• The shake-up caused by COVID-19 has put health back on the table as a key ingredient for sustainable development, and we must retain this sense of urgency.
  • The crisis has also created a springboard from which EdTech companies can partner with government and non-government education entities to democratise education.
  • Pre-COVID barriers to collaboration in health systems have been set aside in pursuit of the singular goal of protecting health.

Never let a good crisis go to waste. This saying has been doing the rounds somewhat in 2020.

Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has spewed chaos in seemingly still waters, causing global disruption. Happily, chaos theory dictates that even apparent randomness contains underlying layers of patterns and interdependence that make chaotic moments opportune for doing transformational things.

The UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have the transformational mission of building optimum health and wellbeing for humanity and the planet. And yet progress towards achieving the 17 SDGs has been halting, at best. The usual suspects have emerged to explain why more has not been done: a lack of infrastructure (physical, virtual and mental); not enough support, be it financially or morally); and intentions that were not up to par — from governments and/or members of the public.

Those societal constructs that have perpetuated structural inequalities in pursuit of economic development are not without consequence to people and planet.

—Mandë Holford

The disruption engendered by the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that sustainable development cannot be achieved without health.

Today’s threat to our health is also a threat to functional society, and to overcome it we must therefore cooperate across society. The association between COVID-19 and deprivation, substandard housing, sanitation and air pollution in both high- and low-income countries has also made this clear: those societal constructs that have perpetuated structural inequalities in pursuit of economic development are not without consequence to people and planet.

It just so happens that best tools for combating a global pandemic align perfectly with the SDGs, inciting renewed vigour to reset the relationship between nature and humanity and to rebuild better.

We are talking: clean water and sanitation (SDG6) to wash hands and remove viral particles; fresh air (SDG13) to disperse or avoid diseased aerosols; and industry, innovation and infrastructure (SDG9) that is nimble and able to pivot in social and economic shutdowns in order to provide decent work and economic growth (SDG8) to support sustainable cities and communities (SDG11).

The pandemic has forced over 1 billion students out of the classroom and into virtual learning environments; a situation that has highlight the inequities in (affordable) access to the internet globally.

COVID-19 has also reinforced the urgent need for learning initiatives that make science both approachable, relevant, and accessible to students, educators, and the general public. This is a significant challenge, but also an opportunity for EdTech companies to apply immersive technologies — such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI) — to create a new paradigm for remote STEM learning and teaching that spawns creativity, nurtures curiosity and engenders civic engagement for the benefit of society.

Killer Snails is an EdTech start-up that creates learning games to bring science out of laboratories and into classrooms — and increasingly living rooms — in order to convey the wonder of discovery and exploration that drives STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields and careers.

The start-up uses immersive learning games to convey STEM concepts because research has shown it’s not just what we teach, but how we teach it that determines engagement and the acquisition of learning outcomes. Killer Snails' learn-through-play strategy helps to build STEM-identity and content knowledge in ways that reflect the need for a variety of lived experiences and voices to tackle global challenges.

In many ways, the COVID-19 crisis has created a springboard from which EdTech companies like Killer Snails can partner with government and non-government education entities, professional education societies and stakeholders from various sectors as part of a great reset to democratise education in robust ways. Doing so will help accomplish SDG4 (quality education) for all students regardless of geography and SDG5 (gender equality) to support the recruitment and retention of women in STEM.

If we apply chaos theory, our local responses to COVID-19 can be scaled and sustained to achieve global effects.

—Tolu Oni

As punctually disruptive as the COVID pandemic has been to education systems, for health systems chaos has been a permanent state of being for years.

Pre-COVID-19, engagement was underway between governments, the private sector and science entities, and they began with an explanation of why health is so critical for the economy and society. This reality has been laid bare by the pandemic, with different sectors and systems deeply considering their role in the pandemic.

The usual barriers to collaboration and siloed mentalities have been somewhat set asunder in pursuit of the singular goal of protecting health.

UrbanBetter | Oni et al is an Africa-led, science-based global practice and movement to health-proof the future of cities by accelerating solutions that improve and create health in Africa’s cities. Beyond healthcare, UrbanBetter | Oni et al places health at the centre of urban development in rapidly developing cities. Its premise is that SDG3 (health) cannot be achieved without SDG11 (inclusive resilient cities) and vice-versa.

In developing a Marshall plan for planetary health in Africa, UrbanBetter | Oni et al is working to retain a sense of urgency — the pattern within the chaos — developing strategies to drive a groundswell of youth-privileged innovations that create the healthy places needed to protect health beyond this pandemic; as well as to strengthen indicators of success to both avoid harms to health and proactively and sustainably create health equitably. This re-visioning of better cities for planetary health is required in order to achieve the SDGs and the Agenda2063 goals set out by the African Union.

Killer Snails and UrbanBetter | Oni et al exemplify the critical role that science, cross-sectoral partnerships, and future-focused thinking can and must play in shaping a societal reset. The recent launch of the World Economic Forum’s Sustainability Pioneers is an opportunity to catalyze and galvanize efforts to achieve the 2030 SDGs using the lens of sensitive dependence, where small changes in a system can result in very large differences in that system’s behaviour.

Essentially, if we apply chaos theory, our local responses to COVID-19 can be scaled and sustained to achieve global effects.

People are a vital and central tenet of all of the SDGs and we have seen sensitive dependence arise around issues of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion stemming from the brutal killing of George Floyd. The local insensitivity of police officers led to a global call for a re-think of how we build strong institutions that are peaceful and just (SDG16), engaging society as a whole — regardless of race, gender or socioeconomic status.

The COVID-19 pandemic has removed barriers previously thought impossible, challenged the idea that “nothing changes” and opened minds to the need for urgent reversals of unsustainable “norms”.

In The Great Reset, these barriers must stay down to support new and healthy sustainable patterns through the chaos as we urgently tackle the SDGs, now that it is clear we have the will, the means and the crisis to do so.

Mandë Holford is an associate professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York, with scientific appointments at the American Museum of Natural History and Weill Cornell Medicine, was recently named a 2020 WEF Sustainability Pioneer, a 2015 WEF New Champion Young Scientist, and is Co-Founder of Killer Snails, LLC .

Tolullah Oni is a public health physician and urban epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge, was recently named a 2020 WEF Sustainability Pioneer, a 2019 WEF Young Global Leader, and Founder & Principal of UrbanBetter | Oni et al.