The power of research to shape a post-pandemic society

The power of research to shape a post-pandemic society

RMIT researchers involved in Europe’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation funding scheme consider aspects of everyday life in a post-pandemic society when it comes to cities, housing, infrastructure and science.

From reclaiming the roads for pedestrian use through to swapping short distance travel from air to rail, RMIT researchers reflect on what a post-pandemic society will look like and how global recovery efforts may leave us with a planet better adapted to the challenge of climate change.

What will a post-pandemic city look like? 

Working from home might be here to stay, and this could have huge implications on how our cities work, according to Thami Croeser, an RMIT researcher working on the Horizon 2020 project Urban GreenUP.

"Even if it’s just two or three days a week for most workers, that’s a big reduction in trips to work, and a lot fewer people visiting their offices," Croeser said.

"This means that central areas may no longer be able to rely on employment as an attractor to city centres; these must become destinations that people choose to go to. Central city areas need to become inviting.

"Fortunately, fewer trips into central areas means less traffic as well as less parking – enabling the reallocation of road space to dining, tree planting and creation of new urban parks," he said.

"This could stimulate the economy, boost the appeal of the city, and leave us better adapted to climate change." 

Croeser said that some cities are already making a start including Barcelona’s superblock initiative as well as the recent announcement by the city of Paris, which will see half of the city’s 140,000 on-street parking spaces converted to pedestrian space, bike paths and green areas. 

The URBAN GreenUP project is focused on developing, applying and validating a methodology for ‘Renaturing Urban Plans’ to mitigate the effects of climate change, improve air quality and water management and increase the sustainability of cities through innovative nature-based solutions.

Barcelona’s superblocks have seen the streets reclaimed to create walkable neighbourhoods with public spaces available for the use of residents. Barcelona’s superblocks have seen the streets reclaimed to create walkable neighbourhoods with public spaces available for the use of residents.

How has the pandemic impacted the operation of infrastructure systems?

COVID-19 has made us rethink our infrastructure systems, according to Dr Nader Naderpajouh, senior lecturer at RMIT and one of the researchers on the Horizon 2020 project SAFETY4RAILS.

"We observed drastic change in the use of infrastructure, which was in response to changes in our lifestyles such as mobility patterns," Naderpajouh said.

“An increase in working from home reduced the need for high rush hour capacity; a reduction in international travel transformed the need for certain components of infrastructure networks; and social distancing requirements reduced the available capacity of infrastructure systems.

"The pandemic also had implications for asset managers as they had the opportunity of using idle time for maintenance, repair and rehabilitation actions as well as the opportunity to use economic stimulus packages for deferred maintenance or resilience enhancement retrofits of existing infrastructure."

Naderpajouh said that there are opportunities when it comes to policies to encourage sustainable and resilient infrastructure for the future, such as the conditions that the French government requires for airlines as part of pandemic economic recovery packages, which proposes for airlines to give up the short distance transport market to railways.

The SAFETY4RAILS project is focused on managing resilience of multi-modal railway infrastructure from cyber and/or physical attacks.

How will the pandemic change our approach to housing design?

Many of us are still bunkering down at home due to COVID-19, said Iván Luque Segura, an RMIT researcher working on the Horizon 2020 project Cultural-E.

"Given it could be the new norm for a while, it’s timely to reflect on energy use in the home and the role of ‘plus energy buildings’ – those that generate more energy than they use – in the future of housing," Segura said.

"Our aim is to reduce the gap between building design expectations and the reality of household energy performance, which right now is transforming and bringing with it new challenges from remote working and other new intensive domestic practices.

"This new context at household levels worldwide may contribute to an uptake in energy flexibility assets in the built environment and work towards plus energy districts and buildings."

The Cultural-E project is focused on defining modular and replicable solutions for Plus Energy Buildings (PEB), accounting for climate and cultural differences, while engaging all key players involved in the building life cycle.

Plus Energy Buildings generates more energy from renewable sources than what they consume. Plus Energy Buildings are a type of building that generates more energy from renewable sources than it consumes.

How can we support parents and newborns who lived through the pandemic’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit restrictions?

We want to make sure babies get well and out of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) quickly, said Dr Bobbi Fleiss, an RMIT researcher involved in the Horizon 2020 project PREMSTEM

"When babies are in the NICU, they and their caregivers benefit greatly from time together," Fleiss said. 

"The pandemic restrictions have highlighted that this caregiver bond in these tiny babies and the positive effects it has on an infant's health and a caregiver's mental health needs to be more recognised.

"NICU staff give their all to try and keep families together but additional government support and funding for services, and for families with sick babies and all families, at the start of their journey would benefit our whole community."

The PREMSTEM project is focused on developing a new regenerative stem cell therapy to repair the brain damage caused by premature birth, also known as encephalopathy of prematurity (EOP). 

What role do nanotechnologies play in a post-pandemic society?

COVID-19 will hopefully soon be a thing of the past, but as viruses mutate and advance towards domination or obsoletion, so do technologies, according to Dr Craig Richmond, an RMIT researcher involved in the H2020 project GoNano.

"Nanotechnologies, being the purposeful engineering of matter at length scales close to atomic and a million times smaller than anything visible to the naked eye, have been prevalent in research and innovation for the best part of half a century," Richmond said.

"Simply being able to see things on the nano scale has allowed us to better our understanding of the molecules and materials that constitute the world around us, for example, the macromolecular structure of our DNA or the protein shell of a virus.

"The record-breaking development and production of COVID-19 test kits and vaccines was possible because of the collaborative efforts across sectors, borders and disciplines – nanotechnology included, of course," he said.

"And the means of communications that have helped so many of us stay connected through these difficult times are also largely attributable to advances in electronics going beyond micro and into nano."

Richmond said that nanotechnologies have helped to shape our response to the pandemic and will continue to shape our society after it.   

The GoNano project is focused on aligning future developments and applications of nanotechnology with societal needs.

 


Story: 
Karen Matthews

UrbanGreenUP is a Horizon 2020 Innovation Action funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme under Grant Agreement number 730426.

SAFETY4RAILS is an Innovation Action and has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme under Grant Agreement number 883532.

CULTURAL-E is an Innovation Action and has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme under Grant Agreement number 870072.

PREMSTEM is a Research Innovation Action which has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme under Grant Agreement number 874721.

GoNano is a Coordination and Support Action funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme under Grant Agreement number 768622.

18 December 2020

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18 December 2020

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  • Research
  • Sustainability
  • RMIT Europe
  • Science and technology

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