The automobile is on its way out

Written by Sjoerd Bakker, august 26 2020

The car was one of the most important drivers of growth in the twentieth century. Yet we’re now coming to the realization that we’ve given the car too much space, both literally and figuratively, in our lives and living world. That’s why there’s growing momentum for reducing car ownership and use worldwide. This is a technological, institutional as well as cultural battle which will slowly unfold during the twenty-first century.

Our observations

  • The rise of the combustion engine and motorized transport was initially widely embraced and many saw it as a solution to societal problems. This was no wonder, as the car was universally introduced by manufacturers and newly established interest groups (e.g. ANWB in the Netherlands and the Automobile Club of America and the American Automobile Association in the U.S.) as the standard-bearer for progress and modernity.
  • The car was given all the necessary space and more and investments were made in highways. This was done out of political considerations regarding the stimulation of economic growth (partly as a component of the New Deal) and (as in Europe) to enhance political unity. Streets and entire cities were taken over by the car at the expense of other road users, but also of other infrastructures (e.g. bicycle highways in Los Angeles and public transportation such as trams). Especially in the suburbs (made possible by cars), the car was (and is) the only practical form of transportation.
  • The ousting of other road users and the growing number of (fatal) car accidents led to large-scale protests in the 1920s and ‘30s, both in the U.S. and in Europe. Car drivers were seen as an elite group that made life miserable for a much more diverse and larger group of non-car users with their “devil wagons” and “toys of the rich”. In some cases, tensions even led to violence against car drivers.
  • The American car lobby succeeded nonetheless, through education and other means, in convincing the population that the streets and roads were mainly meant for cars. Children were taught to be careful when crossing the street, as opposed to the driver exercising caution, and learned that they basically didn’t belong on the streets. While rules for car drivers were developed as well (such as maximum speeds, driver’s licenses and stoplights), the emphasis was on rules and bans for other road users.
  • In the Soviet Union, political ideology led the state to expressly prefer the development of public transportation (i.e. subway, trams and buses) and the (individualistic) car was given much less space. Many European countries also elected a more modest role for cars than they had in the U.S.

Connecting the dots

In hindsight, we can say that most countries gave the car too much space and that, in organizing our lifeworld, we’ve inordinately accommodated the motorist. As a result, the car, aside from all the good it has brought us economically and societally, has also led to large structural problems; unlivable cities, unsafety in traffic, unhealthy lifestyles, segregation, air pollution and climate change. Looking back, we can thus now say that laws and regulation for cars and other motorized traffic have remained too limited to solving or preventing (relatively) small problems and that we, society as a whole, have been insufficiently attentive to the structural problems increasing car use would cause. It is questionable, however, to what extent societies had any choice in the matter (in light of the economic and societal promise of this technology) and what measures they should have taken. Furthermore, a problem such as climate change (and to a lesser extent, local air pollution) could not conceivably have been foreseen.

Now, we’re experiencing the problems mentioned on a daily basis and momentum is growing to correct these historical “mistakes” and, with a certain sense of drama, one could even say that we’re waging a war against the car. Partly, the solution may take the form of technological fixes, such as the electrification of mobility (which would at least reduce direct pollution) or robotization (which could make the deployment of vehicles much more efficient), but we’ve also come to the understanding that technological fixes are nearly always limited and lead to other issues in turn.

There are also many initiatives to strongly discourage car use by means of charging motorists fees and car-free zones. Years ago, Barcelona introduced the model of “superblocks”, whereby four or nine residential blocks are made car-free and car traffic can only use the adjacent streets. In Utrecht, they’re developing a neighborhood of 10,000 houses (virtually) without parking spaces. In response to the corona crisis, London has chosen to make many of the city’s streets car-free in order to create space for the pedestrians and cyclists that, for fear of corona, want to avoid public transportation. To further discourage the car as an alternative to public transportation, the rush hour rate has been raised for cars in the inner city. Paris too, has invested in separate bicycle lanes at the expense of space for cars, which has led to a 54% increase in bicycle traffic in one year and a (much smaller) decrease in car use. Naturally, these kinds of measures lead to much resistance among car drivers (on practical and cultural grounds), but young people seem to be more open to new, cleaner, shared and more flexible forms of transportation with more room for bikes, mopeds and motor scooters, as well as traditional modes of public transportation.

In the longer term however, the total demand for mobility will also have to drop for the desire for cars to dwindle. A society with fewer cars will probably only be possible if we can manage to organize our daily lives on much smaller surfaces. This could be done by bringing physical destinations closer together in more compact cities instead of vast suburbs. In an extreme variation on this principle, China is currently working on so-called “15-minute life circles”,  in which nearly every imaginable destination (such as work, stores, education and healthcare) is within fifteen minutes’ walking distance for residents. This principle is applied, among other places, in the Tianfu New Area of Chengdu, a city of millions meant to serve as an example of a green megacity with high quality of life for residents. Possibly, virtualization can contribute to a structural decrease in our demand for mobility (hypomobility), as it enables us to engage in more practices from home.

Implications

  • Slowly but surely, space will arise for new mobility models that until now have failed to achieve a breakthrough (such as car-sharing), but the solution will mainly lie in renewed appreciation for old modalities such as bicycles and trains (which will increasingly become an alternative to short-haul flights).

  • It’s not nearly everywhere that the car has taken up such a dominant position (yet) as in the West. The (developing) countries where it hasn’t, may be able to leapfrog to cleaner and smarter forms of mobility without ever being encumbered by a car-dominated culture and infrastructure.

  • The history of the car may also teach us to more critically reflect on technology today. For example, in the debate on digital technology (and artificial intelligence in particular), there is strong emphasis on regulating excesses, but we don’t often enough ask what impact this technology will have in the long-term and to what extent we can put a stop to that if necessary. For this technology as well, a (more cautious) European approach could benefit our quality of life in the long-term, even if it is at the expense of economic growth in the short-term.

My plant the therapist

Written by Jessica van der Schalk, august 26 2020

What happened?

Among young adults, who often live in small spaces in cities, the popularity of indoor plants has grown strongly in recent years worldwide. Internet search data shows that interest has increased tenfold since 2010. The sales of indoor plants has also increased strongly, especially among millennials. So-called plant influencers on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube are getting more and more followers and offers from major brands in the plant sector. The Covid-19 lockdown has given this interest an extra boost, because people have started to pay more attention to home.

What does this mean?

Several reasons are given for the growing popularity of indoor plants. For example, research shows that the presence of greenery, even if it is only a few plants in the house, can reduce stress. What is more, plants have the ability to lower the carbon dioxide content and remove pollutants such as formaldehyde, trichlorethylene. Finally, it is indicated that plants offer millennials, who often start a family later and live in small houses without a garden, the opportunity to take care of a living being, which gives a sense of homeliness.

What’s next?

The growing popularity of indoor plants among millennials in particular, fits in with a broader trend of healthy eating and activities that reduce stress such as yoga and mindfulness. With the global pandemic, an economic crisis and climate change, the need for things that offer peace of mind in everyday life will persist. This trend is also consistent with the idea that people will never get used to an environment in which little nature is present, such as in cities.

Trump’s 2020 strategy

What happened?

The Asia Times recently interviewed Steve Bannon, an important advisor of President Trump. Bannon explained how he helped Trump to power in 2016, and what form the campaign in 2020 will probably take. He introduces a contrary perspective on the elections in November, one that’s more alive to the less measurable elements of the electoral cycle.

What does this mean?

The essence of Bannon’s argument is his contention that the 2020 elections will revolve around China. According to Bannon, Trump’s success in 2016 could be explained by nationalist (anti-establishment) sentiment directed against the American political elite. But in 2020, this nationalist sentiment could be redirected towards China (and “Beijing Biden” instead of “Crooked Hillary”).  An important point Bannon makes is that Trump’s campaign (both 2016 and 2020) begins about 150 days before the elections, while his smear campaign of the Democratic candidate doesn’t start until about 90 days before the elections.

What’s next?

Bannon sheds new light on the 2020 elections. Although Biden is far ahead in the polls, he’s less suited to our Zeitgeist of distrust, he hasn’t had any momentum, and the Trump campaign is not underway yet. These are less measurable elements of the electoral cycle (compared to polls and “betting odds”), but they may become increasingly important as the elections draw near.

Devolutionary internet memes

What happened?

Karen” is a pejorative term for a person claiming the right to ask for and demand more than would be considered appropriate or necessary in the situation according to societal standards. It’s the stereotype of a white middle-aged woman who displays aggressive behavior whenever she doesn’t get her way and adopts a very exacting attitude in these situations (e.g. “I want to speak to your manager!”). During the corona crisis, the term is mostly applied to women who refuse to abide by social distancing rules (with the signature demand of getting a haircut). Then there are “Kyles”: angry teenagers riled up from drinking large quantities of energy drink and gaming a lot, but not really getting anywhere in the real world.

What does this mean?

Karen was born on social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and particularly Reddit, making her an internet meme and part of online culture. An internet meme is an information pattern that rapidly spreads among a large group of users through the internet, often as a normative witticism. By replicating and building on other memes through creative reproduction (“liking”, reposting and sharing a meme online), using the “power of repetition” and intertextuality (i.e. a generic meme can be applied as a pattern, to different situations, persons, objects, etc.), internet memes are used to quickly spread the underlying message to large groups of people. As the gene is the unit of evolution in biology, the internet meme is the unit of the digital cultural evolution. And memes have long stopped being a niche of online culture, they’re now even an integral part of campaign strategies.

What’s next?

In his research, Joseph Burgo shows that shame is an important socio-psychological determinant of individual and collective human behavior and thinking. However, this works best when concrete behaviors and acts are concerned. The risk of internet memes representing an archetype, such as Karen, is that they are probably not productive in the normative sanctioning of positive behavior. On the contrary, memes can lead to polarization when they generalize or even stigmatize. And considering their viral nature, the most popular memes are likely to be the most extremely stereotypical, leading to further polarization. This means that memes can also contribute to a regressive cultural development on the internet and social media, which is risky, given the fragility of the current cultural balance in our post-corona societies.

The resilience paradox

All over the world, citizens, policy-makers, entrepreneurs and governments are asking themselves how they can become resilient. The corona crisis seems to be leading to an apotheosis of this popular ideal that has become prevalent in our society in the past decades. The notion of resilience therefore teaches us something about the spirit of the times and the way we relate to the world and ourselves. There are valuable aspects to the ideal, but dangers lie in the unilateral fixation on resilience.

Our observations

  • There is no clear definition of the term resilience. As is elaborately discussed in this article by correspondent Lynn Berger, it’s become a key concept in all sorts of domains and used to refer to several different things. A very generic description would be that resilience is the ability to continue to function as usual during times of adversity. When further specification is required – and this is where disagreement generally arises – the state of equilibrium (homeostasis) of a system is emphasized. Resilience is about optimal temporary adjustment to an external stressor (allostasis) with the subsequent rapid recovery of the original homeostasis or the establishment of a new homeostasis.
  • The term resilience has long been popular in psychology and mental healthcare. In psychological resilience, the emphasis is on mental defensibility: the ability to successfully respond to significant setbacks, traumatic events or other stressors. Mentally resilient people are able to adapt well and quickly become their old selves again.
  • In ecology, resilience originally referred to an ecosystem’s ability to adapt to severe disruptions in climate, such as enduring drought or heavy rainfall, without losing its equilibrium in the long run. Nowadays, the possibility that ecosystems can eventually become stronger or reach new states of equilibrium is more frequently highlighted as well.
  • Resilience also plays an increasingly large role for entrepreneurs, investors, economists and overseers. They regard resilience mostly as the ability to respond adequately to downward cycles, loss of demand or recession. Since the financial crisis, banks are regularly subjected to stress tests to establish their resilience. And organizations are focusing on the redundancy and buffers of their balance, diversification of the value chain and strength of cash flows, under the guise of resilience.
  • Authorities around cities and countries are not impervious to the ideal. All around the world, chief resilience officers are appointed, tasked with ascertaining whether their city is in fact resilient. Rotterdam, for example, recently launched its strategy for becoming a resilient city.

Connecting the dots

A crisis is making the call for resilience more urgent, but resilience was on the rise in our society long before the corona crisis.
First, this rise and popularity of resilience can be understood as an inevitable side effect of a different way of looking at the world. Resilience goes hand in hand with a world view characterized by complexity and uncertainties. This world view is the result of a scientific transformation but is also linked to the processes of globalization and the real or subjective threats of natural disasters, economic crisis and terrorism. Resilience is part of perception of life in which we feel as if we’re in a permanent state of crisis. In our hyperconnected, complex and uncertain world, unexpected dangers and disrupting events always loom, making the call for resilience all the more urgent.
But we haven’t just changed our perception of the world, we’ve also come to view ourselves in a different light. After WW II, the ideal of resilience mainly gained popularity due to psychology and ecology, but it also has roots in the biological thinking of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. For Darwin, adjustment to living conditions was of course already one of the most important drivers of evolution. And in the early twentieth century, there was renewed interest in the self-regulating ability of organisms in relation to their environment. To survive, systems may temporarily become unbalanced due to external influences, but they also have a natural inclination to restore equilibrium. Scientific insight into this mechanism has allowed us to help “nature’s” self-regulating system to bounce back. This applies to our own bodies, but this point of view has also proved valuable in understanding, for example, a political or economic “body”.
This new understanding of ourselves and the world has made it possible for us to remain healthy during uncertain times, because we increasingly understand how to deal with stressors without having to predict or control the future. With a resilient system, it doesn’t matter what happens, it can stand a bit of turbulence. We can learn mental skills that increase resilience, apply the right liquidity buffers to companies’ balance sheets or increase the biodiversity of an ecosystem, to enable these systems to better absorb shocks and restore themselves to a state of equilibrium (homeostasis) or even emerge stronger from the battle.
The ideal of resilience therefore undeniably have valuable aspects. But in the past years, there has been increasing criticism of the term, because it’s become a buzzword, used with abandon, often making it unclear what exactly the term refers to and how to measure it. Besides this debate about its definition and its overly loose application, there are a number of more substantial points of criticism.
The resilience of individuals, for instance, is not always beneficial to the community or the world. This became clear in a study into the emotional consequences of extreme weather Lynn Berger refers to. This study shows that persons that are resilient are less inclined to do something about the causes of extreme weather.

Scientists have dubbed this the resilience paradox: individual resilience may be at odds with the resilience of a group or community and can even thwart it. Resilience and indifference are therefore dangerously close on the same continuum. Another objection to resilience comes from, among others, psychologist Paul Verhaeghe. He has pointed out that the ideal of resilience is frequently employed by policymakers, organizations and psychologists to increase individuals’ resilience, without due consideration of individuals’ societal context. If a work environment leads to chronic stress, it’s convenient for organizations to increase the resilience of individuals. However, if they succeed in containing the burn-out epidemic, they will be less inclined to investigate the potentially unhealthy nature of the working culture. Health becomes largely one’s own responsibility. This also results in a resilience paradox: resilience goes hand in hand with systems thinking, but at the same time, it can also be counterproductive to finding systemic solutions.
Finally, there is the more cultural-philosophical criticism that resilience may also contribute to a hostile or tense, distant stance towards the world. By constantly focusing on our own resilience, we come to regard the world and the other more often and more consistently as a hostile source of danger, uncertainties and potential stressors. We find ourselves in a permanent and rather stressful state of alert. Healthy protection against the world could then descend into unhealthy isolation from the world, causing us to detach from others and the communities we belong to.
Oddly enough, this excessive protection actually makes us vulnerable and our mental health may suffer from this, as shown in a study into the effects of overprotective parents on children. It results in another resilience paradox: protection from one thing makes us vulnerable to other things. We endow ourselves and our children with a protective shield, but this makes it difficult for us to achieve intimacy, build trusting relationships and it makes us vulnerable to depression and other mental illnesses.
Resilience is a valuable and interesting concept – especially during the current corona crisis. But it’s important to practice moderation in working on our resilience and not to lose sight of the pitfalls of unilateral fixation on this popular ideal. A one-sided focus on resilience during the corona crisis can also lead to indifference, further individualization of care and a hostile and distrusting relationship to each other in our everyday lives.

Implications

  • We arrive in a difficult period of the corona crisis where the resilience paradox is clearly visible. The first phase of urgency and common spirit is behind us, but we are far from normal. In the “new normal”, social distancing is making us as society resilient in the short term, but we risk a lot for the long-term in terms of mental health. For instance, loneliness is bad for the immune system and an isolated life reduces life expectancy drastically.

  • The corona crisis reveals the resilience paradox is prevalent in the economy as well. Since the financial crisis, the attention for the stability of the financial system has grown. Banks which become to big make the system vulnerable, i.e. the too big to fail mechanism. Nevertheless, the economy as a whole is currently struggling with the same problem. Big companies have – to guarantee the preservation of existing jobs – an implicit bailout in their operations. The focus on stability of these companies in normal times is making us vulnerable during economic turmoil.

Our collective brain

What happened?

The corona crisis is showing us how alike we are in our thoughts. In early March, on the same day, virtually all of us came to the conclusion that there actually was a crisis and that we should hoard toilet paper and hand sanitizer. A few weeks ago, we also apparently all concluded that it was OK to go out in droves, without any announcement from authorities. Meanwhile, during the lockdown, we all spontaneously decided to work out, ride our bikes and go rollerblading outside. None of these phenomena, trends, hypes or crazes are unique or new, but this crisis does confront us with these new forms of collective thinking.

What does this mean?

There are new rules of play and we have to learn to deal with them. We’re exploring the boundaries between what’s allowed and what isn’t and are keeping a close eye on each other in the process. It’s no wonder then, that we’re learning from each other, mimicking each other or that we just happen to arrive at more or less the same idea. Furthermore, many of these ideas are of course put into our heads by companies and their marketing channels. At the same time, this is also a morally charged period, making us extra aware of our own behavior and others’; who is breaking the rules and who is slightly exaggerating? On the beach, therefore, it’s not just crowded, it’s dangerously crowded.

What’s next?

This heightened awareness of our collective behavior can evoke different responses. We can accept the situation and possibly even derive a feeling of solidarity from it. After all, we’re all in the same boat, going through the same struggle. On the other hand, it’s conceivable that we’ll look for activities and products that still do make us feel original and authentic. This could lead to increased demand for more personalized products and services and, as soon as it’s allowed again, even more exotic holiday destinations.

Our post-corona relationship to nature

Each crisis in our modern existence has a clear human component. Most of them are even almost fully man-made, such as the financial crisis, the migration crisis, trade wars and conflicts. But the corona virus originated in the wilderness and took modern man by surprise. The virus, however, was not what caused the pandemic. Large-scale ecological destruction by humans most likely contributed to the rapid spread and deadliness of the virus. Will this crisis change the way we relate to nature?

Our observations

  • Scientists point to the high probability of the virus having spread from bats to a wild animal species before spreading to humans. This would make banning the trade of these wild animals a possible measure, but that would not contain the risk of future virus outbreaks. Trade in these wild animals is merely a link in the chain of causes of the pandemic. Scientists warn that the degradation of ecosystems and the decrease in biodiversity could increasingly lead to epidemics. These factors result in vulnerable species dying out sooner and others with a more ‘live fast, die young’ nature (such as bats, which harbor many pathogenic viruses) experiencing uninhibited growth and spreading their pathogens to humans faster. Deforestation especially enhances the chances of this so-called “species jump”.
  • One Health is a concept that’s being used by more and more scientists and policymakers, in which the health of people, animals and the environment are monitored integrally. In this integrated system approach, public health is not detached from the health of animals and environments. In line with this, the EAT-Lancet report appeared last year, in which for the first time, the optimal diet for the health of humans AND the environment was calculated. The bottom-line was that we should eat fewer animal-based and more plant-based foods.
  • Dutch scientists are arguing against returning to “business as usual” after the corona crisis, and for preventing further ecological consequences of economic growth. They emphasize that the current economic model will lead to, according to the WHO, 4.2 million people dying annually of air pollution, that the consequences of climate change are expected to cause 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050, and that further degradation of ecosystems will heighten the risk of new and more powerful virus outbreaks.
  • We’re far from global reaching consensus on the cause of the pandemic, even though it likely originated in wild animals but was successfully spread and made deadly by humans. A globalized and strongly urbanized world helped the virus spread so rapidly and air pollution probably made the virus even more fatal. While these causes are not confined within the borders of any one country and international cooperation is needed in this crisis, the discussion on the virus has become strongly politicized and countries are arguing about where the virus originated and who is to blame.

Connecting the dots

Crises in modern societies are often man-made. Take, for example, military conflict, financial crises, trade wars. The corona crisis on the other hand, is neither solely caused by humans nor is it a purely “natural” phenomenon like famine or the climate crisis. The possibility of a sudden and swift emergence of a new, deadly virus in our modern, globally connected lives, was a risk that was barely acknowledged by most of us. The new virus has awakened the realization that humans are a part of a complex world, in which human and non-human life are connected. Furthermore, it has raised questions about how man relates to his natural surroundings. COVID-19 is a zoonotic virus, meaning it’s transferrable from animals to humans, putting into question how we relate to other, non-human life and, more broadly, how we as humans relate to natural ecosystems.
From the onset of the outbreak, the virus has not only exposed the differences and rivalries between countries but has especially shown which ideas are predominant in our consideration of the way humans relate to nature. The corona crisis has not only fueled discussion between political leaders, the pandemic has also been taken up as ammunition in the defense of several ecological stances, often in order to identify guilty parties. The pandemic is said to be a “warning of Mother Earth”. These interpretations comprise largely Western and modern views on nature, dividing the world into man versus nature, the moral division of nature as harmonious and good and humans as harmony-disrupting and wicked. Supposedly, mankind, not the virus, is the disease ravaging mother Earth, as is shown by the position that mankind is the cancer of the Earth in the second report by the Club of Rome. The Cartesian relationship between subject and object, between culture and nature are clearly highlighted in this. It gives humans a central role in life on Earth, and with that, the possibility to control this life. The corona crisis provides insight into the flaws of these apparent contradictions.Even before modern man, there was no harmonious natural order, the earth has always been an inhospitable

place where live organisms are continuously exposed to disease, parasites and natural disasters. But modern man mostly considered himself to be separate from nature and romanticized living in harmony with it.
Karen Barad’s concept of intra-action offers an escape from this way of thinking about nature, which is failing us in the corona crisis. She defines intra-action as the mutual constitution of intertwined agencies. This means we should not just understand the corona crisis in terms of a corona virus, but as a phenomenon that has arisen between human and non-human actors and the virus itself. It’s unlikely that everyone on Earth will be exposed to the virus, but it’s a given that everyone will have to deal with the corona crisis, dividing responsibility among constitutive entities. Intra-action questions the artificial boundaries that characterize our thinking and our actions (subject-object, culture-nature). In an ecological system, each part is connected to the others by countless relationships, and these relationships define life, just as social contact between humans humanizes.
Barad’s concept is also in line with the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock, who, despite his ecological outlook, also broke with the environmental movement, due to his view that it invariably oversimplifies reality, putting all the blame on humans. He understood the earth to be a superorganism that we’re part of. This undermines micro-perspectives on the virus. The virus and its spread can be perceived as part of a complex system, just as much as humans can. Both the concept of intra-action as well as the Gaia hypothesis acknowledge humans as an integral part of a complex and dynamic system that humans cannot control but are (partly) responsible for. In this sense, this kind of thinking is reminiscent of metamodernism. It foregoes the modernist subject-object opposition, nor does it succumb to post-modernist relativism. It urges us to acknowledge the complexity of life on Earth and to take responsibility for it. The current pandemic makes it necessary to embrace this type of thinking.

Implications

  • With respect to measures, quarantine is somewhat paradoxical, as it may help to isolate humans and prevent them from becoming infected, but is hardly a tenable solution in the long-term, because it negates precisely those relationships that constitute our life. To contain the risk of future large-scale outbreaks, preventative measures will also need to be taken that do justice to the complexity of systems. Involving multiple disciplines (not just virology) will help in thinking about these measures.

  • Furthermore, complexity thinking, holistic research agendas and innovations surrounding the theme “one health” will be vital in devising solutions to this crisis.

  • Since many infectious diseases, such as Ebola and swine flu, spread through animal feed, the corona crisis will be associated with factory farming and give momentum to the transition from animal-based to plant-based protein sources. Deforestation, which is linked to the production of cattle feed (such as soy), will also face more scrutiny because of this crisis.

What could a Post Corona society look like?

The Corona pandemic has resulted in an enormous setback and disillusion all over the world. Families find themselves in quarantine, health systems are under enormous pressure, and the level of global economic damage may be without precedent. Regardless of how long the pandemic will last, it is bound to leave a deep impression on societies around the world. Since we can only speculate its impact because there are a lot of uncertainties, scenario thinking seems to be the best tool to imagine how current developments will shape a post-corona society.

Our observations

  • Scenario reasoning is not based on a linear extrapolation of events today, rather it distinguishes factors that are most uncertain (and relevant) on a given time-scale and questions how those factors can shape the world, depending on how they develop in the future.
  • In our scenario exercises, and throughout all of our research, we focus on developments in geopolitics, technology and culture, which form the axes of our scenario models. In this case, the pandemic will impact geopolitics, the technology we develop (and put to use) and socio-cultural trends. By combining these three axes of uncertainty, we produce eight distinct scenarios in each of which a specific combination of (conceivable) outcomes of the pandemic takes effect.
  • While these outcomes are yet unpredictable, current developments inform us about the likeliness of specific scenarios actually becoming reality. As we noted in our previous edition for example, China’s apparent success in fighting the outbreak is likely to contribute to a wider acceptance of Chinese institutions and its use of technology. This, in combination with President Trump’s (supposed) attempt to buy a German vaccine developer, could very well sway geopolitical momentum for China.
  • As millions of people are living in some form of quarantine or lockdown, people are developing and embracing new (or already existing) practices such as teleworking and online education. Some of these are only temporary and can be discarded once the crisis is over, others may last longer and become part of our everyday routines.
  • The crisis lays bare existing problems and (some of) these can become a “target” for society to address in a post-Corona society. These problems can become visible either because they add to the spread of the virus itself (e.g. poor accessibility of healthcare in some countries) or because current measures against further spreading of the virus show us what the world could look like (e.g. clean air in Chinese cities and crystal-clear water in Venetian canals).

Connecting the dots

Once the Corona-crisis is over, the resulting deep social and economic wounds will take time to heal and, afterwards, the world probably looks a lot different from today’s. This does not necessarily mean that a full-blown paradigm shift will take place, but the personal suffering, months of societal disruption and a global economic crisis are likely to shake up geopolitical dynamics, change the way we use technology, challenge our worldview(s) and force us to redefine priorities in order to prevent or prepare for new crisis. In order to get a glimpse of such changes, we can start to think about the factors that are likely to have a major impact on the world as we knew it before the pandemic. We recognize three factors: cause, reaction and solution. First, how we will perceive the cause of the pandemic. For example, will China get the blame as a source of viruses came from there, or will we blame the global economy? The causes of the pandemic will be scrutinized, and possibly acted upon (e.g. specific health and safety regulations or a more critical stance on global flows of people and goods). Second, what happens during the crisis. Think for example about how individuals behave (e.g. widespread altruism or hoarding consumers) or how nations behave towards their citizens and towards each other (e.g. sharing resources or not). Also, we are already witnessing how new, and not-so-new, practices are gaining popularity and we may continue to behave like that in a post-corona world as well (e.g. teleworking and online education). Third, the way the crisis ends and how it ends.  For instance, specific nations, businesses or technologies (e.g. if China is the first to develop an effective vaccine) can save us. The axes in our scenario model express extremes of how the pandemic could change geopolitics, (our use of) technology and sociopolitical aspects. The greatest uncertainties, from our perspective, are whether this crisis will lead to further globalization or rather to (small steps towards) deglobalization, whether technology will be used (primarily) to prevent a new crisis or to be better prepared for the next one and whether people will aspire to an attitude of more individualism or collectivism. From a geopolitical perspective, the spread of the coronavirus is deeply intertwined with globalization. Ongoing globalization is justly portrayed as one of the major causes of the rapid global spread of the virus, as international economic and political interests made it near impossible to isolate it. The pandemic can directly influence global relations, depending on whether countries work together to control the outbreak and develop a solution or whether they choose to go about it alone and,

for instance, refuse to share scarce resources (or medicines) with each other. As a result, a post-corona world may be one in which globalization prevails (or even accelerates) or we may see (different forms of) de-globalization as multilateral institutions fall apart.
From a technological perspective, the question is how this crisis affects the kinds of technology we will develop and how we will put them to use. One outcome could be that we decide to put all of our technological weight behind preventing a new health (or another natural or man-made) crisis. Solutions may include a sensor-based economy for early detection of problems or technology that supports alternative consumer practices (e.g. facilitating meaningful interaction online). Another outcome of the crisis could be that we will focus on the preparation for future crises instead; e.g. the deployment of more scalable infrastructure to facilitate peak-demand or technology that supports autarkic lifestyles and local value chains. This reasoning, of more radical attempt to prevent or prepare for crises could very well apply to other looming crises as well (e.g. climate change or mass migration).
From a socio-cultural perspective, the crisis can lead to changes in world view(s). This can apply to the way we view each other, but also to our relationship with nature or the Earth. Failure to achieve effective social distancing or egotistic consumer behavior, for instance, could lead to further individualization as distrust and moral disapproval of others increases. The perceived human-nature dichotomy, to give another example, is likely to deepen if societies fail to address the pandemic. By contrast, the current crisis may also lead to more altruistic behavior when healthcare professionals and other (underpaid) critical workers are recognized and rewarded, which can also translate into broader attempts to reduce inequality. The result could be a society in which the collective prevails over individuals. As scenario thinking is not a predictive tool but rather a tool to navigate the future, it forces us to broaden our perspective and keep an open mind on future developments instead of, as happened during the Financial Crisis, fantasizing about a utopian world in which all the problems of the past are fixed. At the same time, we can speculate, and thus anticipate, which of the eight scenarios are more or less likely as the crisis unfolds. From a decision-making perspective, we can consider which actions fit best with one or (preferably) multiple scenarios. The above contours are the first sketches of the research model we will explore in depth in the coming period.

Implications

  • When exploring several scenarios about a post-corona society, the challenge is to do so as neutral and unbiased as possible. That is, thinking in terms of desirable and undesirable scenario’s prevents an in-depth exploration of the pros and cons in all scenarios. That is, when a crisis unfolds in a direction that was first perceived as undesirable, one is less capable to spot opportunities. Nevertheless, this is easier said than done as some scenarios seem dystopian at first glance and the most obvious opportunities seem rather cynical.

  • Because this crisis affects the whole world and all layers of society, it will probably be a formative experience for many. The concept of ‘formative experiences’, however, is mostly used in the discourse of generations, in which a worldview is formed by huge events or developments in someone’s youth. However, we have previously explored a different approach, allowing formative experiences throughout a lifetime. This might be a more interesting angle for this particular situation because this event has a deep impact on everyone around the globe, not just the young.

In the back end of our cities

Whilst an idealized view of the countryside is common, the reality is that the countryside has rapidly modernized and transformed in Western, urban-industrialized society. How can we understand today’s countryside in a vastly urbanized world: Is the countryside the antithesis of the city, is the rural land the machine room behind our urban consumption patterns or is it a place where ideas for the future emerge?

Our observations

  • The countryside is broadly defined as land that is not urban, not in towns. As the world has rapidly urbanized over the last centuries and more than half of the global population live in cities, a lot of focus has gone to cities, urban needs, urban lifestyles, and the rapid transformation of cities (i.e. the rise of the smart city). The UN predicts that further urbanization will mainly take place in Asia and Africa, as Northern America, Latin America and Europe already are heavily urbanized regions and even sometimes show some deurbanization (and a move to midsized cities).
  • In order to draw attention to the countryside, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has just opened an exhibition in the Guggenheim museum in the very heart of Manhattan. He aims to show the urban world the transformation that is happening outside urban areas (the “other” 98% of the globe’s surface). At the end of the exhibition, the visitor is presented with a futuristic countryside: a space that is controlled by machinery, data centers, computing power and automated agriculture; the human is completely out of the picture in this visualization and the countryside has been reduced to a series of places of manipulation for the urban masses.
  • `The urban-rural rift is the polarization of those living in urban versus those in rural areas. Especially in the U.K. and in the U.S., this polarization is visible in the political divide. While the American election system also gives scarcely populated areas a vote, European politics rely more on the popular (and thus often the urban) vote. As cities are generally hotspots of progressive politics and have more attention for sustainability, this has a polarizing effect on Western societies. As the urban world greatly affects the landscape and environment, sustainable development depends on successful management of urban growth. But policies for sustainability often have an enormous impact on those in the countryside. As a result, the countryside has turned into a political arena in the Netherlands and has led numerous Dutch farmers to travel to cities with their tractors to protest.
  • According to the European definition, the Netherlands does not have a countryside anymore. The Dutch land is heavily cultivated and densely populated, not only by farmers. The remaining farmers have become entrepreneurs running large-scale, automated farms or farms catering to the nostalgia of urban dwellers for the old countryside, hosting tourists to experience the traditional countryside even if that place has long been gone. Generational amnesia describes the phenomenon that every generation assumes that the landscape as they know it is the “natural” landscape.
  • As urban problems proliferate in the limited space of the city, such as noise pollution, air pollution, crowdedness, disconnectedness from nature, etc., the countryside attracts urban dwellers. In times of crisis, such as war or pandemics (such as the Coronavirus), the isolated, sovereign and self-sufficient nature of the countryside even becomes crucial for survival.

Connecting the dots

Western society is an increasingly urban-industrial society. As more and more people live in cities nowadays, ideas and images of the countryside are increasingly idealized and stubbornly idyllic. The countryside is often depicted as an area that is more in harmony with nature than the urban area, a place associated with closely-knit communities, a sense of belonging, and a simple, idyllic life on farms. As our city lives rapidly transformed and modernized, images of the countryside often stayed the same and have become the antithesis to the city, a cultural construct of urban society. Although the preconceptions that surround the countryside – that it is isolated, authentic, traditional, backward, small-scale – are persistent, the countryside has changed as an inevitable result of the urbanization and modernization of society. Rural landscapes have been transformed by the tightened grip of modern, Western, urban-industrial society. The fast-changing and growing needs of the urban population now predominantly define rural transformations. Think of the energy transition, infrastructure altering landscapes – from pipelines to large-scale solar parks, the nutrition transition leading to bigger livestock farms and increased demand for soy to sustain the urban diet, and the digitization of society leading to the rise of enormous datacenters and gigantic ecommerce distribution centers. It takes a lot to meet the demands of the average urban consumer today. In a sense, the countryside hosts the scarce resources that need to be managed efficiently in order to serve the energy-dense (in terms of electricity, diets, data and goods) urban consumption patterns. Transformations of the countryside are of all times and the periphery has long serviced the center, but current modern interventions are taking place on an unprecedented scale. Through these hypermodern interventions, the countryside is turning into a functional and dehumanized engine room for the city. The romanticized farm has transformed into an automated, high tech AI-hub; even small-scale farmers in remote areas have experienced the information revolution and have access to mobile-enabled agricultural technology.

As the daily needs of urban consumers are increasingly served with the immediacy of user-friendly interfaces and disappearing computers, the countryside is turning into the backend of the urban world powered by big mechanistic boxes invisible to their daily users. The human presence in these complexes with the size of small cities is reduced to a minimum. In his book Machine Landscapes (2019), Liam Young explores these places ruled by AI and computing and considers them architectures of a post-human world. Not only are production processes outsourced on a large scale, societal and ecological costs are equally left to the countryside. The handful of laborers working in the machine room of the city are often temporary low-skilled and low-paid migrant laborers, whose fate is invisible to the urban elite. Similarly, refugee camps are often built on desolate landscapes, far out of the sight of the urban citizen. As such, the invisibility of these vulnerable groups comprises a new form of exclusion. Furthermore, under the pressure of the big urban footprint, the non-urban is turning into a desolate, degraded landscape. The fact that awareness about the ecological costs of our urban footprint is growing, gives momentum to environmentally friendly machine rooms, such as Norway’s green hydropower electricity-powered datacenters. Furthermore, pressure on farmers to reduce the environmental impact of food production has led to precision farming, which minimizes the amount of pesticides and herbicides in growing crops. As such, the countryside can also be a frontier of progress and innovation.

Implications

  • The seamlessly interfaced life of the urban dweller contrasts sharply with rural life. As a response, some claim that social and environmental issues should not be addressed as pertaining to separate rural and urban political agendas, but along an “urban-rural continuum”. Others argue that cities, as they absorb a large percentage of the world’s population and resources, should also become more resilient, self-sufficient and resourceful, to be achieved by making industries more sustainable, less polluting, more social, and adaptable to existing urban conditions by creating goods locally with 3D printing, for instance, locally growing crops in urban farms or by creating regional food systems to serve the city.

  • As we wrote before, growing evidence shows that proximity to natural environments is linked to better physical and mental health. In our modern lives, distanced from nature, the countryside provides an attainable way to assuage this shortcoming of urban life. Our affection for the countryside may thus reflect a fundamental human need. Moreover, the countryside can cater to a longing for a sense of being rooted, for a revalued locality in a globalized world.

The Dutch way of going circular

What happened?

Dutch material consumption per inhabitant is lower than the EU average and the Dutch consumed 20% fewer materials in 2018 than in 2000. Furthermore, compared with other countries, the Netherlands recycles a lot: 1700 kg per year per inhabitant. That the Dutch average of material use is below EU average is mainly due to the fact that the Netherlands is a relatively small and densely populated country, which means that relatively little material is needed per capita for the construction of the required infrastructure, such as roads. Furthermore, the Netherlands has a limited manufacturing industry and a large service sector, many goods are imported to be immediately re-exported after minor processing.

What does this mean?

The Dutch government aims to make the Netherlands circular within the next 30 years and to have its economy 100% waste-free by 2050, and is thus investing in promoting the circular economy. The reported progress is a good sign, but the Netherlands still has a long way to go if it wants to reach circularity by 2050.  On a global scale, the circular trend is even negative. The recently published Circularity Gap Report states that world is only 9% circular and that the upward trend in resource extraction and greenhouse gas emissions has continued. Circularity can only be reached when the problems of a linear economy are addressed. Reusing materials is labor-intensive, as more and more circular entrepreneurs have begun to notice. As a result, a shift to less tax on labor and more tax on resources is now supported by more Dutch sectors.

What’s next?

As the Dutch are striving for circularity, circular successes can be inspirational. As the building industry is still material-intensive, the BlueCity, an unusual building that serves as an incubator for companies working on the circular economy, has just won a prize for Rotterdam’s Most Sustainable Real Estate Project 2020. Furthermore, the government also aspires to circularity in agriculture. For a food nation like the Netherlands, this is a great chance to show global leadership.