Essential or non-essential? The most important question of the decade

essential services

Perhaps it is not as existential as the question posed by the Prince of Denmark in the opening scene of Act 3 of Shakespeare’s most famous work; however, by a quirky parallel, Hamlet was asking rhetorically what is really important to existence.

Take the COVID-19 crisis: the things that seemed really important to many of us only eight weeks ago suddenly don’t seem as important. From hand sanitiser to jigsaw puzzles, any number of items have earned a new value in light of new circumstances. Similarly, the things we previously thought we couldn’t do without unless our lives depended on it, somehow seemed to move way down the priority list.

Of course, it isn’t the ‘thing’ that has changed. What has changed is the context, and with it our perception of value. Renowned Professor of Management and Innovation Roberto Verganti espoused in his book “Overcrowded” that people don’t want solutions; they want items that are meaningful to them. If ever there was a time to understand the subtleties of Verganti’s theory, it is now.

This new hierarchy of importance has extended beyond physical objects. We have freshly essential jobs, and our infrastructure also has a new pecking-order. Look at the thousands of staff replenishing stock on shelves in our supermarkets who are now just as essential as those who keep the supply lines open and the critical infrastructure operating. With many of us now working from home, our umbilical cord to the outside world is our communications networks. Along with freight systems it is our data and voice services that are keeping our daily lives and economies running.

As homemade bread, Zoom and online groceries form the new essentials of COVID life, a question emerges for the people who plan and build our cities: are the COVID-19 essentials a temporary disruption to our lives and businesses? Is this a blip or should we relook at the value of the essential services that sustain us in a time of crisis in a new light?

For the engineers, planners and designers who bring these systems to life and to the decision makers who fund them, do we need to now recalibrate our priorities over what are the things that actually keep our businesses and economies operating? As we grapple with a world where some form of restrictions will be in place until a vaccine is found, will COVID-19 permanently change what society wants and needs?

What’s essential vs non-essential? And who gets to decide?

As various countries moved into lockdowns eight weeks ago, the debate began over what should be considered an ‘essential service’ and be allowed to continue to operate.

The question of essential versus non-essential is not a Shakespearean question; it is a very practical calculation that guides corporate budgets, household spending priorities and government planning to shape cities and civil infrastructure.

When we look at the essential services maintained throughout a lockdown period, interestingly most of them are not paid premium wages: think nurses and medical staff, courier services, food packers, retail workers, seasonal workers/pickers, truck and train drivers. Yet these are the occupations keeping our economies rolling and keeping chaos from emerging. There can be little doubt these are essential – if anonymous and modestly-paid – occupations, as demonstrated by this simple test: if you reduced their numbers by half, what would happen to our economy?

At the other end of the scale, professional sport turned out to be non-essential. COVID-19 revealed sport to be a business like any other, with revenues, cash-flow and a market, and with extraordinary costs in the form of highly paid administrators and players. You’ve never heard of the people who log the timber, pulp the paper and drive the transport, but you are familiar with the teams, players and their standings.

But in the middle of a crisis, if we have to make a choice between hand sanitiser and watching the US Open, which one would we choose? However, there are two sides to the coin. Talk to anyone involved in local sports teams and they will tell you they dearly miss kicking a ball around the field, training with their friends or teaching their children’s school team. While professional sport fell to the non-essential side the value of local sport, at a grass root level, and its ability to connect us has become far more valuable than we ever realised.

Right now, we are inside the crisis, and we are being understandably reactive to the situation. But what will be the post-COVID reset from this re-ordering of essentials?

Role of critical and supporting infrastructure

Re-evaluations of what comprises essential infrastructure in a post-COVID world is already happening. Some infrastructure feels critical because it is visible and we ride on it every day: roads, airports and railways. Other infrastructure is tucked away: electricity networks; server rooms with data racks for accessing cloud-based information; water and sewage systems; and postal centres.

Pre-COVID, it was sometimes difficult to get support for investment in infrastructure systems that people couldn’t physically see. It was often the case that supporting infrastructure wasn’t seen as directly revenue-generating and hence its ability to attract investment was sometimes limited to ‘what’s the minimum we can get away with?’ Of course, there are exceptions but, by and large, in the tension that often exists in the project world where there are limited funds, budgets have tended to favour spend on the more visible or functional components of a project.

Yet, due to COVID-19, we are now seeing a new lens on the value of critical infrastructure as countries try to get their economies firing as soon as they possibly can. The speed with which economies can restart, and the extent to which economies chug along in ‘hibernation mode’, will be directly proportional to the efficiency and effectiveness of their infrastructure.

The reshaping of supply chains and the speed with which our economies restart will be built on a foundation of the critical infrastructure and essential services we already have in place. While we quickly get back up to speed and get people back into jobs to produce goods and services that consumers have been starved of during the crisis, we will really see the value of the investment we have made in ‘unseen’ infrastructure.

The future question for infrastructure investment therefore should be “will this investment enhance my ability to be a more reliable supplier than my competitors?” And, will the market demand for my business still exist in a post-COVID era, and can I pivot quickly enough to meet the ‘new’ needs of this world?

Listen to many, speak to a few

Leaders should take heed from this little-known Hamlet quote. Businesses usually succeed because they follow a ‘me-too’ model of an established industry, or because they are one of the disruptors rather than the disrupted. COVID-19 has been a profound disruption, which is forcing many leaders to ask deep questions, such as where do we really generate value? How do we really differentiate? All of a sudden, the age-old question of “how do we remain relevant?” is put under a new light in this pandemic.

Society’s priorities and ordering of essentials will continue to evolve over the coming months. However, we hope that a new light will be shone on the true value of infrastructure that forms the backbone of our economies. Just like the fate that befell the Prince of Denmark, if we go back to our old thinking or if we are caught in the grips of indecision, it could lead to a tragic outcome rather than much ado about nothing. The smartest nations and businesses will be those that look differently at the value of their investments, and use COVID-19 as a lesson in creating long-term resilience and strategic relevance.

This glimpse of the future was crafted by Christopher Howard Aurecon’s award-winning blog, Just Imagine provides a glimpse into the future for curious readers, exploring ideas that are probable, possible and for the imagination. This post originally appeared on Aurecon’s Just Imagine blog. Get access to the latest blog posts as soon as they are published by subscribing to the blog.