So, 2020 was a bitter winter of discontent. In the most unexpected way, our lives have been devastated by that miniscule, unevolved retrovirus SARS-CoV-2, becoming legendary by its other name – Covid-19.
It has affected every facet of human life for the better part of the year. This health crisis has caused global social destabilisation while bringing the world’s economy to its knees. It has been a jobs bloodbath as small businesses in particular struggle to survive. In addition, Covid-19 has become a magnifying glass for the major challenges of our time.
The global climate crisis continues unabated. Even in the midst of the epidemic, stimulus and recovery packages around the world have generally swung in favour of a very traditional industrial model. This raises the possibility of regressing even further from a just, green transition.
This, in turn, gets a further drag from a very fractured multilateral system as the United Nations remains in the firing line from some major global players – the system has been under pressure to reform for the longest time.
Also running with this herd is the rise of nationalist sentiment in many countries around the world, as illustrated by Brexit and the challenges faced by many regional projects.
In turn, this is closely related to the stickiest financial crisis in the modern era. The ghost of 2008 lingers with financial markets struggling to recover – the biggest hit being in 2020 as heralded by the now almost uniform predictive outlooks on the contraction forecasts by major players, from the IMF to the World Bank and the World Economic Forum.
This winter of despair is deep and has penetrated every facet of our existence.
Major pandemics in history have sometimes come to represent the darkest hour before the dawn. The Plague punctuated the end of the Dark Ages and made way for the emergence of the European Renaissance. Can Covid-19 be the usher of the New Beginning we so badly need? Can 2021 be the Spring of Hope we desire?
The pandemic has laid bare the problematique and has thrown down the gauntlet. It is the time for brave leadership as this 21st-century renaissance will be built on ingenuity, innovation and pure grit as opposed to fine art. This arrow needs a clever construct.
The piercing end
Innovation is key. Technological advances in four critical domains are at the threshold of mainstreaming a new global economic model.
The first is the efficient energy suite. This is a combination of renewables and energy efficiency. Renewables include the classical options of solar and wind, but joined by the scientific and engineering advances in waste-to-energy, hydrogen cell technology and state-of-the-art biomass options.
These are in hitherto unexplored domains like sanitation waste, from which we can now harvest both biogas as well as liquid fuel. Amazing, as this completely revolutionises the sanitation burden into a valuable energy source.
Energy efficiency comes from advanced mathematical engineering waiting in the wings for the past half-century that will not only optimise machine processes both on the supply and demand ends to stretch our available energy further, but also rely on the ancient axiom that energy can be harvested from anywhere: if it moves, you can capture the energy.
The work of the Water Research Commission and its partners worldwide has demonstrated that the entire water system – from small reservoirs to mainstream pipelines – has high energy production potential. The water system must be revisualised as another critical energy generator.
This optimisation potential in the water sector – through the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) toolbox exploiting the possibilities that lie in recycling and reuse, local water capture and storage and smart management of groundwater through sustainable use and preferential storage – paints a picture for vastly improved water security globally.
This is the second critical domain – water. Add to this the latest smarts in desalination technology at lower cost and using far less energy, and you have the concomitant solution for higher water production while dealing decisively with pollution threats like acid mine water.
The third domain is dealing with global hunger. Precision irrigation, new plant cultivars and better protein genetics mean that we have the capability to achieve a vastly improved food security situation.
This means that UN Sustainable Development Goal 2, and the end to global hunger, is now possible. Greater water and energy security become pivotal enablers. Artificial intelligence and virtual reality treatment of big data and information heralds the dawn of the 21st-century agricultural model.
Experiments in the field have demonstrated these possibilities with mobile phone-equipped emerging and smallholder farmers. The M-Agric revolution is here. We just have to wake up to it.
The fourth facet of this arrowhead is the logistics of movement – people and goods. Here Covid-19 has refined the equation of connection without travel in ways we could not have imagined before.
Virtual engagement complemented with green-powered transport means a logistics game-changer extraordinaire. Tesla has become the most valuable motor manufacturer in the world and every major vehicle brand has launched its first electric-driven lines. Green-sourced electrical powered transportation is already here at all levels.
This ranges from Formula E supercars to eTuk-Tuks, from e-trucks to e-ships. Non-fossil fuelled democratisation of transport is here, demonstrated and ready to roll.
The shaft of the arrow
The arrowhead is sharp and ready, but it needs to be guided to the correct target. The ideal shaft has three critical components.
The first is policy and regulation to create the enabling environment for this revolutionary change.
The second is inspired investment and innovative finance products to enable the new entrepreneurs in this critical journey to move to a greener prosperity model.
The third is investing in people skills – building the expanded capacity to industrialise greener in the 21st century. The pandemic has given us the unfortunate gift of having the highest skilled cohort of unemployed people in human history. Let us turn this into the demographic dividend we desire.
January 2021 may have been the most important Janus in modern history. We know the challenges we are looking back on, and if we make the right courageous decisions and inspired investment, it has the greatest potential to be the historical point that marked the beginning of the Smart Industrial Revolution. DM
Dhesigen Naidoo is CEO of the Water Research Commission, President of HumanRight2Water and a founding member of the Water Policy Group.
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