We humans are a spectacularly resilient species. Wars, famines, plagues, economic crashes – we dust ourselves off and press on. So we will get beyond COVID-19. But is it too much to hope that, devastating as the virus’s effects are proving, our survival could lead on to a better world?
We’re already seeing some sources of optimism amidst the general gloom. A study by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, for example, suggests that in April there may have been as many as 11,000 fewer deaths from the effects of pollution in Europe compared to the same month last year. If something similar is happening in major centres of pollution in Asia and elsewhere then the number of lives actually saved during the pandemic could be substantial.
However history tells us that things don’t just get better on their own. We have to take action. So what do specialists in sustainability in the world’s business school community think that companies should do once the crisis begins to abate to make a better world a reality?
#1 Flatten the curve– Wolf Ketter, Professor of Information Systems for Sustainability and Director of the Institute of Energy Economics at the University of Cologne believes that COVID-19 is a classic example of ‘demand congestion’ with too many patients stretching hospital capacity to breaking point. And tackling it has called for a flattening of the curve of demand to give health systems the time and space to manoeuvre. He hopes that the ways this is being achieved might inspire key industries, such as the utilities, to meet their own demand challenges in the future. “In the energy transition, we’ll need to flatten the curve differently in different places” he says. “Each utility provider will need to react quickly to peaks in demand in their unique markets. Such intricate measures will require a machine-to-machine economy to manage interrelated systems and artificial intelligence to help individuals easily respond to immediate market circumstances. Fortunately, ‘energy flexibility’ businesses are already developing innovative approaches to flatten the curve. AI and machine learning will become a sleepless task force protecting a publicly-critical service.”
#2 Engage with the local community at a grass roots level– “There are clear lessons in the COVID-19 crisis on how to contribute to create societies that are economically, socially and environmentally healthy, stable and resilient,” says Mary Martin, a senior policy fellow at LSE and director at UN Business and Human Security Initiative, LSE IDEAS. “However, when discussing the implications for sustainable business from the pandemic, we must look further than simply targeting individual goals such as minimising emissions or even improving healthcare. Supporting human security in all its diversity, working with communities and individuals to protect people and address a mosaic of issues that affect their lives, must become a core facet of corporations’ business models. Companies should see local communities as partners in achieving human security, sustainability and resilience. Working at a local level to identify specific needs, capture local knowledge and generate community solutions, will improve companies’ standing in the eyes of ordinary people and be fundamental in winning the fight for a happier world and a healthy environment.”