Ports of Auckland and the city at dusk (Photo: poal.co.nz)

Anne Salmond: We need more than shovels to rebuild NZ post-Covid-19

After lockdown, we will need to take a hard look at how we rebuild. ‘Infrastructure’ means a lot more than motorways, writes Dame Anne Salmond.

In the wake of Covid-19, as New Zealand gets ready to make a graduated exit from lockdown, ministers, officials and other leaders are thinking hard about how to kickstart the economy.

To get New Zealanders back to work, the government has decided to make major investments in infrastructure. This is wise, but if it is to work, this programme must anticipate the future, and not echo the past. What kinds of infrastructure will be needed in a post-Covid-19 world?

While the government has talked about “shovel ready” projects, current trends towards virtual rather than actual exchanges have accelerated in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic – in government, businesses, educational institutions and families, both across New Zealand and around the globe. Thinking about shovels may no longer be the best way to visualise how to succeed in this changing world.

For the foreseeable future, international travel for business and personal purposes will be severely curtailed, and this is likely to affect local travel as well. Many encounters and transactions will happen on line, rather than in face-to-face exchanges, and so investment in virtual infrastructure (rather than motorways, say) must be a very high priority for New Zealand.

Virtual connectivity is fundamentally shifting the way we live, and work, with many more people working from home. In planning towns and cities, we should no longer suppose that people will work and live in different places. Cities will work better as a series of interconnected “villages”, with people living, working and playing within walking distance, linked by cycleways and public transport.

Working remotely is also shaping where people will choose to live in New Zealand, with less need to crowd together in urban centres; it’s also shaping the design of houses and apartments. Many dwellings have proved to be dysfunctional in lock-down, with no proper provision for working at home or getting outside. “Shovel ready” construction projects that ignore these changing realities are unlikely to be future-proof.

In lockdown, many New Zealanders have realised how much we love our beaches, rivers and forests, and rely on them for health and well-being. While New Zealanders were already deeply worried about climate change, the degradation of waterways and the loss of native plants and animals, this has accelerated. Investments in natural infrastructure in New Zealand must be a top priority for government, with a massive programme of restoring rivers and forests providing jobs across the country, and hope for the future.

Health and education have also been recognised as social infrastructure worthy of public investment, with medical experts and researchers guiding the lockdown at every stage. Again, challenged by heightened risks of infection from Covid-19, surgeries and hospitals, and schools, polytechnics and universities had to find new ways of working, which will no doubt influence the delivery of medical and educational services in future. In education, we need to think how to reskill people from industries that have been hit hard by this pandemic, and redouble our efforts to give astute, evidence-based advice based on high quality research.

Over these past few weeks, it has been fascinating to watch New Zealanders becoming more self-reliant, rediscovering the joys of neighbourhood, and the skills of cooking, baking and gardening. This will be true of the economy in general. Supply chains for vital items have failed in some cases, and as professor Tava Olsen from the University of Auckland has argued, the programme of public investment needs to consider how to reshape the economy to better protect us from global shocks.

Finally, a word about cultural infrastructure – the media, the arts, and key cultural institutions. During lockdown, people have turned to the media for flows of reliable information, and to the arts and culture for comfort, and relief from boredom and confinement. None of these vital elements of our national life should be forgotten in investing for the future.

It has taken a global pandemic to get us all off the treadmill of everyday life, and give us time to see what really matters. In investing in infrastructure, forget about shovels. Let’s use our hearts and minds, and the courage it has taken to go into lockdown, and translate that into a marvellous, exciting future for Aotearoa.



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