Previously published in The Irish Independent.
One of the more counter-intuitive aspects of human progress is that times of great disruption often contribute to increasing innovation and the speed of change. The Second World War started with the French army spending more on hay for horses than fuel for tanks, and ended with the atomic bomb and the beginning of the space race. Covid-19 has the potential to be a similar catalyst for change, in particular speeding up changes that have already begun. We are, for example, now a society in which wearing facemasks is considered perfectly normal.
What could Ireland look like a decade from now?
Let’s take a step through a rip in the time-space continuum and take a peek at a possible Ireland 2030.
Welcome to the future.
The single biggest change in the post-Covid era has been the re-balancing of the urban-rural divide. Working from home, combined with the expansion of business-grade broadband, the flight of the white-collar middle class accelerated as they realised that it was now possible to have a higher standard of living outside the traffic-choked cities. The road network, improved by governments in the past, has continued to expand and has reduced travel time so that rural living no longer means, in urban eyes, isolation.
Young well-educated (and paid) families began to grasp the quality of life available outside of the major cities without sacrificing living standards.
After all, Amazon delivers to Rhode just as easily as Rialto.
The cities themselves, especially city centres, find the pace of de-retailification caused initially by internet shopping has accelerated in unexpected ways. Non-food retail declines sharply, but this also allows for some of the more foresighted chief executives of local authorities to just ignore the elected grandstanding buffoons that make up most of their councils and instead seize an opportunity. They buy up cheap former shopping centres for a mixture of conversion to affordable housing and council-rented micro-business premises for small or artisan startups. The availability of affordable urban housing makes those owner-occupied businesses more viable, and soon city centres are filled with thousands of tiny splashes of colour and independent free enterprise. The skies above have drones delivering food and other products from those businesses and other “dark kitchens” in repurposed commercial areas to suburban residential areas and beyond.
The Garda finally signs on to technology, with high-visibility drones with infrared cameras and speakers hovering over busy areas and providing air support to ground officers. Areas no longer demand their own Garda stations, but rather their permanent stationary hovering and always watching Garda sentinel.
If anything, some areas start to complain of too much Garda presence.
Urban regeneration is also accelerated by, as the middle class moves rural, low-income immigrants (The single group most likely to start a new business) establishing communities and with them shops and restaurants reflecting their ethnic background. This in turn attracts young and metropolitan employees and those high-tech businesses eager to employ them spend nearly as much ensuring their employees have affordable housing in these thriving and vibrant areas as they do on their now much reduced headquarters buildings.
Indeed, the quality as much as availability of housing becomes a major issue, as those employees, whilst happy to work from home, require larger homes to allow that their residences don’t become battery hen-like factories.
Many repurposed commercial buildings boast a mix of one bedroom studio apartments and large communal areas and environmentally sustainable roof gardens to permit people to work from their own buildings, again supported by small micro food and drink retailers.
The devolution of drinking time regulation to local level permits some parts of the cities to develop a separate and distinct all-night nightlife, with some daytime cafes and restaurants handing over their premises to a separate hospitality business that utilises the premises at night, effectively dual-purposing to reduce overhead costs.
Cars become less welcome in the cities, with cycling on the verge of becoming, alongside public transport, the dominant method of transport.
Open-air markets on formerly car-filled streets, often with deployable street covering to defend against the unreliable weather, allow those businesses to expand into the street for those customers still with a latent desire to social distance. City and town centres reverse the doughnutting effect of the mid-20th century.
The final arrival of the much bally-hooed electric driverless car also happens, driven primarily by soaring driver insurance, with many signing up to reliable Manhattan-style “town cars” where needed, reliably being available outside their door when needed yet elsewhere when not, and finally ridding many of one of the most wasteful 20th century uses of personal capital for an asset that spends most of its time sitting quietly parked and depreciating in value. The use of electric vehicles by both public transport and state services results in a curiously quieter city.
Indeed, the variety of driverless and competitively priced subscription services becomes a growth industry, as the middle classes who have moved to their rural idylls make use of them when needed, transforming the stop-start frustrated commute of old into a period of solace, work, rest or binge watching. The Department of Transport has to issue ads warning the public to ensure that if they are going to engage in adult activity in their driverless cars, they at least should have tinted windows or curtains to avoid distracting other passengers.
Will it all happen? There’s nothing I’ve outlined that’s too fantastic.
Of course I can’t say for certain. But one thing I can say: if you don’t have plans for the future, the future has plans for you.