COVID-19: The future of cities and urban living
New or normal? WA’s infrastructure needs post-COVID-19
Noel Richards provides some insights on the implications of COVID-19 for WA’s infrastructure needs and planning, looking at both trends that predated but were accelerated by the pandemic and new demands emerging from it.
As governments around Australia move to accelerate a variety of infrastructure projects to help get state and national economies back on track post COVID-19, a critical question to ask is: “Are we building the right infrastructure for the future?”
An underlying question that needs to be answered first is how might WA’s future change as a result of COVID-19? Pondering this question is not about accuracy but preparedness.
Good crisis management never consists of just ‘Plan A’. The best way to prepare for uncertainty is to formulate a range of possible scenarios and be ready for each. Scenarios are not predictions about what will happen, but rather potential futures which open our eyes to hidden risks and new opportunities.
So here are some thoughts on emerging trends that could shape WA’s future infrastructure needs.
Work from home anywhere
Perhaps the most obvious trend from the pandemic is remote working. Many Perth corporates continue to encourage or require their staff to work from home, and many of these employers plan to retain some form of remote working arrangements once the threat of transmission is firmly in the rear view mirror.
Considering the types of occupations and sectors that characterise the WA workforce, our estimates suggest that almost 40 per cent of the WA workforce can operate remotely.
But it’s not just about substituting a trip to St Georges Terrace for the home office. Many commentators have noted that COVID-19 is merely accelerating ‘future of work’ trends that were emerging even before the pandemic.
As Deloitte Australia’s Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer, Rob Hillard, recently put it: “The change (to remote working) means that instead of staffing with the best person available onsite, jobs will be available to the best person anywhere.”
The jobs site Seek recently added ‘remote, work from home’ to its list of job locations within its search function.
As many Australian employers, who rushed to implement remote working capability during lockdown, now observe some of the positive productivity impacts of that change, the nation’s labour market could become just that much more integrated in future.
With more than 20 per cent of WA’s labour force currently unemployed or underemployed, and a significant emphasis by the State and Commonwealth Governments placed on re-skilling and up-skilling displaced workers, it is possible that the jobs these individuals secure or move to in future may not see them get back in the car, the bus, or the train to commute to one of Perth’s employment hubs.
But remote working needn’t sound the death knell for transport infrastructure. Rather, it could signal the need to shift priority from hub-and-spoke public transport systems to more laterally connected suburbs in future. And for roads under this scenario, perhaps investment might need to focus less on freeways and highways, and more on suburban arterials, regional networks and local roads.
Local and loving it
Underpinning a possible shift in transport investment priorities is not only new remote working behaviours, but also something old: longstanding State Government planning policies aiming to create vibrant ‘activity centres’ dotted around the Perth metro area.
Ask any expat why they decided to settle in Perth and the answer invariably comes back: “lifestyle”. Remote working trends together with investment to make our suburban activity centres better could mean we could enjoy more of Perth’s lifestyle trump card.
However, we should be careful not to lose all the benefits of centralised employment under this scenario. And infrastructure may have a role to play here too.
Economics has long recognised the importance of ‘agglomeration economies’ – productivity and other benefits that stem from firms and people locating together in cities and industrial clusters. This is the basis upon which central business districts develop and a driver of service sector growth. But in a possible ‘living and working local’ future, these benefits could be sustained through suburban co-working spaces and local innovation precincts which allow smart, innovative and creative people to still meet, mingle and make some commercial magic happen.
And ‘loving local’ need not mean suburban. For example, what are the infrastructure implications of significantly increased intra-State tourism? With COVID-19 potentially a threat over the long term, West Aussies could be venturing out more into their own backyard. But what does this mean for our regional road and aviation networks with regard to connectivity, cost and safety? Can investment help unlock some of our tourism jewels?
Flight to the fringe
Even though WA has done a stellar job in flattening the curve of infections, the road to economic recovery will be hard. The destruction of wealth and high uncertainty caused by COVID-19 will see WA consumers maintain a tight rein on expenditure for a number of years.