Ireland’s Crisis of the Public Realm 2020

I don’t know which way the wind will blow, but it’s going to blow in some direction. Covid-19, a disease that has managed to rip through society in various and personal ways, has resulted in different societal paradigms being thrown up and blown around in the wind.

We’ve hit a crisis of belief about our public realm: do we reconfigure reality to match our held beliefs, or change our beliefs to match reality? It depends on what beliefs you currently hold 😉

We’re all connected

A fundamental fact that the spread of the virus between humans has shown is: We’re all connected. Before this pandemic, I would have scoffed at the idea of someone coughing in a Wuhan market shutting down my “normal” life.

Facts of our public realm

The public realm is the reality that has been engineered based on held beliefs and worldviews. There are facts around the Irish public realm:

  • You can catch the coronavirus in the public realm from someone coughing or sneezing near you, and the closer you are to them, the higher the chance you have of catching it from them
  • Our public realm is owned by the state, by us
  • Public transport hasn’t been designed to mitigate against the spread of disease
  • The public realm has not been engineered to ensure your safety if you’re walking/rolling
  • “More cars” is not a viable solution, as evidenced by car gridlock at normal peak times in every town and city in Ireland.
  • Speed of vehicles kills people (source: EU Commission, and laws of physics)
  • Our towns and cities do not have safe connected infrastructure for day to day cycling
  • There is a latent demand for travelling by bicycle across all ages, as shown by the numbers of people on bikes of a wide range of ages

Conflicting with facts: How our public realm has been engineered

In the book “Utopia for Realists”, Rutger Bregman points to the phenomenon of “cognitive dissonance”. It’s when reality clashes with out deepest-held belief, that we tend to try to recalibrate reality rather than amend our worldview. It happens to all of us. (Yes, we’re all psychotic to varying degrees. What is reality, anyway? 😉 ).

We’re pretty good at amending our practical beliefs. For example, people accepted as a society to wait outside shops while “social distancing”.

However, if my career is defined as “manager of the roads”, where my success depends on “traffic flow” according to the system in which I work, it could be very difficult for me to re-imagine my role as a steward for the engineered safety and well-being of the people in that public realm. That role’s current definition is a skewed view of reality, when such a career is actually much broader, something closer to “a steward of the public realm”.

Shocks that can change belief

Bregman notes that shocks are generally how widely-held ideas change.

“Only a crises – actual or perceived – produces real change.

Milton Friedman

It’s not that we necessarily come to completely new ideas, but rather we start to look around at existing ideas that were not the accepted worldview until that point. “When a crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around”.

There is a crisis of belief in the function of our public realm

The crisis of our public realm comes from how the Irish public realm has been engineered. Its current layout is not catering to the reality in which we exist.

Covid-19 is a shock to our society. It is pitting two worldviews against each other for engineering our public realm: whether the well-being of people should be the basis of our public realm, or whether that should be sacrificed to best facilitate the movement of licensed machines.

The antiquated entrenched worldview of the unelected stewards of our public realm has been that the public realm should be adapted to maximise the movement of cars. It’s not a reality that caters to well-being. It’s “hopelessly out out tune with its time” (to paraphrase Friedrich Hayek). Our public realm is responsible for the being and the movement of people, not solely the movement of cars.

Perhaps we wanted well-being all along

Covid-19 has proven that our well-being is more important than “business as usual”, by shutting down normal life to maximise the immediate health of our citizens. It has proven that we care for each other. It has proven that your life is indeed valuable. It has therefore proven that your life is worth protecting while you are in our engineered shared space, even if you are not operating a machine at speed. It has proven that we’re all connected. It has proven that we’re all in this together.

Covid-19 may well prove that none of us ever really wanted “traffic flow over well-being” after all.