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Our chance for a sprint towards change

Hugh Pearman

Is a return to normal life really what we want after Covid? Surely this is our chance to speed the changes for the better that were already germinating before coronavirus hit

Some penicillium moulds produce the ingredients for pencillin which saved so many after World War 2.
Some penicillium moulds produce the ingredients for pencillin which saved so many after World War 2. Credit: Istock Dr_Microbe

Wars stimulate technological advance, we all know that logical if uncomfortable fact. The airline industry was born after the First World War because those years of slaughter had accelerated the development of large bombers, many of which were then directly converted for passenger use. And I exist because one young woman, dangerously ill in disease-ridden Hamburg as the RAF set up bases in Germany at the end of World War II, was saved by the new antibiotic Penicillin. The rapid introduction and mass production of that was part of the war effort: it had to be ready for D-Day, and was. So she survived, and later became my mother. 

The language of war is often wrongly used in the context of coping with disease but you can see why: in the war context, Penicillin was as much of an alternative secret weapon as radar. Wartime governments abandon fiscal caution and spend, spend, spend on technology, in order to gain an advantage. The parallel with the course of the pandemic is clear enough: not only the war-footing curtailment of normal life and activities for citizens, but the extraordinary time and effort devoted to finding a workable vaccine that will allow a return to ‘normal life’.

Here, of course, is the rub. The quest for the vaccine – or rather, a collection of several vaccines working in different ways – is looking promising at the time of writing. Let’s assume one or more of them can be found to work effectively, reliably and safely enough to make the necessary big difference. Then we shall be into the equivalent of the post-war period. There is one thing that marked out both such  periods in the 20th century: a strong push for a different, better society. Better housing, better jobs, better environment, better and healthier lives. 

One thing marked out both post-war periods in the 20th century: a strong push for a different, better society

And it is clear that the pandemic has accelerated social trends that were happening anyway, ranging from the ways we work to the ways we shop and take our leisure. This was apparent in the RIBA Rethink 2025 competition earlier this year: to my mind there was little in the outcome that was truly novel, rather it showcased existing thinking much increased in ambition and scale. Tentative moves are now being made. Long-nurtured plans to change the priority of our residential street life away from motor vehicles are being implemented with added urgency – with some mistakes and some controversy. We have been stimulated by the quiet, walkable streets of the first lockdown. How to make those permanent without making things worse for others? 

Seize the hour, then. What kind of normality do we want? Everything exactly the same as before, in all its environmentally and socially destructive ways? Commuting to work five days a week? Rampant consumerism of goods produced the on other side of the world and rapidly discarded? Driving everywhere? Design and construction of ­buildings little different from the 1950s except in their shoddiness? Surely not. ‘Building back ­better’ should mean just that. The arts – or creative industries – are intrinsic to this.