“Same storm, different boats”: addressing covid-19 inequalities and the ‘long term challenge’

MS Queen Elizabeth in Stornoway

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted upon almost every aspect of life.  However, this impact has not been felt by everyone equally. Some groups of people have been particularly badly affected – both by the virus itself and by the negative social and economic consequences of social distancing measures.  The phrase ‘same storm, different boats’ has been used widely to emphasise this.

The pandemic has exposed and deepened many of the deep-rooted inequalities in our society, including gender, ethnicity and income.  It has also shone a light on more recent inequalities too, such as the growth of precarious employment among sections of the population.

As we move out of lockdown, the long term consequences of the pandemic will continue to be felt unevenly across different sections of society, with those on the lowest incomes being most vulnerable.

As thoughts turn to recovery, there is a growing sense that now is the time to consider how we can create a more equitable society that benefits those most in need.

 

The long-term challenge

During a recent Poverty Alliance webinar, ‘Build Back Better: Poverty, Health and Covid-19: emerging lessons from Scotland’, Dr Gerry McCartney, Head of the Public Health Observatory at Public Health Scotland noted that the coronavirus pandemic was causing three concurrent public health crises:

  • the direct impact of the virus (through ill health and/or death);
  • the indirect impacts on health and social care services (e.g. reduced hospital admissions/referrals, delayed diagnoses); and
  • the long term unintended consequences of physical distancing measures

Dr McCartney’s recent research sets out the different groups at particular risk from covid-19 and outlines a number of ways in which the unintended consequences of physical distancing measures may negatively impact upon health via a complex set of pathways – including reduced physical activity, fear, anxiety, stress, boredom and loneliness, economic stresses related to reduced income and unemployment, the impact of the loss of education, as well as the risk of abuse and exploitation of children not in school, substance abuse, and domestic abuse and violence.

Dr McCartney has also been involved in a project that sought to quantify the direct impact of the pandemic in terms of years of life lost.  The results showed that, over 10 years, the impact of inequality on life expectancy is actually at least six times greater than the direct impact of the pandemic itself.

Dr McCartney referred to this as the “long-term challenge” and argues that in order to address these inequalities, it is crucial that society aims to ‘build back better’ following the pandemic.

Build Back Better

But what does this mean?  Put simply, Build back better argues that pandemic offers an unprecedented opportunity to refocus society on the principles of equity and sustainability.

A recent paper by the Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAll) sets out 10 key principles for ‘building back better’, covering a range of environmental, social and governance issues:

It highlights international examples of each of these principles in action, for example, speeding up the adoption of the doughnut economics framework in Amsterdam in response to the pandemic, and through the wellbeing principles implemented by the Wellbeing Economy Governments (WEGo) group, consisting of Iceland, New Zealand and Scotland (and recently joined Wales).

Indeed, in Scotland, the independent Advisory Group on Economic Recovery, established by the Scottish Government, have recently published their findings on how to support Scotland’s economy to recover from the pandemic.  It states that “establishing a robust, wellbeing economy matters more than ever”.

Unequal employment impact

One of the guiding principles set out by the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery is to “tackle inequality by mitigating the risks of unemployment, especially among groups hit hard by the crisis”.

Indeed, unemployment following the pandemic is unlikely to affect everyone equally – women, young people, BAME individuals and the low-paid are predicted to suffer the brunt.

In a subsequent Poverty Alliance webinar, ‘Addressing unemployment after Covid-19’, Tony Wilson from the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) highlights the scale of the problem.  He states that unemployment is rising faster than at any point in our lifetimes (barring a blip in 1947), and is likely to increase by 3 million as a result of the pandemic.

Again, the impact of this will be uneven.  Anna Ritchie Allan, director of Close the Gap, discusses the impact upon women in particular.  As well as being more likely to work in a sector that has been shut down, women are also more likely to have lost their job, had their hours cut, or been furloughed. As women are also usually the primary carers of their children, they have disproportionately affected by the closure of schools and home learning.

A recent report by Close the Gap highlights how the impending post-covid downturn is different than previous recessions, as the restrictions imposed to tackle the virus have impacted most heavily upon sectors that employ large numbers of female (e.g. hospitality, retail, care), as well as services that enable women’s participation in the labour market (e.g. nurseries, schools, and social care). Young and Black and minority ethnic (BME) women have been particularly affected.

For example, Kathleen Henehan, Research and Policy Analyst at the Resolution Foundation, considers how young people’s employment prospects have been affected by the pandemic. She notes that young people leaving education are likely to be worst affected.  However, again, inequalities exist – with those with lower levels of qualifications being particularly affected, and women and BME individuals within those groups affected most of all.

According to Anna Allan, policy to address unemployment as a result of the pandemic needs to be both gender-sensitive and intersectional – taking account of the fact that women are not one homogenous group, and ensuring that any job creation is not just providing more ‘jobs for the boys’.  For example, recent research by the Women’s Budget Group shows that investing in care would create 7 times as many jobs as the same investment in construction: 6.3 as many for women and 10% more for men.

Building forwards

In a third webinar, ‘Disability, rights and covid-19: learning for the future’, Dr Sally Witcher, CEO of Inclusion Scotland, suggests that as well as exposing and deepening existing inequalities, the coronavirus pandemic has created the scope for new inequalities to be created – ‘faultlines’ created by the differing impacts of the virus.

Dr Witcher questions the term ‘build back better’ – she asks whether indeed we should want to build back, when the old normal didn’t work for a large proportion of people, particularly those with disabilities. Dr Witcher also questions ‘who’ is doing the building, and whether the people designing this new future will have the knowledge and lived experience of what really needs to change.

Dr Witcher suggests that for any attempt to ‘build back better’ to be meaningful, it needs to reach out to the people that don’t currently have a voice – the people who have been most heavily affected by the virus.  Not only do these groups need to be involved, but they need to be leading the discussion about what a post-covid future looks like.

A post-covid future

Whilst the coronavirus pandemic has had a massive, devastating impact on people and economies around the world, it has created an opportunity to reflect on what is important to us as individuals and as a society.

There is strong public demand for change. According to a new YouGov poll, only 6% of the public want to return to the same type of economy as before the coronavirus pandemic.

Building back better recognises that addressing the causes of the deep-rooted and long-standing inequalities in our society is critical to a successful post-covid recovery.

There is also a need to protect and enhance public services, address issues of low-pay and insecure work, and prioritise wellbeing and the environment through a ‘green recovery’.

As Tressa Burke, of the Glasgow Disability Alliance, states:

History will recount how we all responded to the coronavirus outbreak.  We need to ensure that the story told demonstrates our commitment, as a society, to protecting everyone from harm, particularly those most at risk of the worst impacts of covid.”


For further discussion of the wellbeing economy, you may be interested in our blog post ‘How well is your economy? Moving beyond GDP as an indicator of success

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Knowledge from a distance: recent webinars on public and social policy

During the national lockdown, it’s been impossible for most of us to attend conferences and seminars. But many organisations have been harnessing the power of technology to help people share their knowledge, ideas and experience in virtual seminars.

In the past few weeks, the research officers at The Knowledge Exchange have joined some of these webinars, and in today’s blog post we’d like to share with you some of the public and social policy issues that have been highlighted in these online events.

The liveable city

Organised by the Danish Embassy in the UK, this webinar brought together a range of speakers from Denmark and the UK to consider how our cities may change post COVID-19, including questions around green space, high street recovery, active travel and density and types of residential living accommodation in our towns and cities.

Speakers came from two London boroughs, architectural design and urban planning backgrounds and gave examples of experiences in Newham, Ealing and Copenhagen as well as other more general examples from across the UK and Denmark. The seminar’s website also includes links to presentations on previous Liveable City events in Manchester, Edinburgh, Bristol and Glasgow.


What next for public health?

“Healthcare just had its 2008 banking crisis… COVID-19 has generated a real seismic shift within the sector and I don’t think we will ever go back”

This webinar brought together commentators and thought leaders from across the digital health and tech sectors to think about how public health may be transformed by our experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the significant shift to digital and online platforms to deliver care.

The speakers discussed data, privacy and trust and the need to recognise different levels of engagement with digital platforms to ensure that specific groups like older people don’t feel unable to access services. They also discussed the importance of not being driven by data, but using data to help us to make better decisions. The webinar was organised by BIMA, a community of businesses, charities and academia across the UK.


Green cities

This project, organised by the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), included 3 webinars each looking at different elements of green infrastructure within cities, including designing and planning, assessing the quality of different types of green infrastructure and highlighting the positive impacts of incorporating more good quality green spaces for mental and physical health, as well as for environmental purposes.


Rough sleeping and homelessness during and after the coronavirus

Organised by the Centre for London, this webinar brought together speakers from across the homelessness sector within London, including St Mungos, the Greater London Authority (GLA) and Croydon Council to explore how the COVID-19 pandemic was impacting people who are homeless or sleeping rough in the city.

Each speaker brought insights from their own experiences supporting homeless people in the capital (so far) during the COVID 19-pandemic. They highlighted some of the challenges, as well as some of the more positive steps forward, particularly in relation to co-operation and partnership working across different levels of government and with other sectors such as health.

They also commended everyone involved for the speed at which they acted to support homeless people, particularly those who were vulnerable or at risk. However, concerns were also raised around future planning and the importance of not regressing back into old ways of working once the pandemic response tails off.


Poverty, health and Covid-19: emerging lessons in Scotland

This webinar was hosted by the Poverty Alliance as part of a wider series that they are hosting.  It looked at how to ‘build back better’ following the pandemic, with a particular focus upon addressing the long-standing inequalities that exist throughout society.

The event included presentations from Dr Gerry McCartney, Head of the Public Health Observatory at Public Health Scotland, Dr Anne Mullin, Chair of the Deep End GPs, and Professor Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health at University of Edinburgh.

A key message throughout was that while the immediate health impacts of the pandemic have been huge, there is an urgent need to acknowledge and address the “long-term challenge” – the impact on health caused by the economic and social inequalities associated with the pandemic.

It is estimated that over 10 years, the impact of inequalities will be six times greater than that of an unmitigated pandemic. Therefore, ‘building back better’ is essential in order to ensure long-term population health.


Returning to work: addressing unemployment after Covid-19

This webinar was also hosted by the Poverty Alliance as part of their wider webinar series on the pandemic.

The focus here was how to address the inevitable rise in unemployment following the pandemic – the anticipated increase in jobless numbers is currently estimated to be over three million.

The event included presentations from Kathleen Henehan, Research and Policy Analyst at Resolution Foundation, Anna Ritchie Allan, Executive Director at Close the Gap, and Tony Wilson, Director of the Institute for Employment Studies.

The webinar highlighted the unprecedented scale of the problem – noting that more than half of the working population are currently not working due to the pandemic, being either unemployed, furloughed or in receipt of self-employment support.

A key theme of the presentation was that certain groups are likely to be disproportionately affected by unemployment as the support provided by the government’s support schemes draw to a close later this year.  This includes women – particularly those from BAME groups, the lower paid and migrants – and young people.  So it’s essential that the support provided by the government in the form of skills, training, job creation schemes etc addresses this, and is both gender-sensitive and intersectional.


Supporting the return to educational settings of autistic children and young people

The aim of this webinar, provided by the National Autism Implementation Team (NAIT), was to offer a useful overview of how to support autistic children and young people, and those with additional support needs, back into educational settings following the pandemic.

Currently around 25% of learners in mainstream schools have additional support needs, and it is generally accepted that good autism practice is beneficial for all children.

The webinar set out eight key messages for supporting a successful return, which included making anticipatory adjustments rather than ‘waiting and seeing’, using visual supports, providing predictability, planning for movement breaks and provision of a ‘safe space’ for each child.  The importance of listening to parents was also emphasised.


P1050381.JPG

Ellisland Farm, Dumfries. “P1050381.JPG” by ejbluefolds is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Burns at Ellisland

Our Research Officer, Donna Gardiner has also been following some cultural webinars, including one that focused on the links between Scotland’s national poet and the Ellisland Farm site. The webinar was led by Professor Gerard Carruthers, Francis Hutcheson Chair of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow and co-director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies.

Robert Burns lived at Ellisland Farm in Dumfriesshire between May 1788 and November 1791, and is where he produced a significant proportion of his work – 23% of his letters and 28% of his songs and poems, including the famous Tam O’Shanter and Auld Lang Syne.

The presentation looked at how Robert Burns was influenced by the farm itself and its location on the banks of the River Nith.  It also touched on his involvement with local politics and friends in the area, which too influenced his work.

It was suggested that the Ellisland farm site could be considered in many ways to be the birthplace of wider European Romanticism. The webinar also included contributions from Joan McAlpine MSP, who is chair of the newly formed Robert Burns Ellisland Trust. She discussed how to help promote and conserve this historic site, particularly given the impact of the coronavirus on tourism.


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Changing government, changing society: what now for public innovation?

Image: CC Ross Findon via Unsplash

States of Change is an independent, global non-profit organisation which focuses on supporting and promoting learning around public innovation. During June, they hosted an online festival, bringing together practitioners, academics and policymakers from around the world in conversation. The recordings of all the sessions are still available online and in this blog we reflect on some of the discussions.

In the UK, we’ve seen over the last decade the growth and mainstreaming of government-supported initiatives, such as the network of What Works centres, and innovation centres such as Y Lab in Wales.

We’ve also seen the high profile introduction and use of agile methods and service design approaches, such as in the Government Digital Service and Gov.UK.

The question remains, however, how to build capacity for innovation at all levels of government and the public sector. To be successful this requires public sector managers and employees to be supported to develop the skills, mindset and culture that enables innovation.

We’ve written before on this blog about the transformational approach to public sector innovation in countries such as Singapore and Estonia. And during the States of Change Learning Festival there were some great discussions on international experiences. Of particular note, given the current UK Government’s stated desire to reform the civil service, was a webinar on How Singapore Learns, which explored how the Singapore government had, over a number of years, developed capabilities for forward thinking, openness to new ideas and agility.

From ideas to practice

Charles Landry, famous for developing the concept of the creative city, participated in a discussion during the festival on what being creative at an organisational or system-wide level actually means. He noted that what the current pandemic has done to generate urgency and a sense of focus within public sector systems, which may have included toying with small tweaks to bureaucracies, or taking an innovation approach built on numerous small-scale pilots or projects.

There were also sessions looking at tools and methodologies for public innovation, such as behavioural science and public innovation labs. And a discussion between Aarathi Krishnan and Panthea Lee highlighted the need for those working in government to recognise their own privilege. Questions such as “whose voices are we hearing and who is out in the cold?” and “who’s in the room when we ‘imagine’ new futures and how are we making the future just and equitable?” may seem challenging but they are necessary in order to build a different and better future.

How governments think

Another thought-provoking session was a conversation between Geoff Mulgan (Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation) and Aaron Maniam (Deputy Secretary in the Singapore Government) on how governments “think”. Mulgan highlighted two challenges for government that have been brought to the fore during the pandemic. Firstly, there is a need for new skills and transparent communication about the use of competing and often contradictory knowledge in decision making. Secondly, there’s a need for a new ecosystem of data governance, which would offer protection and public trust about the use of personal data by government. Interestingly, the session also highlighted the differing use of metaphors and language to describe the role of government. How ‘government’ is talked about shapes our view on what it could and should do. For example, is government a brain, or a war machine, or a facilitator, or a steward for future generations?

Evolving public innovation

The COVID crisis has forced rapid advances in how governments observe, make sense of patterns, use models and plan big interventions. They’ve had to make use of data of all kinds, draw on complex scientific advice, and mobilise local and national systems all while maintaining public trust and compliance.

As we move into the recovery planning phase, there is now a need for medium-term and longer-term visions on how every policy area could be different in the future, from health to social care to education to transport to urban planning. This use of the imagination has traditionally been seen as the specialist realm of futurists and horizon scanners. It also requires strong storytelling, to create confidence and acceptance of change. Whether governments around the world are able to leverage new visions, will determine whether the rapid changes we have seen in response to COVID-19 will lead to genuine positive transformations or ultimately just a return to the status quo.


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Getting back to business: creating and managing a COVID-secure workplace

 COVID-19 has changed the world and how we live our lives. As well as being a public health emergency, it has had huge economic implications. At the start of the pandemic, millions of people around the world were instructed to stay at home, either to work or to remain on the payroll with support from the state.

While the lockdown has successfully reduced the number of COVID-19 cases, business cannot remain on hold forever. Gradually, carefully, workplaces are reopening, and workers are preparing to return to their jobs in offices, shops, schools and construction sites.

A new White Paper produced by The Knowledge Exchange looks at how the workplace has to change in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A redefined workplace

Before the pandemic, the workplace landscape was already changing. But now it is being totally redefined. Organisations of all shapes and sizes, in all sectors, are facing hard decisions. And how to reopen their workplaces, in a way that protects the health and wellbeing of their employees, is a key challenge.

The White Paper focuses on what employers have to consider when thinking about how to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. The most important challenges concern:

  • social distancing, including areas where this is more difficult, or not possible;
  • organising the workplace, including the location of desks and the installation of additional features, such as screens and hand-drying facilities;
  • cleaning and sanitising, including what needs cleaning, who will do it and when.

As well as complying with guidance, employers have to make sure their staff are confident in the plans for reopening workplaces. A survey for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in May showed that almost half (44%) of respondents were concerned about catching COVID-19 at work.

How businesses can prepare for reopening

Every organisation needs to introduce sensible measures to control risks. Therefore, before reopening a workplace, it is vital to conduct a COVID-19 risk assessment, in line with guidance from the Health and Safety Executive.

A risk assessment should:

  • identify what work activity or situations might cause transmission of the virus;
  • think about who could be at risk – paying attention to whether the people doing the work, or those they live with, are especially vulnerable to COVID-19;
  • decide how likely it is that someone could be exposed;
  • act to remove the activity or situation, or if this isn’t possible, control the risk.

During the risk assessment, it’s essential  to consult with workers and afterwards to share the results. Different industries and sectors may require specific measures. On construction sites, for example, access between different areas may need to be restricted, and high traffic areas may have to be regulated to maintain social distancing. The UK government has published guidance covering a range of different types of work in places such as offices, factories, shops and outdoor working environments.

Actions to make the workplace COVID-secure

The UK government and the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland devolved administrations have provided guidance on how to work safely. This gives practical advice on how the guidance can be applied in the workplace.

In planning to reopen their workplaces, every organisation should translate this guidance into the specific actions it needs to take, depending on the nature of their business. At the same time, employers must also ensure that everyone in the workplace continues to be treated equally. Discrimination against anyone because of a protected characteristic, such as age, sex or disability is against the law, and employers also have particular responsibilities concerning disabled workers and new or expectant mothers.

The White Paper contains a checklist of actions which all organisations need to take. These include

  • developing cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures;
  • helping people to work from home;
  • maintaining social distancing;
  • managing transmission risk where social distancing is not possible.

CAFM Explorer: an invaluable support tool for getting back to work

Much of the workload involved in ensuring a safe and effective return to work will be taken on by facilities managers. Keeping workplaces clean, managing shift patterns, ensuring availability of personal protective equipment and creating procedures for inbound and outbound goods are just some of the many considerations to be made.

The White Paper highlights the value of the CAFM Explorer software solution to help organisations manage and consolidate information on the vital elements of a COVID-secure workplace, such as one-way systems, desk spacing, cleaning, staggered hours and hand sanitising stations.

Developed by Idox, a trusted supplier of digital software and services, CAFM Explorer can also trigger work orders as a result of an action – for example, ensuring a desk is cleaned once it has been booked – as well as providing processes to support working at home.

Final thoughts

It is too early to say what lasting effects the coronavirus will have on UK society and business, but it’s likely we will all be living in the shadow of COVID-19 for the foreseeable future. It’s essential, therefore, that organisations make themselves aware of the steps necessary for preparing, implementing and managing the Covid-secure workplace.

To receive your free download of the Getting Back to Business White Paper, please visit the CAFM Explorer page or email marketing@idoxgroup.com.


Further reading: articles on employment and the workplace from
The Knowledge Exchange blog

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Digital Housing Week: How coronavirus is affecting housing

Throughout this week, Inside Housing magazine has been providing a series of webinars offering debate, learning and innovative thinking on how housing providers are responding to present-day challenges and preparing for future demands.

One of the webinars focused on the ways in which Covid-19 has accelerated the move to agile working for housing associations (HAs) and council staff, and how housing providers can tackle the  mental health and wellbeing issues experienced by staff and residents.

Responding to the new normal

Anita Khan, from Settle Housing Association in Hertfordshire explained how her HA responded to lockdown by mobilising its continuity plan. Settle’s first responsibility is to engage with and support its customers, and once the plan was enacted, agile behaviour took root.

Anita described how automated contacts with HA customers enabled it to identify which people were in isolation or shielding. At the same time, methods of enforcement had to change, as the UK government banned evictions. Anita explained that once the HA stopped sending messages warning customers of enforcement of the rules on rent payments, the residents started to engage more positively with it.

Working practices at Settle also changed substantially, with a move away from a face-to-face culture towards remote working. Anita described the process of change HA staff experienced, from relief at not having to make long commutes, followed by fatigue from too many video conferences, and more recently recalibrating to a situation that works.

Agile working in the age of coronavirus

Tony Morrison, an agile working consultant, described the measures taken by Newham Council  to modernise the way the local authority worked. He explained that in 2019, Newham got a new leadership team, and deployed a plan to make the first investment in IT for eight years. The aim was to make sure everyone was mobile by default, and to pivot a local authority with 14.5 million pieces of paper towards a paperless organisation. The plan was already under way when the lockdown was imposed.

Immediately, the council had to adapt to the new situation. Around three thousand members of staff didn’t have effective ways of working from home, and so the council identified who most needed assistance, and delivered laptops and mobile devices to these 500 individuals.

At same time, the council deployed Office 365 and migrated Skype for Business, and enabled staff to communicate with customers using Zoom.

Newham has now rolled out a further 2000 devices to staff, and it’s clear that the lockdown experience has demonstrated the possibilities of remote working.

The council is already looking to the post-pandemic period when it might not require so much expensive office space. Tony explained that now would not be the right time to consider disposal of offices because so many other organisations are in the same position. Instead, Newham is looking at alternative uses for its property estate, including cohabiting with other organisations, pop-up spaces and conversion to affordable housing.

Housing on the frontline of a mental health crisis

There’s now little doubt that the coronavirus pandemic is having a significant effect on mental health. With the loss of lives and livelihoods, and the growing demands for support from already overburdened health services, the fallout from the pandemic is likely to be on an unprecedented scale.

During the Inside Housing webinar, consultant psychiatrist Raj Persaud talked about the unique role housing can play in tackling mental health issues among staff and residents.

He noted that housing staff may be among the first to identify signs of mental illness among residents, because fewer people have been attending GP surgeries during the pandemic.

He suggested that housing staff in this position should raise such issues with community mental health teams. He also highlighted the importance of contacting NHS services by letter. Because letters are legal documents, health professionals are more likely to pay attention to issues raised in this way.

Raj highlighted a key issue housing staff can focus on when dealing with people who have mental health problems:

“Too often, the aim has been to concentrate on the causes of mental illness, but that misses out on the coping skills people have used in the past. The right skills can make a person super resilient, and so it’s always useful to engage in conversation about coping skills people have used for previous life events.”

All of the speakers in the webinar stressed the importance of the human factor in tackling the challenges raised by the coronavirus pandemic. Raj Persaud noted that, in the absence of the water cooler, the pub or the staff room, physical locations have to be recreated virtually. Doing this may feel clunky at first, but even if things don’t feel right, housing staff and others should persist until they find a method that suits them, and enables people to feel they are less isolated.

Final thoughts

One thing is certain: post-Covid will be very different from pre-Covid. But this webinar demonstrated that housing providers are embracing the fluidity of this situation. In an age of thinking differently, those who consider alternative solutions to the problems of the present may be better equipped for the challenges of the future.


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Guest post: Why we’ll still need waste in a circular economy

Huguette Roe/Shutterstock

Stijn van Ewijk, Yale University and Julia Stegemann, UCL

Every year, we buy 30 billion tonnes of stuff, from pizza boxes to family homes. We throw out or demolish 13 billion tonnes of it as waste – about 2 tonnes per person. A third of what we discard was bought the same year. The extraction, use and discarding of so much stuff creates a large environmental burden, from the depletion of minerals to the destruction of rainforests.

The idea of a circular economy aims to address these problems by rejecting the take-make-dispose model of production and consumption that governs our world. Instead, waste is “designed out” and materials are kept at a high value for longer through reuse, repair and recycling.

Find another use for it.
Steve Buissinne/Pixabay, CC BY

Unfortunately, some wastes are an inevitable result of growing or making things, and even durable products such as cars, toasters and smartphones eventually break down or become useless. So how should we deal with it? In a recent paper, we argue for a legal requirement to recognise the potential for this waste to be used again.

Why waste is necessary

To deal with waste, we must first understand why it is there. Waste consists of products that are unwanted and so little attention is currently paid to their fate. As a result, they tend to end up in the wrong places, including ecosystems that supply our food and drinking water. After all, the cheapest way to get rid of waste – a plastic bag, old furniture – is to dump it.

The first waste management systems were introduced to address the public health problems that emerged from this habit. The 1854 cholera outbreak in London was caused by the unsafe disposal of human waste in urban cesspools. The accumulation of plastic waste in the ocean today – which ensnares and chokes wildlife while contaminating the seafood we eat – has the same root cause: ineffective waste collection and treatment.

To avoid litter and dumping, governments define everything we discard as waste. Once that happens, strict regulations apply for its transport, treatment and disposal. For example, when you have your car tyres replaced, the car workshop needs a permit, or a permitted contractor, to legally and safely reuse, recycle or dispose of the old tyres.

Used tyres are regulated as waste to prevent their unsafe reuse and illegal dumping.
Ich bin dann mal raus hier/Pixabay, CC BY

But defining a potentially valuable material as waste can complicate the process of using it again for another purpose. A construction firm may want to reuse the tyres from the workshop, but since they’re classified as waste, both parties have to fill out paperwork just to show they’re meeting the waste handling requirements.

Defining fewer materials as waste cuts out paperwork and makes reuse easier. But tyres are flammable and release chemicals as they wear down. If the reuse of tyres was unregulated, it could compromise fire safety and endanger our health. Without strict regulations, the car workshop might even resort to illegal dumping, which is already a major problem.

The use potential of waste

This leaves regulators with a dilemma. How can we strictly regulate waste while promoting its reuse? The solution is to think ahead. If we know in advance how and to what extent waste can be used again – its “use potential” – we can regulate it more effectively. Most importantly, we need to design products to be safely reusable and create regulations that allow and encourage reuse.

For example, if we design car tyres that aren’t flammable or toxic, they can be reused in a wider range of applications. To get manufacturers to develop and use these products, governments need to help them identify the use potential of the resulting waste. Tyres could be approved and labelled not only for their first use on a car, but also for their subsequent reuse in construction.

A universal requirement for designers to increase the use potential of waste, and for product users to fulfil this potential, can ensure waste is repeatedly used, without having to change the definition of waste and how it’s regulated. Waste is still a necessary concept for keeping us safe and preventing illegal dumping, but we should think about it even before it’s generated, rather than pretending it can be made to vanish entirely.

Stijn van Ewijk, Postdoctoral associate, Yale University and Julia Stegemann, Professor of Environmental Engineering, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.


Further reading: articles on waste management from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Digital infrastructure supporting health care during the COVID-19 pandemic

Healthcare is a key frontline service in the response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The NHS has had to react at pace to plan and deliver services in new and innovative ways.

Digital healthcare solutions are at the fore of ensuring not only the delivery of acute care for those patients suffering from COVID-19 but are also supporting the successful continuity of care and the day to day running of a health service which still needs to maintain “normal service” as well as its pandemic response. Digital infrastructure is helping the NHS and other partners to adapt and to meet the demand for health and care in a number of ways.

Supporting the delivery of care

In many ways, the NHS and frontline care in particular were already making inroads towards transitioning to digital and online platforms before the pandemic emerged. Many GP surgeries allow online appointment booking, and where appropriate, monitoring of those with long term conditions can be done remotely through at-home testing facilities, such as home heart monitors or monitors to help people monitor their diabetes.

Many care providers also already offer telehealth solutions for clients, and patient records are now stored online. However, in many ways the COVID-19 pandemic has catalysed uptake of digital solutions to healthcare diagnosis and delivery, with an increase in online consultations, greater use of the NHS Digital and NHS24 online and app platforms and a rise in the development of digital solutions to better support care in the community.

Support and training for frontline staff

In addition to supporting the direct delivery of care to patients, digital health infrastructure is also being adapted and used to deliver training and support to staff on the frontline. Blogs and online forums, including social media groups are enabling people to share experiences and best practice, and to create a sense of community among healthcare workers. In addition, virtual and e-learning opportunities are being developed to enable staff to access educational activities remotely. These include supporting the rapid education of the healthcare workforce in how best to manage the respiratory conditions encountered, as well as providing education to staff who may have been redeployed to other departments or settings as a result of the pandemic response. Online learning has also been used to help train volunteers and help the public to keep up to date with the latest developments across the health service.

Beyond healthcare to support the response to the pandemic

Artificial intelligence and data analytics also have a vital role to play in helping prevent the spread of coronavirus and other infectious diseases as digital solutions look to be developed to help beyond acute healthcare responses.

Predictive analytics and scenario modelling can be used to help identify those populations who are at risk of spreading the virus and of falling most severely ill to help support shielding campaigns and protect vulnerable groups as lockdown measures ease.

A project run by UK firm Biobank is looking to use samples collected by volunteers to map genetic sequencing in order to identify whether certain genetic characteristics make people more predisposed to become seriously ill, or more likely to contract the virus in the first place. This may help in the development of a vaccine and can also help identify those groups who will be most vulnerable when lockdown conditions are lifted so that they can be monitored more effectively.

Modelling and analytics can also be used to try and project any potential “second waves”. It is hoped that AI, analytics and machine learning will be able to help organisations learn from events such as the SARS epidemic, as well as quickly creating new knowledge from the millions of data points being generated in this outbreak.

Final thoughts

The significant humanitarian response to this global pandemic is being underpinned by a digital infrastructure, the extent of which we have never had at our disposal before. This digital support, of care delivery, communication, analytics, and modelling is being used in conjunction with insight from health and scientific specialists to try and help us find a path through this pandemic, deliver care, aid recovery and prevent re-emergence.

Making best use of the data and digital capacity we have throughout our health and care infrastructure will be a key part in preparing and meeting the needs and challenges that communities are facing.


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Further reading: articles on COVID-19 from The Knowledge Exchange blog

How smart is your city?

Photo by Peng LIU on Pexels.com

by Scott Faulds

In recent years, cities across the UK have begun to explore how they can best capitalize on technological advances to help to create places which operate in a more efficient and sustainable way. The concept of the smart city is relatively wide-ranging; in basic terms, it can be described as an urban area that uses various forms of technology to gather data that can then be analysed to reveal insights about how citizens engage with their environment. The advent of smart city technology, and its ability to be installed in numerous forms across existing city infrastructure, means that it can often be challenging to assess and understand the success of its deployment.

A recent article published in Emerald Open Research UK smart cities present and future: An analysis of British smart cities through current and emerging technologies and practices aims to address this issue by providing an overview of the progress of 26 UK cities which are currently deploying smart city technology. The article attempts to analyse the current state of the smart city roll-out and evaluate the types of technology that are being installed. As the concept of the smart city is one that is fluid, each city’s implementation of the technology can vary, as can the success of the integration.

Designing a smart city evaluation framework

In order to understand the current state of the smart city rollout, the article employs a framework that can be used to assess what types of technology have been deployed and the current state of the deployment.

The following categories are used to classify smart city technology:

Essential services 5G, full-fibre internet, Internet of Things

Smart Transportation digital ticket booking, smart cards, electric vehicle charging points

Broad Spectrum retrofitting buildings, digital social inclusion schemes, hackathons

Business Ecosystem innovation hubs, co-spaces, tech entrepreneurial networks 

Open Data Provider urban dashboards, urban models, big data

The state of the rollout of smart technology is evaluated on the following scale:

0 – no measures underway

1 public announcement of plan

2 study in advanced stages/detailed roadmap

3 testing/trials

4 installation of technology on smaller scales

5 fully established and integrated into the city

By analysing relevant documents/news reports and applying the aforementioned framework, the article finds that the most common type of smart city infrastructure installed in cities across the UK is technology which enables the collection of open data. In particular, a group known as Smart Cities Scotland has been found to have one of the most advanced implementations of open data technology. This is due to the creation of an open source data platform which allows anyone to access the data collected and develop smart city technology that directly responds to the needs of these cities.

Approaches to deploying smart city technology

Through the application of the framework, London and Bristol were discovered to be the cities in the UK with the most advanced implementation of smart city technology; this was largely due to the widespread use of all of the categories. However, the authors also suggest that the steps taken by smaller cities, such as Dundee and Peterborough, are often of more interest, as they clearly show the two prevailing approaches to the implementation of smart city technology.  

The approach taken by Dundee is one in which cities select one or two smart city categories and focus on getting these technologies to become fully integrated and widespread. For example, Dundee has chosen to focus on the integration of open data (via Smart Cities Scotland) and smart transportation technologies, in a bid to create a fully sustainable transport network. An in-depth focus on these areas has enabled Dundee to become a leader in the switch to zero-carbon transport, through the creation of the Mobility Innovation Living Lab and the electrification of 20% of the local taxi fleet. However, whilst the implementation of open data and smart transportation technology places Dundee as a leader in these categories, their implementation of essential services or broad spectrum technology is poor when compared to other cities in the UK.

Peterborough, on the other hand, has taken an almost diametric approach and is focused on deploying a broad variety of smart city technologies, that will allow them to reach their goal of becoming a gigabit city and establishing a circular economy. The city has deployed a variety of online platforms, designed to engage citizens and business alike, to come together and share resources that will allow Peterborough to support and empower everyone in the city to minimize waste.

The future of the Smart City

As well as analysing the current state of the smart city rollout, the article also discusses the future of the smart city and sets out its expectations for the next decade. A key theme discussed is the concept of a more connected city, powered through 5G and increased network capacity, which will allow for city infrastructure to communicate and easily respond to changes in the way citizens are engaging with the urban environment. However, the article concludes that we are unlikely to see any major visual changes to our cities, apart from an increase in electric vehicles and their accompanying infrastructure. A great deal of the smart city technology currently being deployed in UK cities tends to occur behind the scenes, but, these changes will allow councils to harness the power of data to make better decisions about the future day-to-day workings of our cities.

To conclude, this article provides one of the first overviews of the state of the smart city rollout across the UK, allowing for a comparative analysis of the different approaches cities have taken to implement various forms of smart city technology. Establishing a framework of how to evaluate this progress allows those interested in smart city technology to assess which smart city technologies are most prevalent and which cities are at a more advanced stage of the rollout.

In short, this article will be extremely informative for anyone with an interest in learning more about smart city technology and its deployment in the UK.


Further reading
Articles on smart cities on The Knowledge Exchange blog

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The dash from cash: can public transport providers balance the needs of staff and customers?

One of the unexpected repercussions of the coronavirus outbreak has been an increased use of card, mobile and contactless payments instead of cash. Concerns about handling money during the pandemic have prompted shops and public transport services to encourage customers to use contactless payment methods. However, many people relying on public transport to access work and health services have no alternative but to use cash.

A brief history of contactless payments

Contactless payments include credit and debit cards, key fobs, closed loop smart cards and other devices, including smartphones. These applications use radio-frequency identification (RFID) or near field communication (NFC) for making secure payments. An embedded circuit chip and antenna enable consumers to make a payment by holding their card or device over a reader at a point of sale terminal.

The first contactless payment was made available in the United States at the end of the 1990s. In the UK the first contactless cards were issued in 2007.

The UK’s public transport contactless revolution began in 2014, when it became possible to access London’s Tube network, Docklands Light Railway (DLR), London Overground and most National Rail services using only a bank card. By 2019, payments with contactless bank cards or mobiles made up 60% of all Tube and rail pay-as-you go journeys in London. Public transport authorities elsewhere in the UK have followed London’s lead.

The move towards cashless payments

Even before the current public health emergency, cash payments in the UK were in decline. In the past few years, there has been a shift towards the use of debit cards, while contactless payments have soared:

  • in the ten years up to 2019, cash payments dropped from 63% of all payments to 34%;
  • in 2017, contactless payments increased by 99% to 4.3 billion;
  • in the same year, 3.4 million UK consumers managed their spending almost entirely without using cash.
  • by 2028, forecasts suggest that fewer than one in 10 UK consumer payments will be made using cash.

The emergence of chip and pin, contactless cards, digital wallets and mobile apps has made many aspects of our lives much more convenient, notably when paying bills, purchasing goods and using public transport.

But although more and more people are moving away from cash payments, 2.2 million people rely almost wholly on cash – up from just 1.6 million in 2014. A Bank of England review in 2019 found that around eight million people  would find life “near impossible” without cash.

How Covid-19 is changing public transport

With high numbers of people in confined spaces and a large number of common touch points such as handrails and ticket machines, buses and trains are potentially high risk environments for Covid-19 transmission. At the same time, public transport is critical for sustaining the economy, and ensuring that people have access to shops, services, work and health care.

Public transport authorities around the world have been responding to the emergency in a number of ways, including increased disinfection and sanitisation, and encouraging physical distancing between passengers. Another key measure adopted by public transport bodies has been an acceleration away from cash payments and towards contactless and mobile ticketing.

While some bus operators have announced that they will no longer accept cash payments, others have warned that drivers could face disciplinary action if they refuse cash. Earlier this year, the trade union representing bus workers called for the abolition of cash payments on all UK buses to reduce infection rates among drivers.

Serving the ‘unbanked’

A recent webinar organised by Intelligent Transport explored the implications of the coronavirus public health emergency for public transport. One of the key points was that public transport operators now need to maintain a balance between protecting their staff while meeting the needs of passengers who may have no alternative but to make cash payments.

The webinar heard that there is a growing sense among public transport operators of a shift in perception concerning cash payments as a result of the global pandemic. However, cash payments remain vital for the 1.3 million UK adults who do not have a bank account (the ‘unbanked’), many of whom are on low incomes. Contactless cards may be unaffordable for lower-income passengers, while many unbanked passengers worry that contactless credit cards could lead to accidental overdraft.

As the webinar noted, public transport providers have been trying to overcome these obstacles. Some have continued to accept cash payments, while others have offered passengers their own prepaid cards that can be topped up with cash in shops or transport stations.

Final thoughts

It’s likely that public transport authorities will continue the drive towards cashless and contactless payment. Lower maintenance costs, speed and flexibility are some of the advantages provided by contactless applications, and transport companies can also benefit from the data on transport usage generated by electronic payment systems.

However, the migration from payments using physical money risks leaving over a million UK citizens behind. In the ‘new normal’ for a world living with the coronavirus, transport organisations will have to find innovative ways to balance the safety of their staff with the needs of their passengers.


Further reading
Articles on public transport on The Knowledge Exchange blog

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Coping with covid: supporting autistic children through and beyond lockdown

The measures put in place to reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) have impacted almost every aspect of our lives – from our contact with family, friends and loved ones, to how we work, eat, shop, relax and learn.

Adapting to and living with these new measures has been universally challenging.  For autistic people, the changes to daily life associated with the COVID-19 outbreak present a number of additional challenges.  In this blog, we are going to discuss some of these additional challenges, with a particular focus on autistic children and young people.  We also highlight some available supports.

Change of routines

A key feature of autism is the desire to follow certain routines and/or avoid unexpected or unpredictable events. Thus, adjusting to the changes caused by COVID-19 poses particular difficulty for many autistic people, for whom changes to routine may cause additional anxiety, distress and in some cases, emotional overload.

Other autistic people may be distressed because of the lack of structure their day now has – being unable to tell one day from the next, when there are no defining characteristics, can feel particularly disorientating.

Scottish Autism have produced guidance for autistic people and their parents/carers on helping to maintain a routine and the reasons why this is important.  They explain that not only does maintaining a routine provide a sense of security and stability, it can also help to provide a sense of calmness, support emotional self-regulation and encourage health and positive habits.

Many autistic children already use visual schedules and/or calendars to let them know what is happening and what to expect next.  These can be helpful in the current circumstances to help children adapt to new routines at home, and bring some sense of predictability and control to their changed lives.

 Being at home

Another change that COVID-19 has brought about is that more people within the household are at home than is typical – for example, one or both parents/carers may be working from home, along with any siblings/other householders who are usually in education or work.

This may be present challenges for autistic people both in terms of the change to routine and also in terms of sensory issues (e.g. noise).  For example, the household being busier than usual may be more challenging for autistic people as they will subsequently have less time and/or space to themselves, which may be needed in order to self-regulate and/or avoid sensory overload.

Special interests

Many autistic people have special interests that form a large part of their daily routines, and may play a key role in enabling them to relax, self-regulate and recover from sensory overload.

The coronavirus ‘lockdown’ has prevented most outdoors activities from taking place.  Thus many autistic people may have found that their special interest is no longer open to them – from train spotting to bird watching.  The removal of this activity from their life may be experienced as particularly distressing, and make self-regulation more difficult.

School closures

The widespread closure of schools means that many parents of autistic children have found themselves responsible for educating their child at home.

Educating children at home under these new circumstances is challenging for all parents.  However, for parents of autistic children, it presents additional challenges.

Many autistic children require additional support with their learning, and may experience difficulties sustaining concentration.  Autistic children may also have additional support needs such as dyslexia or dyscalculia, which may require the use of specific approaches and/or learning aids.  This presents additional challenges for learning in the home environment for parents that are unaccustomed to providing a full time education for their child.

In school, many autistic children receive additional support in class either in a 1-2-1 or in a small group lesson from practitioners skilled in addressing these additional needs. Replicating this level of support at home is of course challenging for parents who may not be familiar with the techniques used, or skilled in their use.  They may also struggle to provide the necessary 1-2-1 support if they are also expected to work from home themselves, or have other children to care for.

Concern about their child being disproportionately affected by school closures without the skilled support that they receive in schools may also add considerable stress.  For example, the United Nations has recently noted in a briefing paper that children with disabilities and special needs are among those most dependent on face-to-face services and are least likely to benefit from distance learning solutions.

As well as adequately supporting special educational needs, there are also challenges in relation to an autistic child’s ability and/or willingness to undertake schoolwork at home.  Some autistic people have difficulties with what is termed ‘flexible thinking’. This may include, for example, the ability to see something in a new way. Autistic children may be more likely to have a fixed perception of home as distinct from school.  Thus, it may be more difficult for autistic children to accept and adapt to schoolwork being done at home.  Similarly, they may not readily accept the notion that their parent or carer is now also their ‘teacher’, particularly if this person is usually relied upon as being their primary source of comfort and safety when distressed.

Accessible home learning

While this is without a doubt a difficult situation for both autistic people and their parents/carers, the good news is that there is an increasing amount of support and sources of advice available to help support autistic people to adapt and respond to the ‘new normal’ that the coronavirus pandemic has created.

On Twitter, the #accessiblehomelearning hashtag has been trending, with people sharing lots of home learning ideas and support for parents and carers, including tools to support individuals with dyslexia and/or reading and writing difficulties.

Lucy Chetty, Head Teacher at New Struan School has also shared her top tips on education at home.  She notes that different young people will experience the changes to life differently – some will enjoy having more control over their day outside of school, whereas others will miss the routines that they are used to.

According to Lucy, happiness and fun is a key aspect of learning. Thus parents and carers should try to find something that interests and motivates their individual child special interests may be of particular help in this regard.

On a practical level, ensuring clarity is hugely important.  This includes providing clear instructions, and setting out a clear beginning, middle and end to the activity.  Also recommended is ‘chunking down’ activities into smaller pieces so that there are regular breaks, and the use of visual strips and/or timers to help illustrate how long an activity will last.

 Re-opening schools

As we look ahead to the future, there are a number of critical issues that need to be considered to support autistic children and/or adults to transition back out of lockdown.

Transitioning back into the school environment will be challenging for many autistic children, particularly those that have previously found it difficult to attend school, and/or have experience of ‘school refusal’.  For many autistic children, successful school attendance has required a great deal of input from teaching and support staff, parents and the child themselves. This is because the school environment is often experienced as being particularly challenging for a number of different reasons – for example, sensory issues (e.g. noises, smells, lighting), difficulties with processing information, and/or social communication challenges (social skills, etiquette, etc).  Many autistic children also experience heightened levels of anxiety, which is exacerbated by the school environment.

Many autistic children will need additional support with the change of routine back to school days and hours, and also with their anxiety levels – particularly if they have concerns about catching and/or spreading the virus, or if other people within the school are perceived to be ‘not following the rules’.

Additional support for transitioning back into school will be particularly important if the new school environment looks significantly different to that which the child is used to as a result of social distancing measures – for example, by attending different hours or days at school, or having different classroom set ups to allow for social distancing – both of which are options currently being considered by the Scottish Government.

Transitioning out of lockdown

In recognition of the difficulties facing many autistic people and their parents and/or carers, the Scottish Government recently announced new funding to help provide additional support in the form of an extended helpline run by Scottish Autism, and the creation of online social support groups by the National Autistic Society Scotland. 

Researchers at UCL Institute of Education are also currently conducting research into the experiences and needs of parents and carers of autistic children during the pandemic, which will hopefully help inform how they can best be supported as we transition out of lockdown and into the future, where we learn to live alongside coronavirus.

In Scotland, the Education Recovery Group is currently exploring options for stabilising the education of pupils with additional support needs as “an early priority”.

While there is still a degree of uncertainty about how and when lockdown will be eased across the UK, what is certain is that the easing of lockdown – whenever it happens – will present additional challenges for many autistic people and their parents/carers. Listening to the voices of autistic people and their parents and carers will be hugely important if they are to be successfully supported in this transition.


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