Urban Futures: The new normal demands a new economic model

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 22, 2020 - June 28, 2020.
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The world will never be the same. Not because of the public health impact or economic fallout from Covid-19, but because of the psychological and cultural shifts triggered by the reflection and recalibration brought about by movement restrictions around the world.

The last time humanity shared an experience on such a global scale was during the 1969 moon landing when 600 million people tuned in to watch “a giant leap for mankind”. Earlier, Apollo astronauts had taken a picture of the earth rising out of the darkness. It is now considered one of the most influential images of all time.

Life Magazine also claimed that Earthrise marked the beginning of the environmental movement, which unexpectedly connects to the situation today. Although the iconic image that will mark the pandemic in the annals of history remains to be seen, it is clear that the crisis has shone a large spotlight on our relationship with the earth and the excesses and vulnerabilities of modern industrial society.

This is a crucial point. Covid-19 is a product of the global economic system. It is not something that has arbitrarily happened to the world. A novel virus transmitted to humans from the wild, continuing to traverse silently around the globe — this only happened because of the hypermobile and interconnected economic system we have created and become dependent upon.

Our relationship with nature needs to fundamentally change if we are to successfully manage the risk of further pandemics or the extremes associated with climate-related crises. This includes reconfiguring the way we plan our cities and rethinking consumption patterns. This will affect supply chains, business models and employment, to name a few. Food, in particular, will require close examination, including how much is wasted, eliminating unsustainable packaging, industrial farming techniques and the health impacts of high-meat diets. In short, the new normal demands a new economic model.

Many world leaders are starting to realise that the Covid-19 crisis provides an opportunity to make improvements. In Malaysia, the pandemic has been handled extremely well — a collaborative effort between the government, business and community. There is an opportunity for Malaysia to be a shining light in the region.

However, the marathon effort needs to extend beyond just living with the disease and its impact on the economy. We must move onto the idea of building a new economic model founded on trust. Not just trust in the government and the system, but trust in the future. Trust in the idea that the Malaysian society is resilient enough to deal with all manner of crisis, disruption and uncertainty.

Malaysia’s new economic model must first focus on getting local communities re-opened and more engaged in the system. It should then move to capture a greater share of the nation’s historical and cultural advantages. Finally, the nation must sharply accelerate investment in technology while simultaneously moving to a more nature-focused approach to development. With this in mind, the following five key thrusts are offered to help the nation move beyond the new normal and lay the foundations for a more prosperous post-pandemic future.

 

Local economic stimulus

In tandem with national economic stimulus packages, we need a focus on local economic development initiatives. This should be about generating activity in the neighbourhood, in local supply chains, involving local producers and sellers. Investments could include upgrades and the transformation of public wet markets into green buildings with stronger connections to the local community. Community centres and schools could become hubs for retraining and upskilling retrenched workers. State governments could also invest in the cultural economy with a focus on meaningful and educational activities and facilities for locals, which later serve to attract higher-value tourism.

 

Investing in trust and inclusivity

Economics is not just about money — it is about trust. Trust that the person you are doing business with, working for or asking for help from is going to give you a fair price, a fair wage or a fair go. When society reaches a point where this cannot be guaranteed, then you start to look like parts of the US at this moment. The vulnerable need a fair go to ensure they are not left behind or left out. This may require a combination of “safety nets” to protect people in hardship and “cargo nets” to provide the tools so potential can be met. Empowering communities and community leaders should be supplemented with participatory budgeting and investments in platforms to acquire new skills and build trust.

 

Leverage history and culture

Malaysia is historically and geographically at the crossroads — at the confluence of archipelago, Chinese, Arabic, Indian and European trade routes. This legacy infiltrates and shapes almost every aspect of Malaysian life. The diversity it creates in terms of language, culture and tradition is globally unique. But the potential of this historical legacy has not been fully captured economically, perhaps with the exception of tourism.

It has added value in the current environment. Malaysia is a multicultural country with 33 million people and the capacity to connect linguistically with the five billion people who speak English, Mandarin, Bahasa Melayu, Tamil, Hindi, Urdu or Arabic around the world. That is close to 70% of the world’s population. This untapped potential should be translated into everything from business services to logistics, prototyping and design. Domestically, diversity and cross-cultural collaborations should be a key driver of new ideas and innovation. Cultural intelligence — the ability to not just work with diversity, but to thrive in it — should be a metric that businesses shoot for.

 

Investing in digital infrastructure

While Malaysia has sound institutions supporting the digital ecosystem, it is lagging behind when it comes to infrastructure. There is a need to accelerate the shift to 5G and become a gigabit nation. High-speed, reliable digital networks will open a range of new opportunities. For example, the country is well placed geographically, culturally and diplomatically to become a high-tech regional logistics and supply hub. Large-scale sorting and repacking centres, tied to sophisticated delivery and tracking systems, could catapult Malaysia into a highly strategic international partner. Projects such as KL Internet City and Digital Free Trade Zone need to be dissected and recalibrated. The country also has the potential to capitalise on its ethnic and linguistic ties to drive, curate and produce online services, from film to education courses. We have the opportunity to inspire culture, art and ideas.

 

Building resilient cities

Cities will continue to matter in a post-pandemic world, but they will need to be more resilient to deal with and mitigate future shocks and crises. The prevailing urban sprawl development model in Malaysia is no longer financially and economically sustainable and was never socially or environmentally so. Stagnant property prices and overhang alongside pollution, congestion, loss of habitat and traditions are indications that a new path is necessary. This should look beyond the primacy of the Klang Valley. Smaller cities can be reconfigured into clusters with complementary functions that enable them to attract firms, jobs, investment and talent. The natural spaces between them could have additional protection to build more resilience. The cities and townships themselves should simultaneously work to mitigate the effects of climate change by reducing their carbon footprint and build features that can adapt to the likely increase of heat waves and flooding. Pedestrian and cycle-friendly streetscapes need to go hand-in-hand with landscaping to cool the city and naturally soak up or retain storm water. Eco-friendly construction techniques must become the norm and the excesses of unplanned and unwanted development must end.

 

Thinking beyond the new normal

Moving beyond the new normal does not mean that the drivers of the nation’s past successes — including manufacturing and tourism — are to be ignored. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of overreliance on these sectors and the need to build resilience for the future. We need a fundamental and possibly systemic shift in how we see, experience and live with nature. The foundations of this shift must be laid in the months ahead, and new images of an alternative future forged and displayed where practical and possible.

Hamdan Abdul Majeed, a former investment banker, is the managing director of Think City, a social purpose organisation dedicated to making cities people-friendly and resilient by being a catalyst for change in the way cities are planned, curated, developed and celebrated. Matt Benson is an Australian geographer specialising in complex systems and human settlements and is a programme director for Think City.

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