Changing gears - Issue 141 - Magazine | Monocle

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About a year ago, 12 February 2020 to be precise, I boarded a flight in Geneva, heading back to London. Seated near me was a woman who was clearly no fan of dressing down for a plane journey. No athleisure here – I just remember the fur coat that she wore: punked-up day-glo pink and green-dyed strips of fox fur. And the surgical mask. The fear was beginning.

Then, moments before takeoff, a group of very animated epidemiologists boarded, talking excitedly about the meeting they had just attended at the World Health Organization (who) and the threat posed by the virus that was already wreaking havoc in China. They stood in the aisle exchanging conclusions from their gathering. “I predict this will have a very long tail; it could last until November,” said one of their party. That doesn’t sound great, I remember thinking.

Back then, we were only beginning to see the risks posed by coronavirus but events were about to move very quickly. On 22 February, Italian authorities reported clusters in Lombardy, Piedmont and Veneto. On 11 March, the who declared that the spread of infection now constituted a global pandemic. Countries swiftly moved into lockdowns – the UK on Monday 23 March. Within a week, 150 nations were fighting coronavirus outbreaks.

The year since then has been the longest – and the shortest. Lives lost, jobs gone, waves of lockdowns, hope tripped up again and again but somehow, in just months, the scientists and pharmaceutical companies have delivered a series of vaccines that work, and drugs and treatments that mitigate symptoms and save patients’ lives. Also impressive has been how so many people have found the stamina and dexterity to navigate, with their families, businesses and communities, through the turbulence. And now, finally, there is a sense that we are on the cusp of our lives returning to something close to normal.

But. Well, the “but” is that not everything is just going to slot back in where it was before (although, from the desire to travel to the lure of a packed bar, many things will). Some things have changed. Some trends have accelerated. And this means that there are lots of opportunities to do things a bit better than before. Whether that’s cementing in some of the ways that neighbourhoods have come together, rewilding our urban world, making more trips on our electric bicycles, ensuring that society is once again willing to debate contentious issues calmly or using everything from energy to mobility more wisely (and, hopefully, throwing even more fun parties).

That’s why this issue looks at the people who want to “do it better”. While some of their ideas embrace the potential of new technology, most have gone back to basics – devising beautiful products that can be fixed; designing buildings that can be cooled, even in the tropics, without air-conditioning; growing their own vegetables for their restaurants; or shortening supply lines for their fashion brands so that everything can be made in one spot (and not in some out-of-sight factory in China). Because when we use words such as “sustainability” and “environment”, they should touch on more than solar panels and recycling, and focus on delivering quality of life to people too. And when you think about how much good work people have achieved in a year, it’s inspiring to think that in another 12 months, our lives could be better in all sorts of ways – and that we will be able to get together to celebrate that fact, wherever we are in the world.

You can contact me at with your thoughts on the issue or perhaps to offer ideas for removing a moose from the herbaceous border (see page 36). Thank you. 

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