The Current·Q&A

From business to public space: How COVID-19 could alter our economy for good

The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated many sectors of the economy, but it’s also paving the way for change — from the way we work, to the way we live. We look at the possible long-term effects those changes could have on our economy.

‘Small things … will add up to a great deal of change if we get them right': professor

The pandemic could change the way cities look, as companies may not send workers back to offices, says Anita McGahan, a University of Toronto professor. She says we must also adjust the way retail spaces work to offer more services. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated many sectors of the economy, but it's also paving the way for change — from the way we work, to the way we live.

And Anita McGahan thinks some of those changes could become permanent.

McGahan is a professor of strategic management and global health at the University of Toronto.

She spoke with The Current's Matt Galloway about the possible long-term effects of these changes on our economy.  

Here is part of their conversation.

When you take a look at the changes that are going on right now, there are a lot of people who are struggling. People have become reliant on government aid, on food banks, on social services. How much of a long-term change do you think this is all going to be?

Well, the pandemic will end, you know. But there's no going back to the way we were. So there are really three drivers of change that we have to consider. 

The first is that we have to get each other through this. 

The second is that we have a number of long overdue changes that were previously blocked by various types of obstacles that we ought to undertake now. And they include changes to the financial system, in my view. 

And then we have opportunities that we have yet to get traction, but which will be important in the future.

What are those overdue changes? Just briefly run us through some of the things that you think could change that we haven't had the opportunity, or we haven't had the ability, to change.

My list, you know, includes, for example, responsible consumption, not wasting money on things that aren't important to us anymore.

The second, I think, is climate action. We know that we have to stop wasting resources in various ways. 

There are lots of opportunities to improve the financial system, to reduce the cost of credit, to lend money better. Internet provisions should be more widely available. Child care we need to address, elder care, Black Lives Matter, Indigenous experience.

There are a lot of things that we've been working on for a long time that have been exposed as, you know, really important agenda items for Canadians. And there's no lame excuses anymore. We really have to make progress on these things.

McGahan says we need to rethink how we use office buildings and downtown space, post-pandemic. (Gensler)

We've been talking about … working from home, people who don't need to go into the office anymore. That creates this whole threat to the ecosystem around the office and people who are, you know, serving food, who are cleaning offices, who work in transit, for example. What does the future hold for some of those office towers and the economies that exist around them?

We know that there's going to be a lot of changes to the downtown core. We have to think about, you know, repurposing highrises and office space after the pandemic. We know that a lot of companies are not going to be sending workers back into these buildings. There has to be a reconfiguration of retail space to deliver more services. 

We have to think about changes in the use of public spaces. I mean, think about traffic and the way that we use cars in Toronto right now. It's going to be very difficult to go back to the way we were, simply because the way we're doing things now is in some ways better than the way things were.

Using our homes as offices and the implications for our family life is also a really big problem that we need to think through and get right.

We're social beings and we exist in a lot of different spaces. But some of those are common spaces. What happens if that social aspect in those common spaces are threatened?

Here is where our public space is especially important, because I couldn't agree more. Unstructured interactions amongst people at work are what keep us close. They're what build community. They cultivate trust in each other and trust in our society and our ability to get through things together. It also supports innovation.

What I miss most about being at the university is running into people from other disciplines that were working on different problems that I can learn from. I miss my students. I miss learning things about them that I don't yet know. And those kinds of opportunities have been really reduced during the pandemic.

You hear this phrase, 'Build back better.' What is the opportunity in the big picture … to build back better a vision for, you know, an equitable long-term recovery?

There are a lot of small things that will add up to a great deal of change if we get them right. 

I think each one of us has an opportunity to think about, OK, what do we really value? And what do we really want to be spending our time and our money and our energy on? What do we think is important? And to make sure that we're retraining ourselves to be oriented toward that, that we're using our resources in ways that are really aligned with our values. 

The second … is to start to think about: what have we learned about how we want to use public resources? How do we want to restructure the way that we work together?

How do we want to pay for everything that we've gone through? We want to make sure that we don't inflate our way out of this, because inflation is a tax on the poor. We have to think about how we're going to recover economic vitality. And that means, you know, really investing in innovation in pretty much every business, including in digital technology and using [artificial intelligence] and so on, in humane and responsible and fair ways. And that's a big challenge.


Produced by Julie Crysler.

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