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Mechanical engineering professor Susan Krumdieck says the COVID-19 crisis shows the assumptions behind how we were living our lives can be questioned

Mechanical engineering professor Susan Krumdieck says the COVID-19 crisis shows the assumptions behind how we were living our lives can be questioned

By Gareth Vaughan

The impact of the COVID-19 crisis has shown people "what this crazy woman has been talking about," Susan Krumdieck says. The crazy woman she's referring to, jokingly I think, is Krumdieck herself.

Krumdieck is Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Canterbury. She has a particular focus on transition engineering. What's transition engineering? Broadly speaking it's the engineering of change.

"Instead of just asking 'how do we' all the time and there being a gap between what we're doing full blast, and what we know we should do and we could do, and we need to do, how do we [change]?"

"That big gap has to be filled by engineering work. You can't change the systems that need to be changed without the engineers who built them changing them," Krumdieck says.

"It has to be done in the context of the science, the business and the policies. We're really busy chomping up the planet and you couldn't do that without the engineers. The transition is about changing what we are doing to gift our kids a future."

"So bottom trawlers, 2120, are we still doing that? Are we still trawling up the last little scraps off the bottom of the ocean? No. Why not? Because the engineers don't build bottom trawlers anymore, that's why," says Krumdieck.

Asked what she was thinking as COVID-19 swept the world Krumdieck says; "now the rest of the world knows what this crazy woman has been talking about."

"Because the effect of changing the things we're doing, even if we know we need to change, that effect, it's a step. It's like just stop and then we'll figure out what we're going to do next."

"During this time we have discovered that there's a different world than what we knew about before. And that the whole assumptions that everything we were doing are based on can be questioned now," says Krumdieck.

An industry she points to that has been turned upside-down by COVID-19 is tourism. The rate at which tourists were coming to New Zealand was "flooding" us, she says.

" And those of us who've been here for 20 years were seeing what it was doing, and really not going out as much anymore because it was such a mess and so crowded and manic," says Krumdieck.

"The jobs that created to serve these people who were consuming the commodity of travel, really, that's who we want to be? If you lose those jobs, what do you want to do? Were you changing peoples' beds because that's what you wanted to do or because you had to pay the rent?"

"What I would like to build is a creative way for people to get together and co-create the jobs that they are going to do. And I don't think we'll be calling them jobs anymore. I think we'll be calling them enterprises. I think we'll be calling them services. I think we'll be calling them really good stuff that we're doing. And in 20 years I think we'll look back on this, kind of glad that [it] happened. Because there wasn't a future for just an ever growing number of these tourist folks."

She acknowledges, however, that tourism will always exist. It's just that it shouldn't be, or won't be, what she calls commodity tourism.

"The commodity tourism of people doing a long haul flight to spend a week, to drive around, it's not essential. It was a weird blip in a way of thinking that didn't make sense and it never will make sense," says Krumdieck.

"We can definitely do new kinds of products for the rest of the world and maybe those products aren't just 'look at this.' They're 'look at what we've done.' And sharing knowledge of how we have come up with ways to regenerate things, and learning from other people."

"Commodity tourism has been defeated by the virus," Krumdieck says.

"There's going to be some travel. But commodity tourism no, I think we're done with that. On the receiving end of it, was it actually good for us? The last 20 years, I don't think so."

"If the creative, do-it-yourself people of New Zealand were unleashed from thinking 'I've got have a job to pay rent,' to 'ok, what do I want to do,' and knowing there's this period of time where you get to figure that out and you get to give it a go, I think we're going to turn a corner. And the rest of the world will be looking to us for - how did we do that as well as how did we get the virus under control. And that's a pretty good story," says Krumdieck.

*This is the ninth interview in a series looking at reactions to and potential policy responses to the coronavirus pandemic and evolving economic downturn.

The first interview, with staunch critic of the economic mainstream Steve Keen, is here. 
The second interview, with director at economic advisory firm Landfall Strategy Group David Skilling, is here. 
The third interview, with Motu and Victoria University's Arthur Grimes, is here. 
The fourth interview,
with Patrick Watson, senor economic analyst at Mauldin Economics, is here.
The fifth interview, with Climate Change Commission Chairman Rod Carr, is here.
The sixth interview, with Director of the Centre for Sustainability at the University of Otago Janet Stephenson, is here.
The seventh interview, with Frank Jasper, chief investment officer at Fisher Funds, is here.
The eighth interview, with strategy and risk consultant Raf Manji, is here

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It’s what we call entrepreneurs.... is it not?
Be good for a stronger movement towards living for experience not engaged with constant consumerism and the marketing that drives it. Maybe a start is “phone free days”....

Currently almost all businesses have retrenched to essential operational spending only. Zero on business change or improvements. So unlocking the money is the key here. A bunch of engineers are gonna need a lot of help...

"unlocking the money is the key"
Yes, it is. The money; the debt, is here already. It's just in the wrong places, as this thoughtful article suggests.

The most encouraging thing is that commentators here; journalists there and New Zealanders everywhere realise that change is upon us. What we did before is not a template for what we will do in the future. Retain the good, ditch the bad. We can all see it's inevitable. And are we courageous enough to embrace it? Yes, we are!

I need more on how the money gets redirected. Who is funding this massive change? The govt isnt. Business isnt either. Banks wont. Who are the courageous people you are rallying? Solve the money and the engineering is easy. Plenty are just sitting around waiting.

"The govt isnt."
The Government HAS to do it! It's us. We are the Government. If we don't like what Labour is putting before us now, toss them out and give National a go. But from what I see, National is already a lost cause.
"Where is the funding coming from?" From the release of debt tied up in exiting malinvestment by the Private Sector. As mortgages are repaid, don't issue the equivalent ( or more!) debt into that sector. Direct the banks in other directions for that 'new' debt. ( As I suggest; it's already here - the debt - just malapplied)
So if ever there is a time to be courageous as OUR government, it's now and the one we have.
If we don't collectively restructure our economy and future now, then others will do it for us anyway.
Time, as always, will tell.

( Read the comment in the below link to see a good example of malinvestment on a grand scale! It's called - Christchurch)
Christchurch should have been developed as New Zealand's replacement capital. Move Government away from Wellington where we KNOW an earthquake of some size is coming.
Why didn't we do that? Because it would have damaged the 'value' of property owned by people ( politicians?!) up there, and that had the be avoided at all costs. Likewise, every other decision made in ChCh - they all had the same misguided imperative)

I still struggle to understand whether it's the older I get, the more cynical my outlook is, or whether all voters are becoming more disenfranchised and disenchanted? Local elections continue to deteriorate and they put on a bit of a show around trying to get voters to re-engage with the whole process. And keep failing. It feels like things might still need to get worse and more people start suffering (than already are) before there might be enough of a mood for a big change rather than just flipping and flopping between Labour and National.


I agree.
But "things' are already a lot worse than most people see. A lot.
Sir John Key should have been the one to lead the rejuvenation of our country. He was given the opportunity via the GFC and Christchurch, and he failed miserably to rise to the challenge. Bailing-out bondholders in SCF exemplified up his priorities. ( NB: I voted for him on the basis of the vision he gave us in his run-up campaign!)
The time for our Government to act is now. Not tomorrow, but today.

Yes the irony.

When I look at how housing was handled.

National did the wrong thing by doing nothing ie no will.

Labour did the wrong thing by doing something, ie had the will but not the correct strategy.

The quality of our housing causes poor indoor air quality and is responsible for contributing to thousands of deaths a year.

The tail of this virus is not over yet, and is our strategy going to be the same going forward, and for the next virus that comes along?

He was given the mandate too. He ran on fixing the housing crisis and on increasing NZ's productivity. I voted for him because he was a "drain the swamp" candidate who looked like he knew something different needed to be done. But he seemed to pretty quickly give up on those and concentrate on enjoying holding on to the PM job he'd aspired to since childhood by accumulating but never spending political capital. Wasted years.

When you talk about the debt already being there and it just having to be “released” and “redirected “ you really are showing a woeful lack of understanding of how capital markets work. Debt represents money advanced and owed to lenders be they banks, bond holders or other debt investors etc. It doesn’t just get released. It gets repaid or in the case of a failed business not all of it gets repaid and the debt is written off. You seem to suggest a big role for government in this process of release and redirection. Nationalisation of private enterprise and central planning perhaps? Try North Korea.

Within five years we will likely be transporting people just as many air miles as pre-crisis. The reason we fly so frequently and far for so little money is simple, jet fuel is untaxed.

I doubt business travel is ever going to reach the same miles per capita that we had. Since business travel is the base demand load for aviation and hotels worldwide, that demand missing is going to push prices up, which will further curtail discretionary tourism.

Keep it that way.

Squishy - no, we won't. We will never get back there, just like we will never repay the currently-held debt.

Not enough plant left, in particular not enough high EROEI energy left. Welcome to the Peak in the Limits to Growth graph - the Club of Rome, Hubbert, Soddy and ultimately Malthus, were all correct. All we did was spend-down a planet-full of natural capital in a 200 year frenzy.


The lockdowns and subsequent crashing of the global economy is clear demonstration of why you should be wary of public service boffins and politicians.
"As a result, Imperial’s model is vulnerable to producing wildly different and conflicting outputs based on the same initial set of parameters. Run it on different computers and you would likely get different results. In other words, it is non-deterministic.

As such, it is fundamentally unreliable. It screams the question as to why our Government did not get a second opinion before swallowing Imperial's prescription."

There goes the predictable trolling/diversion. Actually, unfettered private avarice is what is causing the problems, so it has to be something other than unfettered private avarice, to fix them. Simple logic.

Good on for this interview. Start of a long-overdue conversation.

Not a fan of Ayn Rand then...

Here is a free link with more details. Note the site has a clear agenda, I just found it via google.
Recommends academics stop writing epidemiology sim. software due to incompetence.
Shaun Hendy was running a model for NZ I believe. Has anyone got the code for that?

Shaun Henry’s model was based on the Imperial model, according to a story on Stuff some weeks ago. I think the worst case scenarios were analogous to having v8s with no brakes on roads with no safety limits. I seem to remember there were a range of projections, though.

28,000 people have died in New York state so far (they are incredibly vulnerable to a 2nd wave -so it could get worse -much worse). The state only has a 20m population. So that is like 7,000 kiwis. I am glad we locked down and save lives.

NY, like Italy, had a policy of putting recovering C19 victims in rest homes. Hence their horrendous fatality rate compared to the rest of the country.
Sweden, for example, didn't lock down and their April death rate is indistinguishable from any other month.

Not necessarily. You also have to take into account population density distribution and several other age/health distribution factors to make a meaningful comparison. Depending upon how long NZ keeps its borders closed/isolated and the availability of a vaccine will impact how long before a second wave hits NZ. Eventually, most of the world (60% to 70%) will have to reach herd immunity for this virus before it’s properly under control. It’s also likely to be an annually recurring virus which may require an annual vaccination for most of the public, especially people who travel globally. In the meantime, there may be many second and third waves, hitting many countries, including NZ. Time will tell.

And there's plenty of interesting rebuttal discussion online, for anyone who actually takes a critical eye to these things. They've also been posted on here before, but the rebuttal stuff never seems of interest to the usual suspects.

Interesting !


A NZ uni professor putting the boot into the tourism sector, cool. I think NZ has unique and interesting things to visit. We have tourism commodities with differentiated value and shall recover very well.

What I reckon is doomed is commodity higher education, people travel the globe to listen to a lecturer spout the same lessons as all the others. Students are right now gaining their education remotely, that will confer the same value at much lower cost. Professor Krumdieck should soon be having an opportunity to test her theories on job transition in person.

Of course people don't have to pursue higher education. And if fewer do then the offerings will shrink. I personally would not go to a doctor or dentist who had learned and achieved their degree on-line. I wouldn't trust my car to a mechanic who did an on-line training course. On line learning, like cooking or history is fun. But there will likely continue to be a place for universities for the next 2000 years as there has been for the past 2000 years.

The experience for more than one half of a semester of virtual uni has not been substitutable for real uni. There is something about learning environment that is part of the process.

That said, I have been offering an on-line self-directed professional development course on Transition Engineering since Feb. For professionals looking to be pioneers in the transition - it has been working reasonably well. They are already working or thinking about changing jobs or willing to try something new and important.

Probably the best approach for educators, innovators and learners is to be adaptable, curious, purposeful, prepared, educated, determined, principled, kind, empathetic, skeptical.

2000 years of universities. But not 2000 years for 50% of all school leavers. It was only 4% when I went and although I can see reasons for expansion of teriary education maybe 20% would be about right. What you say about doctors needing face to face tertiary education is sensible. But why do book keepers and secretaries now need a degree? A good idea has been pushed far too far.
Your list of virtues of an educated person is great: adaptable, curious, purposeful, prepared, educated, determined, principled, kind, empathetic, skeptical. But why university? In fact university seems to knock curiosity and adaptability. The person I think of having most of those virtues is a chimney sweep who left school without any qualifications.

Talking from my experience as a lecturer, a lot of university learning could be done online, especially in disciplines where there is little need for equipment or on the job training. Lectures need not be done in person. In fact, the best lecturers could give online lectures to many students in many countries. Tutorials, too, could be done remotely. My experience was that most lecturers rorted the professional and discretionary leave provisions in their contract. And much ‘research’ carried out was repetitive rubbish. In my field, someone with current industry experience had far more to offer than someone who’d been tenured for 20 years, was out of touch with workplace demands, and had spent their long hot summers at meaningless conferences. I saw highly effective six to 12 month training courses bloated out to three of four year degree courses, lumping students with debt. All a bit of a scam, really.

It is a weird coincidence that academic tertiary comes in units of 3 or 4 years - the exception is medicine which is proof that some qualifications might take say 15 months.

Would agree with you. A person with industry experience certainly brings much more into teaching than one without, esp for professional courses.

Can understand if hackles are raised at your views. Some rice bowls could be cracked if your views begin to hold sway.

On-line teaching ? Surely there is a place for on-line courses where it makes a more effective use of resources. Complemented of course, where relevant & necessary, with face-to-face interaction, practical hands-on stints, attachments for industry experience. Why would I disregard doctors, dentists, mechanics who have had such training?

Well...that depends on how much of NZ's international education market was about the education in the first place, surely?

People might be interested in joining in the discussion and finding out what Transition Engineering is about. It's easy to find the Global Association for Transition Engineering (GATE). In New Zealand there is a growing movement of innovation and a workshop in November (all going well).

Some will. A minority of commentators hereabouts, unfortunately, although the silent readership may be more contemplative.

Some are Party hacks, some are commercial touts, some are just just denial of anything that might upset their current applecarts.

The one who attacked Dr Krumdieck first, is one of those who thinks there is infinite everything and that we'll be living on other planets - so clearly a serious researcher deserving of deep contemplation. Maybe he knows how to stick feathers to bacon......

I hope COVID19 will get people to rethink consumptionlism. Do we really need to purchase brand new electric cars to prove that we care about the environment? Do we really need new smartphones every 1 to 2 years? Do we actually need 99% of the stuff sold on AliExpress?

Spot on

Over the last 15 years more and more young tourists have been coming to NZ buying a cheap van, freedom camping and living off 5min noodles.

They contribute nothing to the economy.

NZ is in the unique position of being COVID free so why not capitalise on that by encouraging the wealthy to visit NZ and spend 2weeks in a health resort (quarantine) before being sent off to enjoy NZ and spend their dollars.

Totally agree that there has been too much low cost, freedom camper type of tourists coming here and adding little value to the economy while bespoiling our environment. Unfortunately it’s going to take a lot of rich tourists willing to go into quarantine for 2 weeks to replace the $17.5b offshore money injected into our economy last year. The strategy now is shut ourselves off and hope some clever scientists somewhere in the world comes up with a viable and even reasonably effective vaccine in a lot shorter time frame from the 10 years this normally takes. Fingers crossed. And toes.

Two comments which tell us - despite it first being raised here a decade ago - that most folk still think of 'making money' rather that having access to the only true underwrite of wealth: resources and energy. And we still see 'making money' as more important that asking whether our progress is maintainable.

It isn't.

Which means that more of the same, isn't either. This isn't about tourism anymore; it's about putting our system(s) on a sustainable footing before we collapse. So the real question of Dr Krumdieck is whether we have enough remaining time to transition? And the supplementary Q is whether we are going to transtition given the parroted growth-forever narrative?

My answers are: Not enough even if we started 40 years ago, and: Doesn't look like it.

Neither of these “two comments” talk to not wanting sustainability. I certainly do. I’m unsure what point you’re trying to make with this criticism.

Fair enough. If you can't see the clash between advocacy of rich tourists and advocacy for sustainability, I can see that you wouldn't understand the point.

Start with finite fossil energy, which we have burnt the best half of, and are descending through the dregs of (fracking, tar-sands, lignite, etc). Now think sustainability, and think about giving the next seven generations, say, equal rights to the resource.

Then ask if tourists - of any wealth - get here using anything else? Or if there is an alternative.

Then ask the bigger question: when we've drawn down the planetary reaources - particularly the fossilised-sunlight we use as energy - what will 'money' be worth'? See the problem? We're all chasing piles of proxy - David Chaston has even chosen to promote such a non-depletion-counting measure in recent times - while studiously avoiding the depletion/degradation it cannot decouple from.

You’re absolutely correct. I don’t understand your point.

My apologies powerdownkiwi. I just read your link and get it now. You want us to revert to the nirvana of preindustrial or even preagricultural times. I prefer to keep the benefits that have accrued from the current system but do agree that we have come to a point where the negative externalities on our environment need to be given much more weight and investment. Ever the optimist I believe both can be achieved without reverting to the isolationist, Marxist policies advocated in your link.

Well said, and I wholeheartedly concur.


You forgot the point that we also need to exterminate approximately 80% of the worlds population.

BAU will take care of that.

McNillty - Totally incorrect.

I fully agree that we will use much of the knowledge we have accumulated.

But I don't advocate 'returning' to anything. Nor do I mention Marxist (although I always note someone trying to shoot the messenger when I see one :). What I advocate is a Steady-State economy - one which does not reduce resource stocks (be they finite, renewable or sink), How we live within those limits is up for debate, but living within them is so many orders of magnitude divergent from how we live now, that most assumptions are rendered irrelevant. Global carrying-capacity at our level of consumption, probably 1 billion. At good peasant level, perhaps 2 billion. Managing the descent, rather than leaving it to Mother Nature, is what this article is about. What I notice, is a large cohort who avoid the topic by denigrating, by shooting the messenger, by smear, and so on. None of which alters the physical dilemma.

Those who think we can do the Green Growth or the MMT or some other seamless morph of continued consumption, need to ask whether renewables can replace fossil energy, how much of the latter is left (and of what quality) and consumption of what?

From The Simpler Life: “Consider having to go to work for money only two days a week, having much time for arts and crafts and personal growth, living in a rich and supportive community, living in a diverse and productive leisure-rich landscape, having socially worthwhile and enjoyable work with no fear of unemployment...and knowing you are not contributing to global problems. There is no need to sacrifice modern technology to achieve these benefits.”
I like it! Sign me up! I have my crotchet needles and am ready to go for it.
Sorry powerdownkiwi if I’m being a bit overly sarcastic but I really don’t see this ending up that well. For one within a generation or two all those scientists who had been producing antibiotics and developing new vaccines will have passed and there will be massive amounts of institutional knowledge lost in all areas of science and there will be no such thing as innovation. We’ll return to having a life expectancy of 30. No the current system isn’t perfect but honestly I just don’t believe the simpler life one will work at all. Sorry not a convert☹️

No - as believers in so many things, always are. For some it's pie in the sky when you die. For others, it's endless growth on a finite planet. They're all beliefs and they're all based on falsehoods. Its a bit like praying as the Titanic went down - not a helluva lotta use.

Your only hope is the Dr Krumdieck types - your current regime is short-term screwed, and her crowd are all you have left.

Me, I think their chances are somewhere between none and less than none. I think we collapse, or go to major war over 'what's left'. My efforts, these days, are about post-collapse leadership - local, food-production, infrastructure triage, as-circular-as-possible a resource and nutrient stream.

I started doing Transition Engineering as a majority of my work about 12 years ago. I was getting really tired of NOT doing anything because it was too late and too hard and too expensive and too complicated. Luckily, I have a personality that is triggered by people telling me that I can't do or it's not done or it's too hard. I studied the psychology of breaking through being "stuck". I studied the sociology of social change. I studied history digging for transitions in social ideas and technologies. In particular civilisations like the Bronze Age Mediterranean, and big empires like the Roman Empire - Talk about a growth-addicted economy. And I've been really interested in what it was like at the time for the people in those societies when the old system and old assumptions weren't working any more. I think the rules are that 1) things can change unbelievably fast as far as the superstructure of the civilisation is concerned. 2) you can't go back.
Always there is the thing we as observers of the ruins call "collapse". History seems to think - "so what, it wasn't working". But things never go back to the way they were before. The people in human society who solve problems and figure out things are half of our adaptive strategy as a species. The other half is resisting changing things that work by ensconcing them in traditions and rituals.
I'm also pretty sure that the time of the big pivot or grand transition will bring the nonsense merchants out of the woodwork, so watch out for that.
There is a scenario where the people who supply and operate the systems for the oil and the fuels and the cars and the buildings and shipping and shopping... gain a common language and work in masse on changing everything for regeneration, wellbeing creation, resilience... and everybody else adapts, and yes the observers will see a collapse of the zombie economics - and the birth of a new economics.
Maybe have a wee read and see if you want to join in.