Episode 3: Professor Sir Ian Boyd on building Scotland’s resilience post-Covid-19
Please note transcripts have been automatically generated so may feature mistakes.
[00:00:00] Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to the RSE’s Tea and Talk podcast series, a programme inspired by the coffee houses of the 18th century, where great thinkers would come together to discuss ideas and matters of the day. I’m Rebekah Widdowfield and I’m Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which is Scotland’s National Academy.
Our mission is to advance learning and make knowledge useful. And as part of that in this series, I’ll be speaking with some of Scotland’s leading authorities on the impact of Covid-19 The conversations are with Fellows and with Members of the RSE’s Post Covid Futures Commission, who are keen to share their expertise and experience.
You can find out more about this work at rsecovidcommission.org.uk, or follow us on Twitter @news_RSE.
This week, I’m speaking with Professor Sir Ian Boyd about using the learning from Covid-19 to enhance Scotland’s resilience, to deal with large scale disruptions and challenges of the future. Sir Ian is currently a Professor in Biology at the University of St. Andrews, and from 2012 to 2019 was Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK government department for environment food and rural affairs.
Sir Ian is also a member of the RSE’s post Covid Futures Commission, where he chairs a working group on building national resilience. So, who better to speak to us on this important issue? So, we’re not in a coffee house, we’re both in our own homes, which explains the occasional dip in sound quality, but I’d encourage you to grab yourself a drink of something, sit back and listen to one of Scotland’s leading experts talk about things that matter.
The coronavirus outbreak has prompted many discussions about the need to increase our resilience to major shocks and disruptions, but can you start us off by explaining what resilience actually is and means and why it’s so important?
Professor Ian Boyd FRSE: Oh, well, thank you, Rebekah. And, thank you for inviting me to do this, this podcast. I think resilience is something that many different people, have many different definitions of. I think you’ll get a different definition if you ask every individual you’ll get a different definition, but, you know, I think that there is quite a well-worn track, particularly in engineering about what resilience really is.
Engineers have spent, you know, many decades, maybe even hundreds of years, trying to build resilience, resilient systems and resilient machines. So we do understand it quite well. And, fundamentally, you know, I think there are five qualities that our resilience system would have, and you could call it a resilient nation might have as well.
One of those is diversity. And that’s diversity, but how we deliver [00:03:00] what we want. If you have lots and lots of different ways of delivering what you want, if one fails then other one takes over. So, diversity is important. The other one is, is redundancy, so redundancies in, our language is sometimes used in, you know, a work context; but actually redundancy in our kind of engineering context means that there’s a spare capacity within the system.
And if you, create spare capacity, you’ve got more resilience. And that could be, for example, if you want to a resilient food system, one of the ways of doing that is to store food in case of food shortages, you know, that would be the kind of thing that you would build up redundancy in the system as a result of that.
And, you know, I think with Covid-19, we learned that we didn’t have much redundancy within the national health service. For example, there was no [00:04:00] spare capacity in there at all. The next characteristic I think is connectivity and again, this is one which, which plays with the other two with diversity and redundancy as well, because what it does is if you’re connected to other systems, those other systems can help hold you up at times of shortage, for example. And we see that in, in our power grid, for example, we have interconnectors in other European countries so that when we are short are they are connected into us and some other countries have an access when we are short and they deliver part to us. And we do that for them as well.
But connectivity creates resilience as well. And then there’s this, there’s two things which are a little bit more kind of socially, orientated. One is inclusiveness, and that’s about equity and it’s a bit sharing all [00:05:00] citizens share benefits and, and the burden of the costs as well.
So it’s about knowing how to spread the responsibility. Or, resilience across the whole of society, really and if we do that effectively, then a lot of the other things like diversity, redundancy and connectivity actually work better. And then finally, there’s the quality of adaptation. In other words, the capacity to understand when something is happening and to change, quickly and efficiently, in order to be able to head off, whatever is happening that might be bad and sometimes adaptation to some things is good and sometimes it’s not so good. So those are the kinds of qualities that resilience actually really requires. And, the question is, you know, how do we take those and how do we build them into a national system to build, to ensure that we have national resilience?
Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:06:04] So, I mean, it sounds like you’ve almost a whole systems approach as well. That actually, we need to look at the system as a whole in terms of building resilience, but there’s some issues there though, I guess, where there might be some tensions or trade-offs. So thinking about redundancy would seem to bet against a lot of the narrative pre Covid about efficiency and productivity and just in time systems and lean systems.
So how do you marry up that? You know, how do you have a resilient system that’s also an efficient system?
Professor Ian Boyd FRSE: [00:06:31] Well, that’s a really, really good question. And actually one of the big trade-offs is between resilience and things like economic efficiency. So we have for many, many decades, probably since the second world war actually driven our economies really hard to become more and more efficient. And you know, that it’s almost a religion is to drive out the inefficiency within our [00:07:00] economies. But in doing so we’ve probably without really thinking about it, driven a lot of resilience in the economies as well. I, you know, there could be a very stark binary trade-off between resilience and economic growth and efficiency. I don’t think it’s quite as clear as that. I think there is probably a sweet spot somewhere where you are driving economic efficiency, onwards and upwards, but in doing that, you’re making you’re stressing that or testing that all the time against the idea of whether this is actually reducing or increasing resilience at the same time. So you would make a conscious choice rather than saying, all right, we need to drive economic efficiency in this way and forget about resilience. You would be saying, all right, are we creating a problem? Are we storing a proper problem for ourselves in the [00:08:00] future by doing those things?
And you know, I think it’s possible. It’s perfectly possible to do that. So, you know, we could have an efficient economy, but probably also resilient economy if we were conscious of it.
Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:08:15] I guess if, if Covid has taught us anything, it is about the economic costs that come from not being resilient as well.
Professor Ian Boyd FRSE: [00:08:22] Yeah, absolutely. And I think that we shouldn’t, we should dwell on the successes as well as the failures with Covid. There are certain parts of the economy that have not been resilient at all, you know, international travel is one, but travel generally is, one part, hospitality is another part, but there are other parts of our economy that actually have done really very well.
In fact, most of our economy has been quite resilient. There are just two are parts that have, have been particular parts that have been unresilient and [00:09:00] unfortunately those are parts that actually employ quite numbers, quite a large number of people as well.
Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:09:04] You’ve said on a number of occasions that the Covid pandemic was a predictable and predicted event. Even if the timing, exact nature of the event couldn’t be foreseen. I mean, does, what does that mean for the UK’s approach to identifying and managing risk? What sort of things does it teach us in terms of actually, how, about how we go about doing that most effectively?
Professor Ian Boyd FRSE: [00:09:25] Well, the UK, I mean, interestingly, the UK, like most you know, developed countries, but the UK in particular; has prided itself on having a very highly developed, national risk assessment system and you know, clearly it didn’t work in this particular instance and you know, I had, one of my responsibilities as a Chief Scientific Adviser in government was to look in on the national risk assessments and to, [00:10:00] interrogate them and to challenge them and certainly one of the challenges I had was that’s what we tended to do with the look at risks in isolation from each other. So we would think that there’s, yes, there’s pandemic risk, but there’s also risk from climate change but there’s risk from other things going on, terrorism, all those sorts of things. And we would, you know, occasionally every few years we’d had a few risks to the risk register. But what we didn’t fully understand and actually, I did, I have to say, I did point this out at the time, I’m not saying I called yourself, but I did point this out at the time is that these risks don’t actually, occur in isolation from each other. They can be connected to each other. So yeah, the more you have the higher, the overall risk can be, but the more you have overall, the more chances there is that something [00:11:00] is going to actually materialise in the future.
So if you only have, let’s say ten, national risks, and they all have similar probabilities of happening then, you know, you might have a risk materialising once every 20 or 30 years, but if you suddenly have 50 of those risks, then the probability of something happening goes down to every two or three, four or five years.
So you, can’t look at the risks individually. You’ve got to look at the whole, risk space that you’re working with. And what that tells us is that a country like the UK, but actually any country in the world is going to be faced with something like Covid-19 much more frequently than we’d ever bargained for before.
So we hadn’t planned for it. You could say that actually in 2008 with the banking crisis, we had another risk of a similar kind of tight. We actually got off quite [00:12:00] lightly with that one. And you could say that we should expect something like call it Covid-19, roughly once every 10 years, or maybe even more frequently in future.
So, you know, there’s a question about, well, what do you do about that? Well I think you do the risk assessments properly begin with, but you also communicate them, the outcomes properly …. And that’s the other thing that didn’t happen was that the UK was perfectly aware that there was pandemic risk around.
It tended to look at influenza as being the potential source of it. But actually that doesn’t make an awful lot difference. So we knew it was going to happen. But it didn’t tell people that it was going to happen. So if you don’t tell people they’re not going to prepare, you know, the whole system from businesses to local communities, to individuals, to the subnational governments are not going to be prepared unless they’re told that these are the risks.
So I think that’s the primary thing. And once [00:13:00] we tell people, then obviously one has to get into the mould of, well, actually, what do we do about that? You know, help people think through the kind of problem, how do you build that resilience? And that goes back to the five principles I was talking about earlier on.
Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:13:15] And that understanding and communication of risk to the public seems really important. I’m sure I was not alone. Unlike many people, it was a bolt out the blue, this pandemic. It wasn’t something that I’d ever envisaged happening, not even just about not being prepared from it. It was just such an unusual experience. But I think through the work of the Covid commission, I think one of the things that’s come clear is that even if there’s not another pandemic, there are other things which could have similar impacts in terms of, on the economy, on supply chains and things like that, that we need to be, be prepared for.
I mean, I think one thing that sometimes I think there can be a tendency to think that, building resilience is it’s all the responsibility of the state. How do we sort of get a broader understanding of the role that individuals play communities, [00:14:00] businesses, and indeed, what would you say that their key roles are vis-a-vis government?
Professor Ian Boyd FRSE: [00:14:05] Well, I, you know, you said it earlier on that, I was kind of trying to paint a picture of a system of response and it is a system and that doesn’t mean that, you know, we as citizens just look to the government whatever that may mean, government is a multi-layered complex organization, to deliver what we need in terms of resilience.
There’s a moral hazard here in the sense that, we always think it’s somebody else’s problem to deal with. And it’s not. It is actually for everybody to deal with in some way or another. I think it is the job of government to help people understand what they need to do in order to be able to build resilience.
But quite frankly, we will never be a resilient nation [00:15:00] unless the individuals, unless the individual citizens are themselves resilient in their own, in their own lives and uncomfortable about that. Resilience starts from the bottom and works up to the top. Not doesn’t start from the top and work down to the bottom.
But every layer in society dealt will have, does have responsibilities from the individual through to the community, through to the businesses, through to institutions, through to subnational governments and then to the national governments and actually globally as well, because we’ve got things like the world health organization which are there to help, work at the global scale. So it is a multi-layered process, but it does start with individuals. and we are all presented with choices day to day, day in, day out, uh, and [00:16:00] just by, by tweaking those choices a little bit, we can make a huge difference to resilience. You know, if in a country like Scotland, where we’ve got about 6 million people, all making marginally different choices as a result of knowing that they have to be more resilient, then that could make a huge difference, let alone doing this on a global scale.
And, and so it’s something that I’m quite keen on is for us to be more aware of what we need absolutely need as opposed to what we might want. In other words, what gives us lots of pleasure and things like that, and that, that shouldn’t be misread as being, you know, needing some sort of Luddite, which says, Oh, you shouldn’t have pleasure or anything like that, but it’s actually just being able to always try to understand that actually there are certain things that we absolutely need in order to be able to exist and, and to lead wholesome [00:17:00] and happy lives. And there are lots of other things that we want, which just, which add a lot of pleasure to it, but we might not need quite as much of them as we think we need and we maybe need to transfer some of the kind of resources that we have, and we do all have choices to make because many of us have actually, we call it income surpluses to spend on things that we would like to spend things spend on some of the things we actually need rather than just sort of the things that we want.
So if we can shift those balances, then I think we’ll make a big difference.
Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:17:39] And I guess in a sort of very immediate sense, we’re seeing some of that being played out at the moment around some of the discussions around Christmas and people’s individual choices and the level of risks they’re comfortable taking both for themselves and maybe the risks that they’re comfortable giving to other people and, and.
That also seems to play to that what you’re saying earlier [00:18:00] about the mix of top down leadership and bottom up input and buy-in. I mean, do you think that mix feels about right at the moment or is it still too early to say?
Professor Ian Boyd FRSE: [00:18:11] Well, I mean, I think that we’re all in a learning experience at the moment, you know, one of the, one of the interesting things about Covid-19 it’s the extent to which the state has had to step up and interfere with people’s lives, in ways that actually the state prior to this with herself, very uncomfortable with, you know, and depending on your politics, I think, you know, whatever part of the political spectrum, within the UK that people come from, I think, you know, all politicians would feel very uncomfortable with that. However, you know, there are all going to be all sorts of legacies from Covid-19.
Some will be negative, there’s no doubt about that, but some will be positive and some of the positives. That could be in the in the context of, [00:19:00] making sure that you know, government actually has a leadership role. And this isn’t about dictating to people, but it’s about making sure that government really understands the strategy.
That is it is there to create and deliver and, to properly lead the country along the road to delivering that, that strategy now, you know, that that is a very kind of top down approach, which I think we’ve, we’ve sort of over quite long periods of time, gradually moved away from. When I was in government in London, Uh, from about 2012 through to about 2017 for about five years, the word strategy, it was almost outlawed by government.
You know, the whole idea that government with their big picture view set a point in our eyes and they said, all right, we’re going [00:20:00] to lead the nation in this direction. Was taboo. It wasn’t what government was there to do. Government was there simply providing the services for people in order for them to live their lives and for them to make their individual decisions.
The problem with that of course, is that the totality of the collective decisions of all sorts of individuals at making their own decisions based on their own terms of reference doesn’t add up to something that is, for example, dealing with the big problems, structural problems, like climate change or a big structural problem, like national resilience. And governments do need to take responsibility for those things and they do need to lead.
And I think that we’ve had a significant deficit of leadership in those ways. And that’s not a political point. I think it’s been right across all the party politics. I think that in the UK, but actually I would’ve said probably in most developed countries of this [00:21:00] world, we’ve had a deficit of leadership.
There are a few possible exceptions. I think some of the Northern European democracy spending even countries have, have the kind of social democracy where there is quite a lot of leadership sitting in there, but, but most other countries have had that deficit and they’ve been building over quite long period of time.
Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:21:23] Uh, I guess that plays to a slightly wider point. I mean, you were mentioning earlier about how Covid has impacted differentially on different communities and, and industries, and you’re referring to the hospitality sector. And so, we all have a responsibility to, to build resilience, but, some individuals areas, communities, sectors have more capacity maybe to build resilience. And presumably the state then has a more particular role to play in those areas, does it?
Professor Ian Boyd FRSE: [00:21:48] Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think that with, with regard to building resilience, we’re all going to be able to move at different, different speeds. You know, [00:22:00] clearly people who have, you know, are relatively well off who, who have what I would call surplus income, you know, have any more choices to make, than, than people who don’t have surplus income. And there are a lot of those people, uh, there, you know, even in a country like Scotland, there are people who suffer from food insecurity, uh, you know, which is which in, in, in a kind of, uh, a wealthy country, like Scotland is a remarkable thing.
Uh, but it is true. Um, uh, and, and we need to be able to have the social consciousness in order to be able to. To deal with that. And that, of course, again, come back to leadership, but it also comes back to, to this, this business, social responsibility that we all as a collective need to understand that actually we’re all in this game together, unless we actually help each other and that does mean, [00:23:00] you know, relatively well-off individuals, and I would classify myself as one of those being able to, sort of pay more into the system, in order to be able to make sure that the system is resilient, and that those individuals who are able to pay last into the system are also capable of being resilient.
Then actually I think that’s what needs to happen. Now you know, you could say that. That’s a political point. Actually, in my view, it’s a purely practical point. It’s one that, where if we, as I said before, if we all, you know, act individually rather than collectively, we will end up in a situation where we don’t have the resilience that we need in order to be able to properly cooperate, as a well-structured society. And you know, just allowing the, let’s say that the, the wealthy [00:24:00] or the, more empowered, within society to dominate doesn’t actually work in the long run.
Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:24:08] And certainly what seems to be very clear from the pandemic is that a return to business as usual is, is probably pretty unlikely and probably pretty unpalatable then in a lot of ways.
So what would a new normal look like in resilience terms? I mean, you’ve talked about what you, I think you’ve implicitly sort of referred to maybe a different sort of tax system in terms of the support for those with surplus income, but is it particular infrastructure and systems you think we need to put in place as a nation, wherever in the Scotland or UK level to enhance and support resilience?
Professor Ian Boyd FRSE: [00:24:41] Well, I mean, I’m not sure I would point to specific infrastructure because I’m not sure that I know what that would look like at the moment. I think that’s a kind of what I would call a second order issue. You know, I think Scotland needs to look at its own [00:25:00] capabilities and understand what the needs of its population that are not its wants, what the needs of its population are; and understand how those needs are delivered. I think Scotland actually, as a country, can cater for a huge number of those needs or, you know, we’ve got fantastic…. when you look at the basic needs that people have, which is for food, you know, wholesome food, clean water, clean air, those sorts of things, and reasonable security and you know, a justice system that works, all those things; Scotland is in a really, really strong position. So, my suspicion is that we’ve got most of the institutions and capabilities. It’s just that we’re probably not putting them together right quite in the way that that creates the resilience that we need. We are as a kind of, very, a country that’s right, you know, [00:26:00] high up north, with relatively small amounts of sunshine and, you know, relatively poor soils. We’re not very well-off with respect to food production, although our seas are very, are very productive. So we need to be careful about that. We’ve got to import a lot of our food, but you know, I think with new technology, we could be actually, you know, possibly self-sufficient in food, because of the renewable energy capabilities that we’ve got.
You know, I think, you know, and the scientific community that we have is incredibly powerful. Scotland’s got, for its size, got one of the most high-performing scientific communities of any country in the world. And that has got the capability of, innovating in ways that can solve a lot of our problems, [00:27:00] before they start. We can solve problems, things, things like fighting vaccines for viruses and things like that, but that’s actually solving a problem after it’s materialised. We want to solve problems before they materialize. And I think we can do that through, the highly educated population that we have and the appropriate investments. And, you know, I would, because it’s my specialist area, I would point to food as one of those. It’s where we could be producing a lot of food using high technology systems, which we would both, use ourselves and, and export. And we will be doing that on the back of, you know, surplus, renewable energy that we are able to, able to generate in a highly energetic environment with lots of wind and waves and all those things.
Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:27:51] So, I mean, so that’s a quite positive note in terms of actually it sounds like that we’ve got a very solid base on which to build both in terms of natural resources and in terms of [00:28:00] intellectual capital. I mean, a lot of the discussions around Covid have been drawing comparisons between different nations and countries and how prepared they prepared they were, and I think particularly focusing some on some of the issue of redundancy that you raised earlier, so when other countries had testing capacity, that could a bit, could be ramped up easily, the number of ICU. Intensive care unit beds that were available. I mean, are there any countries that you would look towards and say, not necessarily that it’s got everything right, but they’re pretty well-placed in terms of resilience and there are things that we could learn from them?
Professor Ian Boyd FRSE: [00:28:32] Well, I think the first thing I would say is that I don’t think any country did, you know, especially well out of this although you know apart from, one or one or two, like South Korea and New Zealand and possibly Japan as well. Although Japan has had some problems subsequently, but, you know, they took a very different trajectory from the rest of the world in terms of the disease, [00:29:00] and the way they controlled it.
And you know, in China too, even though China was the source of the disease, there are all sorts of different reasons why different countries will have performed, differently. I think, you know, the reality is that that a country like the UK, very much like its European neighbours, performed in the way it did because of the kind of economy and society that we run, which is a very open society.
It’s got people traveling all over the place. We’ve got lots of, you’ve got very open borders. It’s very liberal, you know, and it’s all about individual freedoms and there is a big trade off that sits there between those individual freedoms and the risks that we have from things like pandemic disease, [00:30:00] which exploits, frankly, the kind of freedoms that we all have.
But again, I think it comes back to my point about individual choices, you know, we can all feel free, but we can make choices about what we actually do in terms of how we travel and those sorts of things. However, I’m not really answering your question. I think that, I think that that New Zealand is a good example. Although in New Zealand, because of its isolation has huge geographical advantage. But actually New Zealand already had built a lot of the kind of resilience that I am talking about and it did it from, it’s done it from the bottom up. And you know, if you go onto the New Zealand government’s website, it says that in the case of a disaster or some sort of national emergency, don’t expect any help from the government for at least three days and probably a lot longer.
So just by [00:31:00] doing that, and of course it’s a country that is used to big problems because it’s got huge volcanic risks and seismic risks. And you know, through earthquakes and volcanoes, people understand that they’re living in a risky place and of course they make provision under those circumstances and they don’t just make provision by let’s say putting, you know, a store of food in their house to be able to keep them going, they make provision in their heads. It’s psychological. It’s something that when it happens, it’s not a surprise. And that makes a big difference and it makes a big difference to how people are able to respond to national governments saying, well, actually, we’re just going to shut down the economy for a while cause it’s not a complete surprise. The problem in a country like this, but also in any other countries, so UK is not unusual in this [00:32:00] respect; is that nobody had ever thought about that before nobody had ever kind of contemplated it, so nobody had ever kind of thought through what the consequences would be.
So we all found it psychologically very difficult and we still find it yet. So you know, when, when it came to the UK saying to people, well, actually we’re going to make you social distance and we’re going to lock you in your houses for a long period of time and things like that, initially, people were very, you know, compliant with it, but actually the statistics show that people actually got really tired of that very quickly. And the compliance really fell away. And of course that meant the disease spread, you know, starts to spread again. So there are, there are all sorts of reasons why certain other countries managed better.
And I think actually the Scandinavian countries have done a pretty good job as well. Of course they are much more comparable with [00:33:00] Scotland, you know, very similar kind of economies, similar population size, and you know, we could emulate what they’ve done, and actually probably be a lot better off as a result.
Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:33:16] And I think one of the things from Covid-19, I think will be that greater understanding of risk and the need to build resilience and what that might look like. I mean, you mentioned earlier about the importance of connectivity is one of the dimensions of a resilient society or resilient nation.
And, and it certainly seems that international cooperation is vital to resilience and particularly enabling a coordinated response. And you see some of the work around vaccines and the work of WHO, but at the same time, as, as you, as you’ve sort of suggested that global shocks lead to call for greater self-sufficiency and self-reliance, and you’ve talked about that in terms of terms of food.
So how do we sort of balance what might be seen as competing demands that collaboration and international scale and [00:34:00] connectivity with a more sort of maybe inward-looking self-sufficiency and make sure we can do things on our own, if you like?
Professor Ian Boyd FRSE: [00:34:07] Well, I mean you said it, it’s a balance actually. And there’s a balance of trying to understand where your own strengths and weaknesses lie. You know, if you have a, if you have a strength, which let’s say in Scotland’s case is availability of renewable energy, then you have to build on that strength and use that to address your weaknesses. And one of our weaknesses is our capacity to feed ourselves because we, you know, we’re not in a place where we grow vast numbers of crops and we don’t have the soils and climate to do that properly. So you know, you, I think the first thing to do is to try and resolve those weaknesses using your [00:35:00] strengths, internally, if you possibly can do, but of course, that doesn’t always work.
And you know, whatever happens, we are, you know, if, we start growing more of our food, there’s going to be a limited range of foods that we’re good at growing and we need to trade those out. Obviously use them ourselves, but trade them out and trade foods back in again. So that’s the connectivity issue.
And I, you know, I mentioned earlier on the issue about power connectivity with interconnectors and things like that for electricity. That’s a classic case where, you know, making sure that you have most of the time you have the base load as it’s called, for electrical power production, as a domestic necessity, to cater for that base load, but knowing that sometimes they’re going to be real peaks of demand where you are actually going to [00:36:00] have to ask your neighbour said, can I get a loan of some of your electricity and you know, if you scratch their back, they’ll scratch yours. So it’s a trading as a being reciprocal trading arrangement.
And it is that balance. It’s not a matter of saying, all right, we’re just not going to do anything ourselves. We’ve just trade everything in and we’ll connect with lots of other people. We have to, just as we do individually, we have to make our contribution as a country, we need to make our contribution based on our strengths.
And I can’t say more than that. And I think that, I think we do that to some extent, and I think that the way that economics works helps us do that. But we need to be actually a little bit more conscious about it and to organize ourselves about it and be more strategic about it.
Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:36:54] And I guess it does play to what you’re saying earlier about the kind of economy we are as well.
I mean, very internet connected [00:37:00] global economy. We have supply chains that are often sourcing different bits of kit, for example, from right across the world. And one of the things I think I’ve been struck by is that just the ability of firms, not necessarily always overnight, but certainly very quickly to, to pivot as I think the word of the day is, to making ventilators or producing PPE equipment or sanitizer gel. So, I guess that’s part of the resilience as well. Even if we haven’t got the capacity immediately that we can, we can quite quickly ramp it up to have it.
Professor Ian Boyd FRSE: [00:37:31] I completely agree. Yup. And companies always being aware of, of their capacity to, as you say, pivot, to be flexible, to adapt, quickly, and possibly even investing in that adaptation capability.
Because actually, you know, from our company resilience point of view, just in the [00:38:00] normal business market, it’s a sensible thing, it’s often a sensible thing to be able to do is to, is to reserve a certain amount of your investment for, that kind of adapt to adaptability and flexibility that you might need, which you know, may happen at any time, because of business conditions and nothing to do with other things that are going on in the globe, it’s just that in your own sector then maybe you know, supply shortages and those things,
Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:38:32] I guess, lots of our conversation. Today has been focused on resilience in the context of Covid-19. And clearly that’s been very much resilience in the face of a crisis situation, but how do we build resilience against other threats are no less impactful, but where those impacts might be felt over a longer timescale. And I’m thinking in particular, I guess, of something like climate change, which we’ve known about for years, some work has been done, but it’s never been at that sort of crisis point in [00:39:00] many people’s minds that has maybe instigated the kind of response that Covid has?
Professor Ian Boyd FRSE: [00:39:04] Well, I, yeah, I mean, you’re absolutely right. It’s a chronic emergency rather than acute emergency. I use that word because it’s a common word now used with respect to climates, climate emergency. You know, in terms of chronic emergencies, there’s a very different role, I think for government and those in those circumstances, but it comes back down to this leadership role.
It’s about setting the objective. And I think that, you know, our government, both at a UK level and at Scottish level has you know, finally got around to setting an objective about net zero by 2045 in the Scottish case, 2050 in terms of UK government. And just by setting that objective and laying it down in law, it [00:40:00] forces the rest of the system to move into that thought space and then into the space of action around it.
And of course that then becomes part of regulation, and what businesses need in particular, but also other institutions like universities, for example, I am at university, they need a level playing field a lot of the time. And what those kind of national objectives are doing is creating the circumstances to make a level playing field, so that, you know, people can’t cheat the system, fundamentally and get away without, you know, making the changes that are needed because there are short term investment costs or long-term gains.
And if people just cheat the system, they’re not paying the short-term investment costs, then they’re not, you know, others who do are worse off as a result of it and competitively disadvantaged. [00:41:00] So it’s a matter of setting those goals and then following up with the appropriate incentivisations and I say incentivisations in a both positive and negative sense, but because I think you can positively incentivise, but you can also punish as well for non-compliance.
And it’s about marching, the whole community, the whole system, in the direction of your objectives. Now that is only done through the market. You know, I think the government has certain things it can do, but actually the market is a fantastic tool through which to deliver, the kind of adaptations we need for things like climate.
And I think it’s beginning to get going. I think it’s very late in the day. I think we could have been doing this 10 or 15 years ago, quite effectively. But [00:42:00] nevertheless, we are sort of marching ourselves. I see lots of evidence in the marketplace for a market reform for innovation coming through, which is really fantastically, imaginative.
I see it in the context of my own university. I chair the environmental sustainability board of the university, which is really thinking very radically about what does a universe and net zero university actually look like? And it’s, I think it’s very different from our current vision of a university. And getting that vision in place within an institution like the University of St. Andrews, and seeing the people are actually the sorts of things you’re doing now are not going to be the way we’re going to be doing it in 10 or 15 years time and gradually moving them into that space of thinking about how they might do it, that is much more sustainable is, all [00:43:00] part of the process.
There’s only a certain speed at which that can happen because people will adapt at certain rates. They want, they won’t take kindly just being told, but actually you did X to be, sorry, you’re not going to be allowed to do X tomorrow. And you must do Y. They might take kindly of saying actually in 10 years time, we think that what you’re doing in towns of X is probably not going to be feasible, but Y is going to be more feasible and you need, you’ve got 10 years to transition that that is feasible, but, I think some of the messages get a little bit garbled sometimes.
Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:43:37] And I guess one of the things we have seen from Covid is an acceleration of things happening that might in the past have been thought as not possible or not possible until years hence. But things, there’s been a creativity that has allowed things to be done maybe more quickly than they might otherwise have been done, you know, whether that’s joining up data sets or, or whatever.
Professor Ian Boyd FRSE: [00:43:56] I think we’ve accelerated things. I mean, we’ve shown, you know, there are, [00:44:00] as I said, there are lots of negatives to it about Covid, you know, if you’d had a choice, we wouldn’t have had it at all, obviously, but we need to capitalise on the positives.
And one big positive is that we’ve turned a, you know, a 10 year program for getting vaccines into something that has actually taken about eight or nine months. And that is just remarkable. I mean, it’s phenomenal and it’s not just one vaccine, it’s potentially hundreds of vaccine candidates probably, actually in reality, you know, a couple of dozen, will probably come, come to the fore and be available.
But you know, the power of innovation and the power of invention is just phenomenal if we want to apply ourselves to it. So we then take that and translate it to climate change into net zero objectives. We have the power to do it. There is no doubt about that at all. It’s just, do we have the will to apply it? That’s the question.
Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:44:55] That sounds a really positive note on which to end [00:45:00] Professor Sir Ian Boyd. Thank you for talking to us today and sharing your expertise and experience about using learning from Covid-19 to enhance Scotland’s resilience. Thank you.