Covid-19 and the growing climate crisis are accelerating trends – such as advances in technology, more flexible and remote working and greener travel – that are causing a seismic shift in the way we use and view our cities, a panel of experts called together by E.ON has found.
According to new research commissioned by E.ON, this impact has been particularly felt by the business community, with 92% of leaders saying they have made sweeping changes in response to Covid-19. That involves planning for long-term flexible remote working (44%), downsizing office space (37%) and becoming more digital (44%) in the next 12 months – all of which have the potential to radically alter the make-up of cities across the UK.
These changes must be balanced with ongoing sustainability efforts to help meet the UK’s target of net zero emissions by 2050. Four-fifths (80%) of business leaders say they are actively seeking ways to make their companies more environmentally friendly.
Such changes mean the role of cities has been called into sharp focus: while the majority of businesses (90%) feel rooted in their locale – saying it is important to their business – nearly half (44%) say the cities in which they operate are no longer suitable for their needs.
To explore how businesses and cities could work together to map a green recovery from the pandemic and prepare communities to tackle the climate crisis, E.ON convened a panel of leading experts across local government, academia and business.
During the discussion, Ricky Burdett Professor of Urban Studies at London School of Economics and Director of LSE Cities, said: “You can’t dissociate where you run your business or how you run it from where people live and where they enjoy themselves. As such, what the current pandemic has shown is that there is a clear link between the physical organisation of the city and the way we live, work and the ways we can improve our wellbeing, safety and the future of our planet.”
Solène Wolff, managing partner at PLANE-SITE and host of the discussion, outlined a vision of how cities might evolve to meet the changing needs of businesses and society: “If we dare to imagine the city of the future, it would have multi-use public spaces, smart mobility and cycle lanes replacing cars, flexible building space – where homes are office space and office space becomes hotels. Roofs which provide wind and food farms, energy which is 100% renewable and produced locally, and, outside the city, there is space to revive wildlife. We can dare to imagine a climate-positive city.”
If cities are to achieve this vision, Martin Reeves, chief executive at Coventry City Council, believes that the funding model needs to change. He said: “The investment model into cities is broken. It is based on a very narrow set of parameters economically without a real understanding of how you invest for wider value capture. If Covid-19 has shown us one thing, it is that the power of big government often becomes fragile under a crisis – which is a worrying thought as the climate crisis continues to accelerate. However, with clarity, radical thinking and a coalition of partners who have something to gain – we can reimagine cities and create a positive future for all.”
Philip Wallace, head of City Energy Transformation at E.ON, agrees: “Housing, air quality, carbon reduction and inequality: to solve these issues we need to look at them holistically – for example, the question should not be how can we transition to renewable energy, but rather how can we do so in a way that doesn’t exclude those in fuel poverty. This will come about from long-term, local partnerships between businesses and city leaders that have the community at the heart. If we get that right, then cities will prove to be the key to recovering from Covid-19 and combatting the climate crisis.”
To help businesses plan for an unpredictable future, Rohit Talwar, Global Futurist at Fast Future, shared his predictions of what might happen, as well as suggestions on how cities and companies can get ahead of the curve:
- Energy Technologies – The next five to ten years will see the green energy sector reach a trillion-dollar valuation as a result of a massive scaling up of investment in radical new energy solutions. These range from solid state batteries, hydrogen, biofuels, and geothermal energy to solar roadways and capturing the energy generated by the motion humans and vehicles. These innovations should help businesses and cities deliver radical reductions in both their energy costs and CO2 emissions and they should monitor developments closely, keeping an open mind and trying new approaches, with rapid experimentation and trials of the new technology solutions.
- Payment Models – By 2025, to help tackle cost pressures on businesses and domestic fuel poverty challenges, we will need to see the emergence of radically different payment models for the supply of business and domestic energy and its provision back to the grid and local communities by organisations. These could create a new revenue stream for organisations investing in on-site generation now and businesses will be well-placed to take advantage of this opportunity. Cities need to be considering how they can pioneer this technology in partnership with local businesses and energy providers.
- Transport – An acceleration of dangerous climate change and wider environmental considerations is already prompting the end of sales of carbon fuel-based vehicles and will naturally prompt the removal of all such vehicles from our roads in the decades to come. In the near future, businesses need to consider the impact of this on their fleets and distribution infrastructure, whilst cities plan for and find funding solutions to provide the infrastructure required to make the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) as seamless as possible within the next five to ten years.
One potential environmental benefit resulting from Covid-19 is a new-found confidence in businesses when making decisions: Nearly two-thirds (63%) of business leaders in E.ON’s survey said their rapid response to the pandemic has made them more confident of success when making significant changes to their business in the future.
Closing the panel session, Philip Wallace added his view that across the UK cities are now reaching crisis point but at the same time communities hold perhaps the greatest role in making net zero happen and improving people’s lives – building a groundswell of public interest in the energy transition and forcing it higher up the political agenda at a national and local level.
He said: “Go big or go home. Now’s the time, we can’t wait any longer. The whole Covid-19 situation has to act as a catalyst. It’s through long term, trusted partnership between those who are committed to this vision and to this future.”