The year of living differently: reviewing The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2020

2020 has been a year like no other. A microscopic virus – 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair – has dominated, disrupted and redefined the way we live and work.

Although the pandemic is primarily a public health emergency, its effects have been felt in all areas of public and social policy, from economic development and employment to transport and the environment. Throughout this year, our blog has reflected on the impacts of the coronavirus and the restrictions introduced to prevent its spread.

The COVID-19 knock-on

While the coronavirus pandemic has dominated the news headlines, it has also obscured the knock-on effects on the NHS. In October, we reported on the impacts of delays to preventative healthcare measures, such as screening and routine medical care in the form of pre-planned operations for long-term chronic and non-urgent conditions.

As the blog post noted, the impacts have been wide-ranging, including not only delays in care for case of physical ill health, but also for those seeking treatment for mental health conditions:

“Research suggests that incidence of mental illness during the coronavirus pandemic increased. However, the numbers of people accessing services and being referred for treatment have not increased proportionate to this.”

The ‘hidden epidemic’

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, domestic violence had become known as a ‘hidden epidemic’ in the UK. In September, our blog highlighted the unintended consequences of quarantine for domestic abuse victims.

After the UK entered lockdown in March, calls and online enquiries to the UK’s National Domestic Abuse line increased by 25%. Three-quarters of victims told a BBC investigation that lockdown had made it harder for them to escape their abusers and in many cases had intensified the abuse they received.

Despite additional government funding, the local authorities and charities which support victims of domestic violence have been struggling with the financial fallout from the pandemic. Even so,  important partnerships have been formed between local government, educational institutions and third sector bodies to provide safe spaces for women and their children fleeing violence. Among these was an initiative at the University of Cambridge:

St Catherine’s College formed a partnership with Cambridge Women’s Aid to provide over 1000 nights of secure supported accommodation during the lockdown period.

‘Same storm, different boats’

As the recent Marmot review has stressed, the coronavirus 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, such as the growth of precarious employment among sections of the population.

In July, we looked at the uneven economic impact of the pandemic, focusing on the heavy price being paid by young people, women, disabled people and Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.

Women often work in the frontline of care services and have had to juggle childcare during lockdown. BAME communities are over-represented in key-worker jobs, and so were particularly vulnerable to coronavirus.

And although there has been much talk about ‘building back better’, our blog post drew attention to the observations of Dr Sally Witcher, CEO of Inclusion Scotland during a Poverty Alliance webinar:

“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.”

The impacts of a pandemic

Many other aspects of the impact of COVID-19 have been covered in our blog:

  • How housing providers have embraced the fluidity of an emergency situation, including tackling homelessness, engaging effectively with tenants and addressing mental ill health.
  • Digital healthcare solutions for those with coronavirus and for the continuity of care and day-to-day running of the NHS.
  • Creating and managing a COVID-secure workplace.
  • How COVID-19 is changing public transport, including an acceleration towards contactless payment and mobile ticketing.
  • The additional challenges of the pandemic facing autistic children and young people.
  • The impact of the coronavirus restrictions on the arts.
  • The role of green new deals in tackling climate change and economic inequality as part of the post-Covid recovery.

Beyond the virus

Although the pandemic has been at the forefront of all our minds this year, The Knowledge Exchange blog has also taken the time to focus on other important issues in public and social policy:

We’ve also taken advantage of the ‘new normal’ experience of remote working to join a number of webinars, and to report back on the observations and ideas emerging from them. Most recently, our blogs have focused on a series of webinars organised by Partners in Planning, which included contributions on how the planning system can help address climate change.

Final thoughts

The health, economic and social impacts of the pandemic are likely to be long-lasting – restrictions on travel, work and socialising will continue into the spring, and insolvencies and unemployment numbers are likely to rise. And the continuing uncertainty over the UK’s new trading relationship with the European Union will generate additional challenges.   

But, as a frequently difficult, often challenging and sometimes distressing year draws to a close, there is cause for optimism about 2021. Vaccines to prevent the spread of the virus have been developed with lightning speed. Across the UK people are already being vaccinated, with greater numbers set to receive the jab in the coming months.

Here at The Knowledge Exchange, we’ll continue to highlight the key issues facing public and social policy and practice as we move towards the post-Covid era.

Season’s greetings

It’s with even greater meaning than ever before that we wish all our readers a happy Christmas, and a healthy, prosperous and happy new year.

Best wishes from everyone at The Knowledge Exchange: Morwen, Christine, Heather, Donna, Rebecca, Scott, Hannah and James.


Follow us on Twitter to find out what topic areas are interesting our research team.

Creating carbon conscious places

Last week, we reported on a series of webinars organised by Partners in Planning, a partnership of key organisations and sectors to support Scotland’s planners in delivering successful places.

This week, we’re looking at a further webinar in this series, which focused on the creation of low carbon places.

Planning for carbon conscious places

Steve Malone and Heather Claridge from Architecture & Design Scotland  (A&DS) opened the webinar by describing how A&DS have been exploring how the challenge of climate change can act as a driver towards the creation of low carbon places.

A&DS has been supporting the Scottish Government in implementing its climate change plan at a local level. This recognises that the planning system plays a key role in tackling climate change, and helping Scotland achieve its carbon emission targets.

Over the course of a year, A&DS worked with four local authorities to develop and deliver plans that prioritised climate action. As a result, a number of key principles of a carbon conscious place were identified.

  • A place-led approach
  • A place of small distances
  • A place designed for and with local people
  • A place with whole and circular systems
  • A place that supports sharing (of assets and services)

These principles are closely connected with ideas identified in earlier work by A&DS which explored how placemaking can tackle the challenges of an ageing population.

A&DS further developed this work to imagine the changes that might need to happen to support more carbon and caring conscious places by 2050. Earlier this year, its report Designing for a Changing Climate shared the learning from the year-long exploration into a whole place approach to the net-zero carbon challenge.

The report provided examples of each of the principles in action, and considered what Scotland would look like in 2050 if these principles were adopted for urban neighbourhoods, city centres, towns and rural areas.

Among the ideas highlighted were:

  • rooftops repurposed as usable areas with green space and room for urban growing
  • accessible zero emission public transport connecting city centres
  • local food growing and agroforestry helping support food self-sufficiency and security
  • natural flood defence schemes
  • peatland and woodland restoration to help a rural area absorb carbon and balance emissions

A&DS is now working with local authorities to apply these principles in real places. For example, in Clackmannanshire, the principles are being used to guide development of a mixed use housing site in Alva.

Planning as a circular economy enabler

Later in the webinar, Angela Burke and Ailie Callan from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) considered how the design of places that are conducive to the circular economy can help to tackle climate change.

Since the industrial revolution, the world’s economies have used a linear “take-make-consume-dispose” pattern of growth, a model which assumes that resources are abundant, available and cheaply disposable.

In contrast, a circular economy changes that mindset by designing-out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems. These principles not only apply to resources such as consumer goods and product packaging, but also to land, water, buildings, infrastructure and energy.

Angela and Ailie went on to describe how planning can be an enabler of the circular economy. In Scotland, the planning system is set to change, with the publication of a new National Planning Framework (NPF4), which sets out where development and infrastructure is needed to support sustainable and inclusive growth.

NPF4 will address a number of high level outcomes, such as meeting the housing and wellbeing needs of the people of Scotland and meeting targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Integrating circular economy principles early in the planning process will help to deliver a number of these outcomes, and NPF4 policy will provide the framework to ensure that these principles are integrated into new developments.

Ailie provided some examples of how circular economy principles can be embedded into planning:

  • Brownfield sites can be redeveloped instead of developing new sites and generating higher carbon emissions.
  • Distribution nodes on key transport corridors can enable electric vehicles to carry out last stage of delivery, minimising emissions and reducing traffic.
  • Developing re-use hubs at these distribution nodes can drive down waste.
  • Mobility hubs can ensure that everyone is well connected, not just for public transport, but also cycle paths, routes for mobility vehicles and charging points for electric vehicles.
  • Planning for shops and services locally (perhaps sharing the same premises) will reduce the need to travel outside the local area.

Angela and Ailie concluded with an invitation to anyone interested in partnering with SEPA on developing the circular economy in Scotland.

20 minute neighbourhoods

In the final section of the webinar, the Scottish Government’s Chief Architect, Ian Gilzean looked at 20 minute neighbourhoods. This is not a new concept, but has gained added significance due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

20 minute neighbourhoods are all about living more locally by ensuring people have most of their daily needs met within a 20 minute walk from home. This in turn improves quality of life and reduces carbon emissions.

20 minute neighbourhoods bring together a range of characteristics, including transport, housing, schools, recreation, shopping and local employment. Recent limitations on travel due to the coronavirus have given many of us a lived experience of 20 minute neighbourhoods. But they have also brought into sharp focus the barriers preventing people from accessing work, shops and services close to where they live.

Ian went on to describe the implementation of the 20 minute neighbourhoods concept in Melbourne, Australia. Since 2017 Plan Melbourne has embraced this concept, feeding into the ambition of Melbourne to become a more liveable, connected, sustainable city. While some parts of Melbourne, such as the inner suburb of Fitzroy, already enjoy the facilities that make up a 20 minute neighbourhood, some of the outlying suburbs do not, and Plan Melbourne has been aiming to tackle some of the problems that prevent these places from delivering on the concept.

20 minute neighbourhoods appear to be an idea whose time has come. The pandemic has triggered a rise in remote working, and especially working from home. At the same time, cities have seen significant rises in cycling numbers. The economic impact of COVID-19 is still playing out, but it’s already clear that the recovery of small businesses and local services will be a priority, along with the need to reimagine urban centres.

Ian explained that these factors have all fed into the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government, which has a strong focus on localism. This in turn has generated commitments and policies on town centre and community regeneration, local working hubs and active travel infrastructure, all underpinned by the new National Planning Framework.

Ian concluded with an example of a project in the Wester Hailes district of Edinburgh, where the city council has been developing a local place plan. The plan is making the most of existing assets, such as local canal and rail connections, as well as identifying new opportunities, such as cycle routes, food growing and green spaces.

Final thoughts

This webinar, along with others in the series, provided plenty of useful information about how Scotland is trying address climate change through the planning system, while also taking account of local communities’ needs.

Much more remains to be done if Scotland is to meet its net-zero ambitions, but it’s clear from the initiatives highlighted in these webinars that communities in partnership with local and national government and other stakeholders are working hard to create carbon conscious places.


Follow us on Twitter to find out what topic areas are interesting our research team.

How the planning system can help address climate change

The Scottish Government’s Climate Change Plan Update is due to be published this month (December 2020), after being postponed from April due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.  The plan will provide an update on the Scottish Government’s Climate Change Plan, reflecting the new targets set out in the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019, with the overall aim of reducing Scotland’s emissions of all greenhouse gases to net-zero by 2045. 

In the face of the climate emergency, the target is both admirable and ambitious.  Achieving it will require input from all sectors of the economy and society – from energy, transport, infrastructure to skills, training and innovation. 

A recent series of webinars held by Partners in Planning looked at the ways in which town planning could help play its part by embedding nature-based solutions and green infrastructure planning into the planning process.

In this blog we look at three innovative projects that were highlighted.  They illustrate some of the varied ways in which planning can contribute towards the Scottish Government’s net zero targets and address the wider climate emergency.

Building with Nature: green infrastructure benchmark

Encouraging developers to incorporate green infrastructure and nature-based solutions into new developments is a key challenge, particularly if there is a perception that it may be more time consuming and/or costly to do so.

Building with Nature is a set of wellbeing standards built around the ‘3 Ws’ – water, wildlife and wellbeing.  The standards go beyond statutory requirements, bringing together evidence, guidance and good practice to provide something akin to a ‘how to’ guide for creating places that benefit both people and nature.  The standards are free to access and use, and there is also a paid-for accreditation scheme, with three levels of achievement – design, good, and excellent.

As well as reducing carbon emissions, the standards aim to help support biodiversity, promote flood resilience and support wellbeing through the provision of green space that is both inclusive and accessible to everyone, regardless of age or disability.

The standards are entirely voluntary but many local authorities are now beginning to either refer developers to Building with Nature or incorporate them as requirements in their own plans.

Plans themselves can also become accredited.  Indeed, West Dunbartonshire Council’s Local Development Plan 2, published in August 2020, is the first Building with Nature accredited policy document, achieving the ‘excellent’ rating.

Building with Nature have also recently launched a new national award scheme, with the first winners being Forth Valley Royal Hospital and Larbert Woods.

Green-blue roofs – Meadowbank, Edinburgh

One way that developers can incorporate nature-based solutions into their developments is through the use of green-blue roofs. Green-blue roofs can provide a range of benefits for both people and nature – including surface water management, urban cooling, as well as providing habitats for wildlife and opportunities for people to access nature in the urban environment.  

At present, there is no mandatory policy for green roof infrastructure in Scotland, thus while developers may be aware of the benefits that they have, many do not incorporate them into their plans due concerns about their impact on scheme costs and viability.

These concerns have been addressed in a study of the viability of incorporating green-blue roofs into a mixed-used development at the former Meadowbank Stadium site in Edinburgh, conducted by Collective Architecture on behalf of NatureScot (previously called Scottish Natural Heritage). 

The study highlights the varied range of green-blue roof options available to developers – all with different costs, levels of maintenance, building requirements etc.  Some are suitable for public access whereas others are not.  Blue-green roofs are a combination of both green roofs and blue roofs – where rainwater is retained rather than drained (as with a typical green roof) and released in a controlled manner.

Overall, green-blue roofs were found to be a viable option for the Meadowbank development, freeing up space that might otherwise be used for ground-based SUDS (sustainable drainage systems), and offering a range of potential wellbeing and community benefits.  Blue-green roofs did cause a small uplift in roofing costs. However, as a proportion of the overall construction costs, these were minimal, coming in at around £350 per dwelling.

Retrofitting green infrastructure – Queensland Gardens, Cardonald, Glasgow

If our towns and cities are to become truly carbon neutral, then there will also be a need to retrofit green infrastructure into existing developments.  One such example of retrofitting is Queensland Court and Gardens – a partnership between Southside Housing Association and Glasgow City Council to retrofit green infrastructure designs into two multi-storey tower blocks and the surrounding land in Cardonald, Glasgow. 

The project is part of the wider Green Infrastructure Strategic Intervention (GISI) programme, which as well as contributing to the ultimate goal of achieving a net zero carbon society, seeks to demonstrate how green infrastructure can be used to address some of the key issues faced in urban areas – from declining economic growth, social inequalities, pollution, flooding, noise, multiple deprivation, health problems and limited biodiversity. 

One of the key issues facing the outdoor space at Queensland Gardens is excess surface water, which renders much of the space unusable.  As such, the project has also received funding from 10,000 Raingardens for Scotland.  It plans to turn the rainwater run-off from the tower blocks into a feature that is incorporated into the gardens.  It also plans to expand the current parking facilities, create a shared community green space, and enhance the currently very limited play space for children and young people.

Both the Queensland Gardens and the Meadowbank site developments will be assessed against the Building with Nature standards.

Green infrastructure as part of the green recovery

The coronavirus pandemic has brought into sharp focus the importance of having local green spaces that are both easily accessible and inclusive of all ages and disabilities.  It highlighted the importance of nature to the health of society and the world more broadly, along with the urgent need to address climate change.

It also demonstrated that it is possible to create and implement innovative solutions to global crises on a tight timescale, when both the need and will exist.  There are strong calls now for a ‘green recovery’, and it is expected that the imminent Climate Change Plan Update will feature this concept heavily.  Indeed Scotland has already made a number of commitments for a green recovery as part of their 2020/21 Programme for Government, and the findings of the recent Green Recovery Inquiry reinforce its importance.

As the above examples show, embedding green infrastructure and nature-based solutions into the planning system is one way to help achieve Scotland’s goal of becoming net zero by 2045.  By doing so, we can create places and spaces that benefit not only ourselves, but also society and the planet.


Read some of our other blogs related to the environment:

Follow us on Twitter to find out what topic areas are interesting our research team.

Virtual reality: a game changer for mental health treatment?

Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

Demand for mental health treatment in the UK far outstrips supply. And the outbreak of COVID-19 has forced many primary care services to think creatively not only about demand and supply, which has increased further during the pandemic, but also about delivery. GPs and community mental health teams in particular are thinking about more innovative ways to deliver remote support to people with mental health conditions, including the use of Telehealth and virtual reality (VR) platforms.

People are probably most familiar with VR in a digital gaming context, with devices like Oculus headsets offering immersive gaming experiences where players can place themselves “in the game”, but it has been suggested that integrating VR, alongside other telehealth options like apps and videoconferencing into mental health consultation and treatment could make counselling and alternative treatment options more accessible to those living and working remotely. Early research suggests that while discussions about investigating the benefits of this type of delivery of care have been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, researchers and practitioners were already beginning to explore how VR and Telehealth could be a tool that could be utilised more regularly in the treatment and engagement of people with mental health conditions, not just during periods where face to face contact is a challenge.

Blended treatments to help improve outcomes

Telehealth encompasses a number of different approaches and techniques, including using platforms like skype for mobile conferencing, or mobile apps to help people manage conditions and to help deliver some treatment options. It has previously been used in other areas of medicine, for example to help those with chronic conditions self-manage, with various levels of success and uptake.

One foundation embracing remote mental health support, even before the arrival of coronavirus, is Greater Manchester mental health foundation trust who use a mobile app called ClinTouch, to support people recovering from psychosis, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Although patients will typically see a care co-ordinator monthly, symptoms of a relapse can appear within days; with the app, users are asked how they feel a few times a day, and an alert is generated if a relapse looks likely.  Some NHS organisations have also adopted telepsychiatry – videoconferencing therapy sessions. 

Using VR for remote therapy almost takes telehealth a step further, and involves using a complete virtual environment, with the potential for this to be integrated into treatment plans, so clinicians can, for example, create a setting which looks like the inside of their office, or use virtual environments to model external scenarios that may cause anxiety to help patients practice coping techniques like breathing exercises.

One of the potential extended uses for VR and telehealth in a clinical mental health treatment setting which has emerged is its application for rural populations, or for people who are isolating because of exposure to coronavirus. However, this has raised some additional questions about the potential barriers to uptake exacerbated by digital illiteracy and poor access to digital devices, as well as the problem of poor or slow internet connections, something which will need to be considered by health boards if they decide to offer these treatment options.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

More research is needed, and is being done

While recent research has shown face-to-face therapy remains the optimal treatment method in mental health care, VR-based therapy has been found to be more effective than Skype-based or phone only counselling. The research also suggests VR-based Telehealth sessions could improve engagement, compared to phone only sessions and greatly reduce dropout rates for clients which in turn can support positive clinical outcomes. It appears the general consensus is that self-service, VR and automated technology, in the form of apps and notifications could support and augment healthcare professionals and help support the delivery of more traditional approaches.

The virtual reality lab at the NIHR-Wellcome Trust-King’s Clinical Research facility aims to improve the understanding of the mechanisms that play a role in the onset and maintenance of mental health problems. They use virtual reality environments to assess and develop treatments to improve the well-being of people with mental health problems.

Research is also being done on the specific reaction to young people of engaging with digitally driven treatment options. There are some suggestions that the delivery of digital interventions to support young people with mental health problems may help them to engage more, in part because they are more familiar with digital platforms and may feel more comfortable using them day-to-day, however there is also a suggestion that young people also prefer the feeling of “distance” and “impersonality” that a digital platform provides which can lead to some feeling more able to express how they are really feeling, compared to a face to face meeting with a clinician which can sometimes be a stressful and intimidating experience.

Where next?

So far in clinical psychology and psychiatry, the primary focus of VR has been its role in treating anxiety and stress-related disordersspecific phobiaspanic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. However the disruption to face to face mental health treatments caused by the coronavirus pandemic has led to clinicians thinking even more creatively about the applications of VR and telehealth options to help support the treatment of people with a wider range of mental health conditions.

While it is clear that virtual treatments should not replace the face to face consultation in mental health treatment entirely, research suggests there is a growing role for VR and Telehealth options in augmenting face to face treatment options and that they could be offered as an option for those who are unable to attend face to face sessions. Telehealth and remote treatments are something which will continue to be explored beyond the coronavirus pandemic and could soon be integrated into practice as part of the standard delivery of mental health care and treatment.


Follow us on Twitter to find out which topic are interesting our research team

If you enjoyed this article, you may be interested in reading:

‘Bending the Curve’ of biodiversity loss – could Covid-19 be the catalyst for change?

dead forest pic

“The evidence is unequivocal – nature is being changed and destroyed by us at a rate unprecedented in history” (WWF)

The latest Living Planet report from the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) finds that 68% of the world’s wildlife populations have been lost since 1970 – more than two thirds in less than 50 years – with the most striking result a 94% decline in tropical subregions of the Americas. The report says this ‘catastrophic’ decline shows no signs of slowing. The cause – human activity.

Until 1970, the ecological footprint of the human population was less than the rate of the Earth’s regeneration. Explosive growth in global trade, consumption, population growth and urbanisation means we are now using more of the world’s resources than can be replenished:

“To feed and fuel our 21st century lifestyles, we are overusing the Earth’s biocapacity by at least 56%.” (WWF)

The environmental impact of human activity is hardly a new topic but the numerous warnings over the years haven’t had the desired effect of changing society’s trajectory. The stark warnings from recent reports including the 2018 IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) special report on the impacts of global warming, and popular programmes such as the Blue Planet II series which highlighted the devastating impact of pollution on the world’s oceans, have certainly helped heighten awareness and action has been taken across the world to address the climate emergency. Unfortunately, the progress made so far is not enough to reverse the current declining trends.

But the new report raises hope in that times of crisis new ideas and opportunities for transformation can arise and that the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic could perhaps be the catalyst for such change.

‘People and nature are intertwined’

COVID-19 has undoubtedly injected a new sense of urgency, emphasising again the interconnectedness of humans and nature. It has provided a stark reminder how unparalleled biodiversity loss threatens the health of both people and the planet.

Factors believed to lead to the emergence of pandemics – including global travel, urbanisation, changes in land use and greater exploitation of the natural environment – are also some of the drivers behind the decline in wildlife.

The report emphasises that biodiversity loss is not just an environmental issue, but also a development, economic, global security, ethical and moral one. And it is also about self-preservation as “biodiversity plays a critical role in providing food, fibre, water, energy, medicines and other genetic materials; and is key to the regulation of our climate, water quality, pollution, pollination services, flood control and storm surges.”

As well the pandemic, a series of recent catastrophic events are used to underline the intrinsic links between human health and environmental health, including: Africa’s plague of locusts in 2019 which threatened food supplies, caused by the unusually high number of cyclones; extreme droughts in India and Pakistan in 2019, leading to an unknown death toll; and Australia’s most intense bushfire season ever recorded, made worse by unusually low rainfall and record high temperatures, as well as excessive logging.

Alongside this, the “extraordinary gains in human health and wellbeing” over the past century, including reduced child mortality and increased life expectancy, are highlighted as a cause for celebration but the study warns that the exploitation and alteration of the natural environment that has occurred in tandem threatens to undo these successes.

Biggest threats to biodiversity

Clearly, biodiversity is fundamental to human life and it is vital that the drivers of its destruction are addressed; and quickly.

Drawing on the Living Planet Index (LPI), which tracks the abundance of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians across the globe, using data from over 4,000 different species, the report identifies the major threat categories to biodiversity:

  • Changes in land and sea use
  • Invasive species and disease
  • Species overexploitation
  • Pollution
  • Climate change

It may be surprising to learn that climate change has not yet been the main driver of biodiversity loss. In fact, globally, climate change features lower on the scale of threats than the other drivers in almost all regions. Changes in land and sea use is the biggest proportional threat, averaged across all regions, at 50%. This is followed by species exploitation at 24% with invasive species taking third place at 13%. Climate change accounts for 6% on average.

However, the report warns projections suggest the tables are set to turn with climate change overtaking all other drivers in the coming years.

But all is not lost yet. The report argues that it is possible to reverse these trends and calls for action to do so by 2030.

Bending the Curve’

This year’s report highlights findings from significant new research, the Bending the Curve initiative, which uses pioneering modelling of different human behaviour scenarios aimed at restoring biodiversity. It argues that this has provided ‘proof of concept’ for the first time that we can halt, and reverse, the loss of nature while feeding a growing population:

“Bending the curve of biodiversity loss is technologically and economically possible, but it will require truly transformational change in the way we produce and consume food and in how we sustainably manage and conserve nature.”

2020 has certainly made the whole world stop and think. And it has provided an opportunity to reset humanity’s relationship with nature. Encouragingly, there has been widespread talk of a ‘green recovery’ from the pandemic and the British public have recently backed a “fairer, greener Britain” amid concerns the government might be rushing the country back to a ‘business-as-usual’ model.

Achieving a balance with nature will clearly require systemic change, as the Living Planet report shows. In the words of Sir David Attenborough, above all it will require a change in perspective”.


Read some of our other blogs related to the environment:

Follow us on Twitter to find out what topic areas are interesting our research team.

Guest post: How working from home could revitalise rust belt cities

RMC42

Michel Serafinelli, University of Essex

For years, we have been promised a work-from-home revolution, and it seems that the pandemic has finally brought it to pass. In April this year, at the height of the first wave of coronavirus, 47% of people in the UK were working from home, the vast majority of them doing so because of the pandemic. In a sense this is overdue: the work-from-home potential for UK employees is 32%; in France, Germany and Italy between 24% and 28%.

This structural transformation has the potential to at least partially undo another transformation from the previous century. With the decline of manufacturing in the United Kingdom after the 1970s, some cities – incuding Hull, Sheffield, Bradford and Stoke-on-Trent – entered a spiral of high unemployment and out-migration that has lasted to this day. This trend is echoed in other “rust belt” cities such as Saint-Etienne in France, Wuppertal in Germany and the American city of Detroit.

The rise of teleworking could end that spiral – if the right conditions are met.

The changing workplace

It’s unlikely that telework will end when the pandemic does – we will instead probably see workplaces encouraging a mix of in-office and home working. Some organisations may start asking workers to be in the office for only two to three days per week, while others may opt for a “conference model” (that is, a few consecutive days or a week per month for all employees).

This does not mean the death of big cities. London will probably stay attractive and innovative thanks to its very strong initial advantage. San Francisco and Seattle in US, Munich in Germany and Amsterdam in the Netherlands will all remain hubs for knowledge workers. Scholars believe face-to-face still rules when it comes to creativity, and such cities provide an environment that is conducive to innovation.

But rust belt areas are cheaper and can attract skilled workers to regularly spend more time there once the pandemic is over.

A busy street in Soho, London.
London will not lose its appeal. christo mitkov christov/Shutterstock

The job multiplier effect

How can formerly deprived cities thrive after the pandemic? To understand the potential for revitalisation of rust belt cities, we can invoke the job multiplier effect. This is where the presence of skilled workers helps create other jobs through increased demand for local goods and services. For example, after their day on Zoom (at home or in a local co-working space), skilled workers will want to go out. In this way they support a barista, a waiter, a chef and perhaps a taxi driver. Some will decide to renovate the house they live in, and ask a local architect. Once or twice a week they go for yoga. They may need a dogsitter when they travel.

This is not the only mechanism that could help with local revitalisation. Some of the people regularly spending more time in rust belt areas would be entrepreneurs, and we may see new business creation, as they seize new opportunities in industries such as culture, renewable energies, tourism, quality agro-food or handicraft.

In principle, therefore, our increased ability to work from home could lead to new growth opportunities.

Will it work?

But there are important caveats. Not all rust belt cities will be able take advantage of the post-pandemic world. After all, there were large differences in labour market performance after the 1970s, when the aggregate number of manufacturing jobs started to decline.

In the UK, both Middlesborough and Slough had 44% manufacturing employment in 1970. But their experience was vastly different in the three following decades, with Middlesborough employment declining by 13% per decade and Slough employment growing by 12% per decade. Places such as Norwich and Preston in the UK, Bergamo in Italy, and San Jose in the US were traditional manufacturing hubs that nonetheless performed well in the decades that followed the start of manufacturing decline in their countries.

To understand why we may see large differences across different cities again with the rise of working from home, we first have to think about differences in what economists call human capital endowments – this relates to the skills of the workforce in a particular place. For example, if locality A has a greater share of the workforce with a university degree than locality B, it has a higher human capital endowment and is more likely to recover from industrial decline.

The skill level of the workforce is important for the task of local reinvention – in our research team’s analysis of the reinvention potential for cities, we used the share of the workforce with a university degree as a proxy for this. To distribute these advantages across the board, scholars studying declining areas have called for measures aimed at boosting training and facilitating the assimilation of knowledge and innovation.

Another important challenge is the digital divide – the gap in speeds between areas with privileged access to the internet and the rest of the country. In the UK this is more than just a gap between urban and rural parts of the country – inner-city areas in London, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham are also left behind. A large reduction of this gap was important for job creation before COVID-19 – it should be a top priority now.

An overhead shot of a woman typing on a laptop at a table.
The UK’s digital divide affects cities too. marvent/Shutterstock

Local amenities also play a role. For skilled workers with family ties in a specific area, once they decide to regularly spend more time outside London, the choice of location is often pretty clear. For skilled workers without such ties, factors such as the cultural and recreational activities on offer in a new city become important, especially since they are used to a vibrant selection in London.

Overall, rust belt areas in Western economies face some opportunities for regeneration with teleworking, but there are also several important challenges. To maximise the potential for success, governments should consider measures that boost training, investment in high-speed broadband and improve transportation links between these cities and London.

These kinds of investments would help smaller cities such as Middlesborough, Hull and Stoke-on-Trent take advantage of the new opportunities presented by telework. Otherwise Manchester and, to some extent, other larger cities such as Birmingham and Liverpool could be the winners, among the rust belt, in the post-coronavirus work-from-home economy.

Michel Serafinelli, Lecturer in Economics, University of Essex

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


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange blog:

Follow us on Twitter to find out what topic areas are interesting our research team.

Skilling up: the case for digital literacy

As technology has advanced, and it has become harder to name simple tasks that have not become digitised in some form, the need for everyone in society to have a basic level of digital skills has markedly increased. From applying for jobs to ordering a coffee via an app, digital technology has undoubtedly changed the way we all go about our day-to-day lives. For those with the appropriate digital skillset, these advances may be viewed as a positive transition to more efficiently operated services. However, for those without the necessary digital skills, there is a risk that they will struggle to access even the most basic of essential services, such as opening a bank account.

Therefore, it is of no surprise that the issue of the digital skills gap is a concern for governments and businesses alike, with a recent report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee highlighting that the UK could be missing out on £63 billion in lost GDP each year, due to a general lack of digital skills.

The issue of the digital skills gap has never been more pronounced, as a result of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, where various restrictions have required us all to embrace digital technology, in order to work, learn and socialise with our friends and family.

Digital skills at work

The extent to which technology has changed the world of work cannot be overstated, with a recent CBI report stating that the UK is the midst of a fourth industrial revolution, spurred on by advancements in automation, artificial intelligence and biotechnology. Research conducted by the CBI found that 57% of businesses say that they will need significantly more digital skills in the next five years. Therefore, the workforce of the future will need to be supported to gain these digital skills, in order to gain employment and enable British business to benefit from the digital revolution.

Concerns have been raised regarding the ability of young people to access opportunities that will support them in developing transferable digital skills. Grasping key digital skills, such as the ability to navigate Microsoft Office, is undoubtedly necessary, but is no longer enough to meet the needs of employers.  

Digital literacy: the bedrock for a fourth industrial revolution

The ability to not just be able to use digital technology, but to truly understand how it works, is known as digital literacy. A report from the House of Commons Education Select Committee sets out how crucial digital literacy will be to the success of the fourth industrial revolution. The speed with which technology is advancing and changing ensures that within just a few years, digital platforms that we use today may become outdated. Therefore, it is unwise to focus on using a single platform when developing digital skills, as inevitably the platform will either gain new functionalities or become obsolete. Instead, digital skills should be developed in a way that ensures they are future-proofed and will not go to waste when the inescapable next big technological or societal change occurs.

Why do we need digital literacy?

An example of why digital literacy is important can be seen in the way in which many of us have adapted to work from home, as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. Restrictions on face-to-face meetings forced us to consider new ways to work collaboratively and explore the myriad of platforms that facilitate video-calling, file sharing and instant messaging. Whilst we may have already had experience using existing video-conferencing platforms, such as Skype, it was clear that each organisation had to consider using new software, such as Zoom and Google Hangouts.

Many of us would never have used these software packages before and were expected to rapidly get to grips with it in real-time, and without the usual in-person back-up networks of colleagues and IT support. This highlights the importance of digital literacy: the ability to take insight gained from interacting with one digital platform and apply it to another was vital for business continuity during the initial lockdown. The ability to transfer knowledge gained from one platform to another, is vital to ensure that we harness the opportunities of digital advancements as they occur, and without the need for lengthy additional training.

Developing digital literacy

Developing digital literacy can be difficult. Research conducted by the Nuffield Foundation found that providing access to computers in schools was not enough to encourage the development of digital literacy. Instead, FutureLab advises that computers should be embedded and used across the curriculum. Ideas put forward within FutureLab’s Digital Literacy handbook, include:

  • Support children to make mistakes when using technology, allow them to create content that may not be to the high-standard we would expect and enable them to consider how they can improve the quality of their output.
  • Provide opportunities for children to work collaboratively online, e.g create a wiki or real-time document creation via Google Docs. Use this experience to highlight how anyone can make changes online, and develop critical understanding of how what we see online may not always be entirely trustworthy.
  • Harness the power of technology by going beyond the basics. Most children will be able to conduct a simple online search, then highlight ways this can be improved and advanced through Boolean search terms. Incorporate this into a lesson that discusses the value of critically assessing the value of information.

Final thoughts

Since the widespread adoption of the internet, the way we use technology has changed at an almost frightening pace. Therefore, the digital skills we all need to interact with technology must keep up if we are to truly harness the power and potential of these new advancements.

Ensuring that we are all digitally literate will enable us to take advantage of new digital platforms effectively and could potentially lead to future economic prosperity. Developing digital literacy, will not be easy, but it will be vital to ensure the future workforce have the skills they need to gain employment and play their part within the fourth industrial revolution.



Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research team.

Read some of our other blogs on digital skills:

Role models for a new economic landscape: lessons from Europe’s Green Capitals

Hamburg: StadtRÄDER bike rental system

Last month, the French city of Grenoble was crowned European Green Capital for 2022. Since 2010, this award has been presented by the European Commission to cities judged to be at the forefront of sustainable urban living.

Being named Europe’s Green Capital is good PR for any winning city, and the €350,000 prize is an additional incentive to win. But the award also places demands on the winners to build on the environmental improvements that helped put them in first place.

The key message of the award is that Europeans have a right to live in healthy urban areas. Cities should therefore strive to improve the quality of life of their citizens and reduce their impact on the global environment.

Cities bidding for the award are judged on a range of environmental criteria, including climate change, local transport, public green areas, air quality, noise, waste, water consumption, wastewater, sustainable land use, biodiversity and environmental management.

The award enables cities to inspire each other and to share examples of good practice. So far, 13 cities have been named European Green Capitals:

2010: Stockholm (Sweden)

2011: Hamburg (Germany)

2012: Vitoria-Gasteiz (Spain)

2013: Nantes (France)

2014: Copenhagen (Denmark)

2015: Bristol (United Kingdom)

2016: Ljubljana (Slovenia)

2017: Essen (Germany)

2018: Nijmegen (Netherlands)

2019: Oslo (Norway)

2020: Lisbon (Portugal)

2021: Lahti (Finland)

2022: Grenoble (France)

Green approaches

Each city has adopted different approaches during its year as a green capital.

  • One very clear example of Stockholm’s commitment to sustainable development during its year as European Green Capital was the opening of a new tramway. The line opened in August 2010 and quickly achieved substantial environmental and economic impacts.

  • One of the campaigns during Hamburg’s year as green capital in 2011 aimed to make it easier for citizens to switch from cars to bikes and public transport. The Hamburg Transport Association distributed 2,735 free tickets to friends and acquaintances of season ticket holders, and many visitors made use of the free advisory and ‘get involved’ activities of Germany’s national bicycle club. During the year, Hamburg’s StadtRÄDER bike rental system was also promoted, resulting in an 8% increase in the number of users.

  • Even before it was named as a European Green Capital, Grenoble, had already made efforts to address noise pollution, promote cycling and reduce speed limits. It has also taken a proactive approach to maximising its limited green space by encouraging citizen-led planting initiatives. Grenoble reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 25% from 2005 to 2016 and is working towards a 50% reduction by 2030.

Britain’s green capital

The only UK city to be awarded the European Green Capital prize is Bristol, which held the title in 2015. The city hosted a number of art projects to raise awareness about sustainable development. Bristol also began a trial of ‘bio-buses’ powered by biomethane gas, using human waste from more than 30,000 households, an initiative that was developed further in 2020.

The selection of Bristol opened up a serious debate about  the true value of the award, with some regarding it as a distraction from Bristol’s serious environmental issues, such as traffic congestion, while others were critical of public funding for some European Green Capital projects as wasteful.

However, an important legacy from the year was the publication of the “Bristol Method”, a knowledge-transfer programme aimed at helping people in other cities understand and apply the lessons that Bristol learned in becoming a more sustainable city.

The Bristol Method is made up of a series of modules, each of which uses Bristol’s experience to present a ‘how to’ guide on a particular topic. Topics include:

  • how to use partnerships to drive change;
  • how to use grants to support grassroots change;
  • how to prepare a winning bid for the European Green Capital;
  • how to grow the green economy in a city;
  • how to get more people riding bikes and walking;
  • how to protect and enhance green spaces in a city.

Green shoots for a post-Covid recovery

Although the world is currently preoccupied by the coronavirus pandemic, that other serious planetary threat –  climate change – has not gone away. So it’s significant that many governments see this moment as an opportunity to build radical green policies into their packages for economic recovery.

Some of the practical ideas developed over the past decade by Europe’s Green Capitals are important in their own right, but may also be seen as key elements in rebuilding economies that have been devastated by restrictions to suppress the coronavirus.

The German city of Essen, for example, (European Green Capital in 2017) has developed one of Europe’s largest infrastructure projects, restoring 80 kilometres of waterways and creating a network of green spaces. The project was not only an important climate adaptation milestone, but has also created new jobs and business opportunities. Essen has shown that it’s possible for a city which previously relied on heavy industry to transform itself into a vibrant and sustainable space for humans, animals and plants.

Another project, in the Dutch city of Nijmegen, (Green Capital in 2018) is a social enterprise that collects, restores and re-sells second-hand goods. The venture prevents waste, as well as employing people who can put their repair and retail experience to good use. Similar projects across the Netherlands have collected 20,000 tonnes of goods a year, with 80% being re-used. They also provide jobs for disadvantaged and disabled people who have found it especially difficult to enter the labour market.

Europe’s Green Capitals have already become role models for green economies throughout Europe and beyond. Now they can demonstrate the economic as well as the environmental benefits of building back greener. 


Further reading: more on greener cities from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Guest post: Stories from lockdown – interviews show how poor housing quality made life even more tough

Mike_shots/Shutterstock

Philip Brown, University of Huddersfield

Life during COVID-19 has not been a uniform experience. There have been distinct differences in how people have contended with lockdown, depending on whether they have access to safe, secure and decent accommodation.

New research from the University of Huddersfield has looked at how people were coping while living with poor housing conditions in the north of England during the first lockdown, between May and July 2020. We spoke to 50 households: 40 in the private rented sector and 10 owner-occupiers, as well as eight housing workers.

The findings are stark and unsettling. The study found that the state of homes were causing increasing distress and were costing more to run and maintain. People in rental properties, in particular, felt increasingly insecure in their tenancies.

Worsening conditions

The majority of the people we spoke to were living in privately rented accommodation. We found that for these households, existing poor housing conditions worsened during lockdown.

Many households expressed a suspicion that landlords were using lockdown as an excuse to indefinitely postpone or delay repair works (repairs were permitted at the time the study was conducted). Others reported that their landlords had refused to arrange repairs. People told us about leaking roofs and guttering, and about how water coming into their housing had caused internal damage, damp and mould.

Woman looking at mould in corner of room
Damp and mould were recurring problems. Burdun Iliya/Shutterstock

These households faced the choice of waiting and trying to cope, or using their own income and savings to fix their homes. As one resident told us:

In the end I had to pay for someone to come out and get rid of the mice myself because I can’t have mice running about the flipping house… when it was leaking on the roof I had to pay to have tiles put in.

Our findings showed that people were not reporting or following up concerns or making complaints, due to a fear of possible revenge evictions or rent increases which they could not afford. Many respondents told us that they were putting paying for housing costs ahead of food and other outgoings.

Making ends meet

We heard accounts of the challenges of living in cold and damp conditions. This was a recurring factor in the lives of those people on low incomes, as well as for people for whom the pandemic had added a new layer of uncertainty.

A lack of control over rising energy costs in the home was an ongoing source of anxiety. A single parent said:

I don’t put my heating on as much as I should do. I make sure my daughter walks around in slippers, dressing gowns. You come into the home, you take your coat off and you put a dressing gown on, so you walk round in a housecoat, basically.

Often, these accounts did not come from people who had existing experience of the welfare system, but from people who were still working full-time in professional occupations.

Elderly woman wrapped in blanket adjusting thermostat
Energy costs cause anxiety. Paul Vasarhelyi/Shutterstock

Spending weeks at a time in poor-quality accommodation had a crushing impact. One woman reported:

I’ve got really bad damp in my house…it’s always bothered me, but it’s bothered me more and more and more because I work from home, and I’m working in the kitchen, and I’m looking at it every day directly and seeing it there. It’s just getting worse. The landlord keeps saying, “There’s nothing I can do”.

Existing problems

The report makes it clear that the issues households were facing did not begin during lockdown. Rather, households were put into lockdown within homes that were already low quality. The stories within the report are not isolated cases – around 1 million homes across the north fail to meet basic decency standards.

Research has shown that those most at risk of experiencing the worst impacts of the pandemic are those people who are already vulnerable: those receiving benefits, living with long-term health conditions, in precarious employment or living in insecure housing or with poor housing conditions. These issues are particularly acute in the north of England.

Immediate action is needed to ensure people retain as much income as possible, their outgoings are minimised and their housing is secure. The housing crisis in the UK is not just about a lack of new homes, but also about the quality of existing homes that many of us will continue to live in for decades.

Philip Brown, Professor of Housing and Communities, University of Huddersfield

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


Further reading: more on housing from The Knowledge Exchange blog:

Follow us on Twitter to find out what topic areas are interesting our research team.

Counting down the hours: could a shorter working week raise productivity and improve our mental health?

In 1930, the influential British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that within 100 years the working week would have shrunk to 15 hours. He believed that as living standards rose people would choose to have more leisure time as their material needs were satisfied.

For a time, it looked as if Keynes might be right. In the post-war period, average working hours continued falling, and analysis by the New Economics Foundation has suggested that if this trend had continued we would currently have an average working week of around 34 hours.

But in the 1980s, labour market deregulation, reduced collective bargaining, and slower growth in pay for low income workers put the brakes on working time reductions.

In the UK, 74% of the workforce work an average of 42.5 hours a week. That’s longer than in any EU country, apart from Greece and Austria.

The benefits of a shorter working week

In recent years, the twin challenges of climate change and automation of jobs, along with growing concerns about mental health and work/life balance, have prompted a rethink on working hours.

For some, a shorter working week means compressing forty working hours into four days instead of five.  Others argue that a truly progressive four-day week involves fewer hours at work, with no reduction in pay.

While many employers may recoil at the prospect of paying the same wage for fewer hours, a growing body of evidence presents some strong arguments in favour of this approach:

  • Studies of working hours reductions have demonstrated increases in productivity over four days to compensate for the loss of the fifth working day.
  • Employees with reduced hours spend less time on inefficient tasks, such as meetings.
  • Fewer hours can mean less stress, greater work-life balance and increased motivation.
  • A 2020 study by Autonomy found that a four day working week could potentially reduce energy consumption for the extra non-working day by 10% and emissions intensity by 15%.
  • A shorter working week could have positive effects on gender equality.
  • Maintenance costs can be reduced if all employees are out of the office for an additional day each week.

The four-day week in practice: lessons from New Zealand

In May, New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern encouraged employers to consider the four-day working week as one of the ways the country’s economy could be rebuilt following the Covid-19 pandemic. She suggested that reductions in working hours could boost productivity and domestic tourism and improve work/life balance.

In fact, one New Zealand firm has already demonstrated the positive effects of a shorter working week. In March 2018, financial services company Perpetual Guardian began a two-month trial in which its 240 staff worked four eight-hour days, but got paid for five. The experiment was monitored by academics at the University of Auckland and Auckland University of Technology.

The findings from the trial showed that supervisors were able to maintain performance levels, and most teams recorded a marginal increase. Meanwhile, employees reported improved job satisfaction and a better work/life balance. In addition, many employees expressed a sense of greater empowerment in their work because of the planning discussions that preceded the trial. The success of the trial has now resulted in the four-day week being adopted as company policy at Perpetual Guardian.

The cost of cutting hours

Another working hours trial, in Gothenburg, Sweden, involved nurses in a care home being offered the chance to work six-hour shifts instead of eight, on full pay. While the trial resulted in improvements in staff satisfaction, health and patient care, the city had to employ an extra 17 staff, costing £1.4m. Critics of the scheme said the need to pump additional taxpayers’ money into the trial proved that it was not economically sustainable.

Cost is a potential stumbling block to further working hours reductions. A 2019 report from the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) estimated that the cost to the UK public sector of moving to a four-day week would be £45 billion if attempted immediately, or £17 billion assuming generous productivity gains from shorter hours. The authors argued that such costs would require spending cuts in public services or substantial tax rises.

However, the Autonomy think tank has put the net cost of a 32-hour week at no more than £5.4 billion. Autonomy has also pointed to improvements in job quality for millions of public sector staff, the creation of 500,000 new jobs and reductions in the sector’s carbon footprint as potential benefits of shorter hours.

Burnout or rethink?

In October 2020, the 4 Day Week Campaign, Autonomy and Compass published Burnout Britain, looking at the impact of longer working hours. The report noted that over the past three years the length of the working day has increased steadily, resulting in a 49% rise in mental distress reported by employees. Women are experiencing particular pressures, with 43% more likely to have increased their hours during the Covid-19 crisis.

The report warned that beyond the coronavirus pandemic, the UK faces another serious public health emergency:

“…as well as an impending recession and mass unemployment, we are heading into an unprecedented mental health crisis”

The existing evidence suggests there’s a strong case to be made for reductions in working hours. Apart from the potential productivity gains and improvements in the quality of life, there are savings to be made in the costs of treating mental ill health caused by overwork.

Even so, government and employers will require further proof of the tangible benefits of a shorter working week before committing to permanent changes.

Crisis often accelerates change, and the Covid-19 pandemic has injected new urgency into the debate. Remote working, restrictions in the workplace and the threat of mass unemployment have demonstrated the need to reconsider the old rules that only months ago seemed set in stone.

We are still a long way from Keynes’ vision of a 15-hour week. But 2020 has shown that shining a light on previously unthinkable alternatives to our current ways of working is not only possible, but essential.


Further reading: more on working conditions from The Knowledge Exchange blog:

Follow us on Twitter to find out what topic areas are interesting our research team.