March 30, 2020
As local leaders across the world struggle to adapt to the economic and social constraints of our current reality, it’s a useful moment to reflect on the principles of disruption and the opportunities for growth and reinvention – both in the near term and preparing for a post-pandemic future.
People across the globe are facing a number of new challenges, threats and unknowns, which can create a lot of anxiety for individual residents and their wider communities. Yet, at the same time, difficult situations and disruptions can provide a rare opportunity to gain insights and develop new approaches that can improve our lives long after the pandemic.
Crises often create the conditions for fundamental change: the Great Depression brought us Social Security; World War II produced the GI Bill and a growing middle class.
“We have a great opportunity now to transition more quickly,” said Helen Mountford, vice president for climate and economics at the World Resources Institute. “This is a moment when we can implement measures to help boost the economy, create jobs, and build climate resilience.”
In the aftermath of the 2008 recession, fossil fuel-heavy and otherwise polluting industries received a major share of the bailout money. Today, however, practical options for green investments are plentiful. Renewable energy is cheaper than coal in most of the world, and increasingly competitive with natural gas. Now is the time to invest stimulus dollars into projects that address public health, climate and social equity needs including: infill affordable housing, critical transit projects, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, broadband deployment and sustained telecommuting programs, zero emission vehicle fleet conversion and infrastructure deployment, urban greening (especially in marginalized communities) and access to healthy, local food.
To revert back to coal or fossil-fuel projects that were halted in recent years because of serious environmental concerns would be a huge risk, Mountford said. “That’s coming out of one health crisis and trying to boost the economy by leading us into another health crisis in terms of air pollution and climate change.”
There is a lot we could glean from European Union’s Green Deal aimed at transforming that region’s economy and industries to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
“I think the EU Green Deal – and more broadly taking an approach which brings together the low-carbon economy, a resilient economy and ways to protect and support social development –is exactly what we need to get out of this crisis,” she said.
Immediate action, long-term thinking
The U.S. government has approved a $2 trillion stimulus package— the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) intended to address the nation’s most immediate pressing health and economic needs. While we can all agree that this is a critical and urgent step, what opportunities might we have missed to create more sustainable, resilient jobs and invest in helping industries become more efficient and less polluting?
These decisions also play out regularly at local, regional and statewide levels around the country. Despite all of California’s ambitious climate and vehicle mile travels (VMT) reduction goals, we still spend the vast majority of state funding on highways rather than investing in cleaner, healthier transportation modes.
Given the long-standing economic impacts we’re likely to face as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must be much more strategic and creative with our investments and our core principles, focusing on high-priority projects that achieve multiple economic, social and environmental benefits. Local governments should be looking at their budgets, capital improvement plans, transportation and other expenditure plans through the lens of climate and equity to optimize the return on every dollar spent.
Challenging times are uniquely opportune for assessing what’s most critical. During times of stability, society seems to accept relatively inefficient, ineffective systems while in times of distress, leaders – especially at the most adaptable local level – step forward, priorities are clarified, and barriers are removed.
These times also show us the extent to which people are willing and capable of making significant and dramatic changes in the face of a global threat. People have significantly reduced their carbon footprint – in ways that would have been unimaginable just weeks ago. These reductions (however long they last) have come at a significant cost for businesses and millions of workers. While we work to minimize the immediate hurt (especially for our most vulnerable residents and communities), there are perhaps, simultaneously, lessons we can learn from this difficult period to sustain some of the new habits people are developing without the social and economic burden.
Turning new habits into sustained practices
Federal, state and local laws across the nation have changed in a matter of months to allow more regulatory flexibility for businesses and healthcare industries to respond to the pandemic’s health and economic impacts. This is just the beginning of the policy creativity, economic and social adaptability, and technological innovation that will be unleashed.
This isn’t unique to this period, as the proverb reminds us “Necessity is the mother of invention”. Studies support the premise that scarcity influences how creatively people use their resources. In a 2015 study, Ravi Mehta at the University of Illinois and Meng Zhu at Johns Hopkins University examined how resource scarcity could reduce people’s natural tendency to use what was available to them in conventional ways. They found that, with abundance, people simply have no incentive to use what’s available to them in novel ways.
The study pointed to the conclusion that creativity is in many ways “situational.” Our environments either impel us to see things differently or they don’t. When people face scarcity, they give themselves freedom to use resources in less conventional ways–because they have to. The situation demands a cognitive adaptability that would otherwise remain untapped.
A team of researchers found that when they examined how people design new products, cook meals, and fix broken toys, adding budget constraints significantly increased how resourceful people were in responding to these challenges, and led to better results.
Resource abundance can actually be counterproductive. With constraints, we make the best out of what we have. Without constraints, we tend to rely on our existing experience and understanding. We typically sit on a chair, so that’s how we think of chairs.
This is referred to as “functional fixedness” – a cognitive bias that limits us to use an object or resource only in the way it is traditionally used. We follow the path of least resistance, which is helpful for letting us conserve mental energy by turning instinctively to commonplace ways of thinking.
As leaders and stakeholders, our first responsibility is to ensure the health, safety and well-being of people and businesses within our communities. Already, many of us are doing that in creative new ways that wouldn’t have been possible before this disruption. As we forge through this time together, we have the opportunity to learn from each other and extend that creativity to ensure our communities’ long-term resilience and prosperity.