. The former, whether technology in the form of a nuclear power station or a microgrid, is just easier. Most, from the Gates Foundation down, tend to stay at the supply end of the equation, the technology problem, as a result. As Gates himself said about his nuclear technology projects, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Yet the Slowdown indicates just how quickly behaviour can change, and how effectively. It would be far faster, cheaper, and more impactful to find inventive ways of reducing demand. It can also be done with people as active participants, driving the development, to enable more creative outcomes as well as legitimacy. A neighbourhood structured this way enables a better balance of life and work, a richer local milieu, a more equitable community and a diverse working pattern that enables new entrants into the workforce, a circular economy, and a non-polluting, biodiverse natural environment. All that, and huge drops in carbon. Local variations on that vision might be enough for people to keep those energy savings, and on purpose this time.

How does the Slowdown suggest a new way of funding universal and essential infrastructures and services for a new ‘home economics’?

The virus has placed a question mark over many apparent certainties, and not least the idea of what is essential, what is valuable. As with ‘social distancing’, ‘non-essential’ versus ‘essential’ products, services, workers and industries are ideas that hardly appeared in our mainstream discourse a month ago. Now there are references to the true value of essential workers, redirections of manufacturing towards essential products, and state provision of essential services—within a few weeks.

Mariana Mazzucato ends her book ‘The Value of Everything’ with the passage:

“The concept of value must once again find its rightful place at the centre of economic thinking. More fulfilling jobs, less pollution, better care, more equal pay — what sort of economy do we want?” — Mariana Mazzucato, ‘The Value of Everything’ (2018)

Of course within that non-essential is a slew of things we might file under “that which makes life worth living” — tickets to a football match, a violin, Battlefront II, a flower arranging course, an ice-cream for your granddaughter. None of these are strictly essential, but they are valuable.

Yet there are an awful lot of non-essential goods. Indeed, the “non-essential” makes up about 40% of US GDP, and we can ask whether we have the balance right, given their particularly direct impact on these crises. Again, the Judt Railways-Sandwiches Heuristic — “Don’t privatise railways, don’t nationalise sandwiches” — provides a useful rule-of-thumb, with which to explore 21st century essentials; not about privatisation per se, but about what we produce for profit, and in what proportion, and for how much profit.

These are not clear distinctions. This account from the front line of a Co-op supermarket in the UK reveals they are performing a basic front-line infrastructure role right now (though billionaire-owned Miss Selfridge is probably not, despite asking for emergency wage support.) Policymakers are not fond of having to make judgement calls like this. Cultural activities are essential, too, yet frequently not seen as such.

Either way, to Mazzucato’s point, we have reason to ask about what kind of economy we want, and what we fundamentally value.

In ensuring that ‘essential services’ are covered by the state — via direct handout, or provision of public services and infrastructures — is the Slowdown inadvertently a harbinger not only of the climate crises, but also the challenges posed by automation? (Note that some businesses will speed that shift to automation now; another sign of the virus merely accelerating existing trends, good and bad.)

The idea of a providing for basic household needs, a kind of true ‘home economics’ covering the essentials in life, may be here fairly soon. Arch neoliberals like the Australian government, as well as the neighbours, are suddenly lining up to provide basic income supplements, almost no-questions-asked. In the US, President Trump has signed a $2tn stimulus package into law which sends $1,200 direct to most Americans. In the UK, similar near-universal stimulus packages are beginning to emerge. Spain is about to launch a ‘permanent’ universal basic income imminently.

On April 3rd, the Financial Times published an editorial that would have been absolutely un-publishable for their ‘Editorial board’ a month ago. After a quick glance to check it was not April 1st, we can only admire the grace with which they have cloaked their hypocrisy in hand-wringing concern.

“Radical reforms — reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades — will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the elderly and wealthy in question. Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.” — ‘Virus lays bare the frailty of the social contract’, Financial Times, 3 April 2020

The payments are now going out, at varying paces, in varying quantities, and with various strings attached. Such payments leave room for the ‘non-essentials’, using the language of the time of virus, to be run for profit, whilst ensuring that households are not burdened by the task of simply living, of going into debt to cover what we can now call ‘essentials’.

A broader idea of ‘essentials’, genuinely supported by reinvigorated public and civic institutions, would be one of the more interesting ideas to emerge from the virus. Done well, it would in turn reinforce the position of those institutions, rescuing them from further decades of neglect.

France’s Macron, a president whose wider social motives have often been queried, spoke in very different terms about core public services after the virus (though, there is criticism too, of how this will materialise):

“There are goods and services that must be placed outside the laws of the market. To delegate our food, our protection, our ability to care, our living environment, basically to others, is madness. What this pandemic is already revealing is that free health care and our welfare state are not costs or charges, but precious goods, essential assets when fate strikes” — President Macron, 12 March 2020

Boris Johnson’s wider social motives are always in question, for obvious reasons, yet even he is having some kind of conversion. Astonishingly, he just declared that Margaret Thatcher was wrong: there is such a thing as society after all. I was 17 when Thatcher said that there was not, in 1987. I have lived my entire adult life under the cloud created by that statement. Each subsequent British government, including New Labour, has run with some version of it.

Johnson is in a fevered condition right now, admittedly, but given Thatcher’s status as the patron saint of the Tory party, this is such an extraordinary turn of events. It’s is a little like the Pope wondering out loud about the existence of that Jesus chap. Or Jürgen Klopp saying that Bill Shankly wasn’t all that.

Boris Johnson, peering out from his screen and discovering society

Even American cities and states are temporarily releasing citizens from the burden of trying to pay for basic public services like water. Again, this exposes an underlying systematic problem that has been building for decades. The Hill reports that 31% of U.S. households already struggled to pay their energy bills in 2018, and water costs such that around than one-third of the U.S. will not be able to pay their water bills by 2022. In some states, like Michigan, that means your water gets cut off. My ten year old daughter pointed out to me that this violates human rights.

“The only way to confront our ailing infrastructure is through public investment that ensures clean and affordable water and energy as a human right to every resident. Given the looming economic crisis, such a plan would achieve multiple goals at once: it would reduce the utility burden on households, in effect boosting household income; it would provide for millions of unionized jobs in construction, maintenance and servicing; it would make our energy and water systems resilient in the face of climate change; and it would usher in a transition to renewable energy — a key sector that could absorb yet more workers and provide for dignified livelihoods.” — Thea Riofrancos and Johanna Bozuwa, ‘COVID-19 makes clear energy and water are public goods,’ The Hill, 27 March 2020

That statement, part of a largely excellent Green Stimulus proposal, was barely possibly to voice in the USA of a month ago. What we may begin to see is a vast experiment, testing variations in universal basic income (UBI), universal basic services, universal basic assets (those three concepts picked apart well here, by Demos Helsinki.) Many regions and nations have been running UBI trials for years — gathered here by Vox — yet the coming weeks will give far greater insight into the potential impact of UBI’s variants than those decades of experiments.

The automation narrative has driven much of the UBI discussion thus far, rather than any virus or climate crises. In that pre-virus state, UBI concepts, around its idea of a basic no-strings cash payment, have been critiqued for its consumption-oriented approach, effectively still working within an industrial model.

Roope Mokka, of Demos Helsinki, wrote a great discussion of these concepts, for SITRA in 2017, described the possibility rather more deeply in terms of universalism; equally read Rutger Bregman’s ‘Utopia for Realists’, or his recent COVID-19 update of that, for The Correspondent.

These discussions take on a different tenor right now, however — most ‘Western’ governments hit hard by the virus have rapidly moved into paying directly to either all citizens, or workers and business owners, as well as beginning to cover basic infrastructures and services like energy, water and rent. Many nations, including those who would profess never to do such a thing, are sleepwalking into providing universal basic services for its citizens. How do we learn as much as possible from this particular aspect of the slowdown?

In more coherent countries, healthcare and education are provided as effectively free universal services already. (Of course, there are as many variations on their implementation as there are nations themselves. Those services that many thought were free and national already, upon closer inspection, are not quite that. In the UK, there are calls to properly renationalise the NHS, for example.)

Healthcare in particular has been a stress fracture within this crisis, due to the steady dissolution of its fabric over the last four decades, even in strong welfare state nations like Sweden, but rather more obviously in more influential countries such as the USA and UK. Both have systematically destabilised the idea of both healthcare and education as essential foundations.

For the last decade, the UK has used a very different wartime narrative, ‘austerity’, with which to transfer wealth and weaken public systems, whereas the USA has chosen to interpret its government’s core responsibility of ‘protection from harm’ by prioritising military spending over healthcare infrastructure. Both narratives are now suddenly highly questionable. Other countries, less far gone, will surely reinforce the core ideas of public value, ownership and delivery in education and health.

Under the virus, however, other core infrastructures like energy, water, waste, and broadband could also start moving into public hands, ensuring greater effectiveness but more importantly unlocking the co-benefits enabled by strategic portfolios of public services supporting each other, and thus the ‘total value’ to be retained locally and equitably. Public transport, already a basic universal service in genuinely developed nations, could also be counted as a core infrastructure in this sense. Public, shared, and cooperative housing all provide models that are high-quality and cost-effective (in fact, when done well, cooperative and shared housing models provide evidence of a magic formula of being higher quality and more sustainable, at lower cost, given that the ‘non-essential’ profit motive of property developers can be removed.)

These could all be described as universal basic infrastructures. Might the current conditions, as awful as they are, give us a glimpse of what that might look like at scale? And how would state provision also enable steering towards the kind of Super-Green New Deal-flavoured incarnations of these infrastructures that we need for what’s next?

It’s also clear to see the value of broadband as a public infrastructure and asset at times like this. We are all relying on it fundamentally. Our response to the virus would be unimaginable without broadband, and here in Stockholm at least, the cables are already a core public infrastructure. (The City of Stockholm has owned its own broadband infrastructure for decades, to great success, just as many other cities have their own city-owned energy and other utilities companies. These models are everywhere, despite a previously virulent strain of New Public Management eradicating them from public service training manuals.)

Free public transport is already growing in many places — and the virus has sped up that process too, with many cities and countries, temporarily at least, instituting forms of free transport for the key workers that are still moving around. How could this new habit be retained as much as possible? Many citizens may not be able to afford to run their cars, within a matter of months. How might this transition, reducing the volume of cars that we know is ultimately necessary anyway, be accelerated at this point? We have, or are about to have, most of the world’s cars parked for weeks on end. The average car’s utilisation rate — which, remember, is at best around 10% in use — is about to drop to zero. How do we ensure that those streets, when we can return to them, are oriented around people and place, rather than product?

What is clear is that we will need to support, upgrade and extend public transport at this point, whether buses, trams, subway or trains, high-speed or otherwise. Their value is enormous, and not simply in terms of efficiency, health, sustainability, and accessibility. As Adam Gopnik put it in The New Yorker, “A train is a small society, headed somewhere more or less on time, more or less together, more or less sharing the same window, with a common view and a singular destination”.

And how is the ‘15-minute city’ enhanced by everyone’s essential services being provided universally? And vice versa? (We will come to these points later.)

Alongside these infrastructures and services, there are other needs in the basic household budgets, of course, extending forms of unemployment insurance to the equivalent of minimum wage, where relevant, but also basic needs for households in crisis, like food aid where relevant, various forms of childcare, and housing support, such as rent and mortgage payments, but also halting evictions, and providing homes for homeless. (Even tentative UBI trials have shown that this will not have a harmful impact on peoples’ willingness to work, just as providing homes for homeless, when executed well, has shown it is cheaper in the long run, as well as ethical.)

Of course, it is unethical to propose a crisis such as this as some kind of UBI research project. It is equally naïve to think that the structures put in place now will easily persist post-virus, even if they produce powerful, universal, and diverse forms of value. Peter Frase, who provides an excellent discussion of UBI in his ‘Four Futures’, describes how the relatively consistent success of UBI trials does little to provoke their adoption:

“The limited historical experience with actual basic income programs suggests that the rich are unlikely to stand by while their wealth and power wither away, and so there will be difficult struggles.” — Peter Frase, ‘Four Futures’ (2016)

It is precisely those “difficult struggles”, even in the so-called normal conditions pre-virus (noting “there is no normal”, after CS Lewis), that means we should be alert to the dynamics, impacts, and meanings of these payments to citizens to cover basic services, just as much as the bailouts to industry.

If we recall President Macron’s statement, he suggests “food, protection, ability to care, living environment, free health care, our welfare state” are public assets, and not for free market dynamics — “not costs or charges, but precious goods, essential assets.” This approach to assets, if articulated as public infrastructures, may be more radical than universal basic income—the latter unlocks consumption, whereas the former describes a deeper set of values, and the core foundations of a civil society. It leaves room for further income on top, with which we can revel in ‘non-essential’ goods and experiences.

Equally, running public services genuinely as public services — not via the outsourcing logic of new public management, but building public sector capability — including deploying contemporary digital technologies in public service, would enable, as the UK’s Government Digital Services suggests, a far better service for much smaller cost.

In a real war, though, budgets are found to cover the essentials (though the price can eventually ruin a country. Recall JG Ballard saying it was as if Britain lost the Second World War, such was the poverty afterwards. The British war debt to the USA was only paid off in 2006. One could imagine China playing a similar bail-out/stimulus role now, but the USA was able to play the banker role given a booming economy, from their perspective. Could China play such a role without a functioning global economy?)

In this ‘phoney war’ (before the true depths of the climate crisis), when we know what’s coming next in terms of climate and health in particular, we can start exploring how to pay for these essential, renewable, and restorative infrastructures now, which will give us a head-start on addressing the long-term risk of not doing so. We can invest in universal infrastructures now by borrowing against the future value generated and risk mitigated. It would be prudent to do so.

So, universal basic infrastructures of energy, water, waste, transport, environment, broadband, housing, education, and health, as shared, valued, public assets, and let’s say, made available to the population outside of free market dynamics, as Macron’s statement almost suggests. This builds on, and extends, the welfare state model of the 20th century, and would enable a strategic agenda for the curves beyond the tactical response to Covid-19’s curve. It would enable the co-benefits generally lost to the outsourcing model, where a total budget approach, combined with contemporary techniques, enables them to be designed and delivered at lower cost overall, but more importantly, at greater value.

Essential public assets, universal basic infrastructures, new household economics. Let’s carefully and respectfully provoke discussions about these actions not simply as temporary support, but as prototypes of structural changes in value, giving us insights into, as Mokka suggests, the politics of what is shared.”

Is the Slowdown forcing us to sketch new forms of governance?

Governments, generally, do still not recognise that everything is connected. Or if they do, they have not reorganised accordingly, they do not communicate accordingly, and so they are not acting accordingly. My colleague Marco Steinberg’s observation that “we are organized for an 18th century world, facing 21st century problems”, was never truer, despite him saying it well over a decade ago.

As many have observed, the virus has quickly and viscerally exposed this problem. And yet, I know from my proximity to some government functions in Sweden that institutions and structures are shifting rapidly, often in very positive directions, as the virus makes clear the need for new forms of action, cutting across existing boundaries, and prototyping new ways of working without waiting for a ‘government investigation’ to provide authorisation. We are learning from this as best we can—particularly around food—as it may be that some of these new structures and dynamics suggest governance cultures that are more attuned to systemic challenges of 21st century approaches to virus, climate, health, and social justice.

As noted, events change things. Slamming the handbrake on the global economy, something thought impossible but now apparently necessary, throws different options on the table.

For one thing, an increased localisation of decision-making, relying on resilient and participative community-level and individual coordination and action, has been one shining light to emerge from this, with significant self-organised caring led by individual citizens.

That has inadvertently highlighted something that’s been clear for years: that the so-called sharing economy, in the form of Uber, Airbnb etc is actually fragile VC-fuelled corporate activity, and has been almost stopped dead, leaving a “pandemic-shaped hole” in their business — whereas a genuine sharing (neighbours shopping and cooking for each other; checking in on elderly neighbours, evening applause for front line workers, and so on) has been revealed to be the resilient activity. That is the foundational essential activity.

But beyond individuals, organisations whose daily work has been quietly building resilience for years have also come into their own.

Structures like Participatory City in London (full disclosure: I am on the board of trustees), amongst many others in the third sector, are already describing in detail how to build varying forms of diverse resilience at neighbourhood scale. These programmes were in place before the virus, forged in hugely challenging neighbourhoods, but they are now continuing to deliver groundbreaking work under the toughest of conditions.

The Participatory City project, Every One Every Day, was able to quickly build on this existing resilience, switching its operations to digital platforms within a week, such that it continues to help local people make their own neighbourhood. With the board, and TessyBritton’s excellent team, we are researching what practices will be continued post-virus, and also, how their years of physical resilience work in the communities of Barking and Dagenham enabled them to move digitally so effectively. We will learn a lot from that. You can read Tessy’s update on that here.

Every One Every Day heads digital, rapidly and effectively
Our Participatory City board meeting and design workshop last week

Different forms of dialogue emerge from these super-local cultures. How we move that dialogue up and down the scales of governance is an eternal question, but again the virus forces us to sketch out patterns for doing so with greater urgency.

We might even envisage national-scale mass dialogue sessions at the end of this ‘A/B test’, learning from the super-local. These could be variations on the processes undertaken by Singapore government, as reported in Evans’s ‘The Myth Gap’, which included 47,000 Singaporeans in 660 dialogue sessions over 12 months, or something more advanced, such as Taiwan’s approach with their sophisticated vTaiwan platform for incremental “rolling agenda setting”:

“Mostly when governments try to listen at scale, they hear a lot of noise and there’s a lot of repetition. I think Taiwan’s main contribution is that we’ve figured out that with the right amount of human intelligence and the right amount of artificial intelligence, we can have the crowd moderate each other… This kind of incremental governance — instead of a pure referendum, that leaves half of people feeling like they have lost; or, in certain referenda, everybody feeling like they have lost — may be a much better alternative.” — Audrey Tang, Taiwan Digital Minister

An A/B test has a clear end, and this one probably will not, but we should start thinking now about how the burgeoning local decision-making cultures impact the wider cultures of decision-making around them.

As noted a long time ago, a tactical and super-local response can do many wonderful things, but is unlikely to create the European sleeper train network we will need to replace aviation with, for example. It can help motivate for that, and be a key part of the delivery, and even ownership and decision-making of some aspects on the ground, but such a project also requires coordination at urban, regional, national and international scales, across public and private sectors, standards and guidelines, technologies at all scales. This is why it’s easier to crowdsource a revolution than a light-rail system. Just as cleaning the Baltic Sea requires coordination at the European and Russian scale, but that decision-making can be massively informed by local action. Aviation can only be managed globally, whereas the position of a window box can be managed by neighbours. Yet all are connected, as if magnetic forces; the closer a scale of decision-making, the more powerful the interdependent relationship.

From ‘The problem of spatial fit in social-ecological systems: detecting mismatches between ecological connectivity and land management in an urban region’ (2014)

Regional scale governance may be better organised around the bioregional development concepts of ecoregions. These might be watersheds (as in drainage basins), permaculture systems, biomes, or equivalent. Intriguing work by Stockholm Resilience Centre researchers (published in Ecology and Society 2007 and 2014) mapped the existing governance structures at work within Stockholm county onto the actual ecological context in terms of wetlands. They plot the various collaborations between region and municipal governments within the county against the existing wetland systems. They do not match.

As noted later, indigenous peoples’ understanding of complex systems, and their corresponding governance and management methods, is far more advanced in this respect. The work of Nobel prize-winning Elinor Ostrom provides governance frameworks for governing the commons, drawn from deep research into local cultures and their social-ecological systems, just as Rudofsky, Memmott, and Watson describe the spatial and built outcomes. As humans, we have a long history of managing ecoregions. But in the modern world? Not so much. Rediscovering this form of governance would provide insights into reinventions of the regional scale.

National scale still has meaning of course, no matter the vogue for ‘new city-states’, bioregions, or global governments. Albeit dependent on its own peculiar cultures, the Nordic model has much to offer here, particularly if we can figure out how it might be redesigned for the 21st century. In Sweden, I frequently draw from earlier incarnations of Swedish governance — highly selectively of course — which are frequently forgotten or overlooked by many here. Marquis Childs’ odd but intriguing 1936 book ‘Sweden: The Middle Way’ has much to offer, if we were to judiciously raid it for ideas, or perhaps sensibilities.

‘Sweden: The Middle Way’, Marquis Childs (1936)

And then there are numerous calls for a form of global government, albeit often from those now a long way from national governments. The United Nations emerged from the debris of World War Two, and a reinvigorated United Nations could be one potential outcome here, no matter how far away that may seem right now, even to those working there.

“The dispiriting politics of stasis and scapegoating can prevail for a very long time, even as the damage comes into clearer view. We are better at addressing fast-moving crises than slow-building ones. It wouldn’t be surprising, then, if we simply absorbed current conditions as the new normal. We are good at muddling along.” — Atul Gawande

This fast-moving crisis is a chance to not muddle along, to stop absorbing those poisonous currents from the slow-moving tsunami of the crisis, but instead to build on the local and global action the virus has engendered. Can these new cultures finally address the linked crises of climate, health and social justice. All these patterns are linked. Will we see that?

Super-local and super-global, not this mealy-mouthed middle, where we have discarded local connections, dismantled local economies, diminished local cultures, denuded the local environment, and we also raid and colonise the global in the worst sense, by over-touristing, over-flying, over-mining, over-fishing, over-foresting, over-producing. And now perhaps, just ‘over’, as rampant nationalist populism, and then a virus, raises the spectre of high walls along closed borders.

There is a different kind of global, not extractive but additive, based on a common sense of what James Meek called “a way of representing ‘world’ to us”, alongside a heightened sense of local difference, of multiple identities, of diversity of place and culture, and yet of everything being connected. That is happening when we Zoom old friends and distant family members, the friends we should’ve spoken to for years, but hadn’t.

But it also might indicate a different way of doing governance, which understands that the Baltic, say, requires different decision-making structures, cultures and institutions to those for the street, say — but they are both intrinsically and fundamentally connected, not as a linear ‘chain of command’ but a complex thicket of connections, information flows, systems and assemblages, infrastructures and cultures. These things are nested, looped, tangled, overlapping, distributed. They recognise and embody complexity but are still able to communicate, quite unlike the now-overly simplistic silos that we currently organise within, clockwork mechanisms which view the world as merely a complicated system, not complex.

Scales of decision-making, implying interdependent nested or stacked relationships, suggesting interdependent decision-making cultures appropriate for the scale in question. ‘Ecoregions’ are akin to bioregions. ‘Super-region’ imply ecological systems larger than biomes, continental scale, European Commission etc. For ‘Planet’, read a reinvigorated United Nations. (Modified from presentations I gave two years ago. Probably shouldn’t use rectangles but hey.)
Intriguingly, the abstracted indigenous governance model depicted in Julia Watson’s book ‘Lo-TEK’ maps, in some way, onto the nested/stacked governance diagram above.

Slowdown Papers

These are a series of observations, reflections and ideas, emerging from my view of the early impact of the coronavirus COVID–19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2020, but following the Australian bushfires over Christmas 2019.

1: Writing to memory

Observing, listening and writing, as a way of remembering the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, from within the midst of the slowdown.

2: The pitiless crowbar of events

How will we remember the coronavirus? While we are ‘flattening the curve’, how can we think about the curves beyond?

3: Remember the bushfires to remember the virus

The Australian bushfires and floods as harbingers of the coronavirus, and a world wearing masks and blinkers.

4: We make the virus and the virus makes us

The reversed dynamics of coronavirus and climate, and how the destruction of biodiversity that created the climate crisis probably also created the virus.

5: The curves beyond the curve

Flattening the curve on corona, squeezing the curve on climate.

6: A language in crisis

How key words, phrases and concepts are being bent out of shape by the coronavirus, shaping how we think about what follows.

7: Cultures of decision-making, in Sweden and beyond

Sweden’s ‘Middle Way’ approach to the coronavirus, democracy as a political system for people who are not sure that they are right, and the role of trust, expertise and citizenship, as compared with other Nordics, Taiwan and China.

8: An A/B test on our way of life

The lumpiness of history, how events change the world, World A versus World B, and six questions to prompt reflections about what the coronavirus might mean.

9: The restoration

The coronavirus immediately creates a (partly) restored and regenerative environment, and the Slowdown starts to create new habits.

10: Another Green World

Slow cities, flightshame, fast and slow layers, energy use maps the permanent weekend, the acceptance of essential infrastructures and Universal Basic Services, and is the coronavirus forcing us to sketch new forms of governance?

11: Post-traumatic urbanism and radical indigenism

How cities post-coronavirus can benefit from the distributed patterns of post-traumatic urbanism meeting radical indigenism, Wakanda meeting Aalto, and ‘Lo-TEK’ nature-based technologies meeting contemporary infrastructures.

12: Between the roots and the stars

Another green world lying just beneath ours; what our response to the coronavirus can learn from the night sky after Katrina, a 6000 year-old eel machine in Victoria, and a spruce tree in Sweden.


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