5 ways Covid-19 has made us rethink how we live and work

What started, at the end of May, as an experimental UK+ design sprint, to reflect on our personal experiences in response to the pandemic and discuss lessons for the future, has since expanded across our India and Hong Kong Urban C:Lab chapters, as they too replicated and developed the experiment.

The design sprints brought a cross-sharing opportunity; common issues and proposals united our design thinking, whilst localised, specific challenges provided a cross-learning platform.

All cohorts worked from a similar formula to the UK sprint, discussing “what we want to keep” and “what we want to get rid of” through the lenses of living, working and public spaces. Our colleagues in India and Hong Kong echoed the sentiments around flexibility, adaptability and serendipity. from the makeshift transition to home-work-hybrid spaces and a new way of negotiating a life in the day’s conflicting activities.

Equity and inclusivity centre-staged the social and societal learnings from both chapters, and significantly highlighted the necessity of understanding the local context in ensuring positive change.

Learning from the workings of the original sprint and experiencing a few more months of life with Covid-19, design and implementation proposals have started to emerge in response to the inevitable overlaps and cross-overs between the living, working, playing and caring environments.

1. Social and societal bonds and human-centric design

The inevitable tension between flexibility facilitated by video calls, remote meetings, prolonged isolation and the opportunity to “access each other as persons, not just professionals” is now well-established. How far are we willing to trade this new invitation to each others’ lives? How long will this novelty last with the reversal to more formalised structures of shared workplaces?

The Hong Kong sprint identified this contrast. They missed the professional attire of a work setting (“look good, feel good, play good”) and the magic that emerges in an elevator or during a lunchtime interaction, but acknowledged the benefits gained in connecting to our wider local communities, carefully negotiated in a very dense, urban environment such as Hong Kong’s.

In both Hong Kong and India, this density manifested itself in the interiors, where multigenerational families tend to live together, necessitating a clear separation to protect the vulnerable and provide privacy for those who need it. In the latter, the home-work overlap includes economic output in the form of domestic help, the absence of which “made the average Indian more self-reliant” and rendered gender-roles more equal, but compromised a mean of production for a specific labour force. Outside this sphere, it has been argued, that flexibility increased the scope of the talent pool, from which employment could be sourced for certain sectors and skills.

2. Quality of life and a redefinition of “value”

As has been observed in all three of geographic locations, the blurring between home-work-care-play spaces has prompted a re-evaluation of priorities between how much family time we want to recuperate against the uneven distribution of amenity access, both within and outside the home space.

Colleagues in India stressed the increased opportunities for more walking, cycling (time and infrastructure), sports and access to clean air as “things to keep”. This is highlighted as shared responsibilities between the government in providing safe and democratic public spaces, with developers asked to focus on more social infrastructure such as cultural spaces and less parking. Legislative changes and accountability will need to be interlinked to realise this.

The repurposing of existing and underutilised assets such as car parks, being converted into food truck parks in India, echo the observations from our colleagues in Hong Kong; Shanghai’s night festival or farmers markets facilitate locally grown food and distribution to local communities, animating the urban realm towards a more social environment and stimulates the local economy.

3. Quality of time and a redefinition of “space”

In the UK sprint, we attempted to redefine “peak times” through the emergence of newly contested spaces such as neighbourhood or district parks. Imagine the cities represented by the UK sprint participants, with their far higher GDP per capita, (although, not spatially and fairly equitably-distributed) and access to green space, and compare that to the immediate environments our colleagues in India or Hong Kong.

This is where the subtle, public take-over in the form of “resettlement” begins; a far cry from our Hong Kong colleagues public spaces, where sitting on grass is discouraged or where shade is limited – “Let the kids (or adults) play!” so that they can better connect to the nature.

This new understanding of time manifests itself further in the tension between a “perceived increase in available time against diminishing available space”. If we have greater typology of places where we can hold a higher diversity of activities, can we reimagine beginning ‘a day in life’ with the question “’What will I work on today’? to drive the answer to ‘Where will I work today’”?

During the earlier days of spring in the UK, with relative ease of restrictions, we had touched upon the resurgence of high streets, exacerbating the policy-thinking towards “15-minute city”. Such redefinition of time, allowing greater flexibility to move through spaces (in a future where distancing measures can be relaxed) could be the lifeblood of retail activity, so long the question we are governed by moves from “How do we increase footfall?” to “How quickly or efficiently can you get to the desired product”? This is very much underlined by the quality of the experience that drives us towards the desired outcome.

4. Healthier environments: at home, at work, and everywhere else

It is this quality of experience and sense of place that will also redefine our relationship to the workplace. Protocols for hygiene are advanced and the technological solutions are being developed for more seamless, self-facilitated, contactless and remotely controlled environments. The balance to be struck will be the “soul and authenticity” of such places, without which, the unfulfilled idealism of the “open plan workplace” may come back to haunt us.

Contrast this with what is finally emerging as a more diverse narrative and evidence around “productivity”. Our colleagues in India challenged what seemed to be an established notion from the UK sprint that we were more productive, working from home. Feedback from sectors (although, possibly biased) start to point towards the differentiation between “individual” and “collective” productivity, necessitating a much more nuanced and multi-dimensional understanding of “health and well-being”.

The environmental benefits of less printing and less travelling are clear to all of us. Practices in personal hygiene ushered in over-reliance on unsustainable products such as single-use plastic, and it is in national policy making, legislation and infrastructure provision to regulate this. In India, this heightened personal hygiene has been a welcome change, complimented with calls for government to upgrade healthcare facilities, providing, amongst other opportunities, modular solutions.

5. Access and equity

A lot has happened since our UK sprint. Much has arguably changed and much has not when it comes to the wider issues of equity. A heightened awareness is not geographically bounded; we believe that we all strive for equitable access to amenities that serve the wider benefit of our communities.

If the last few months laid bare, even only among us, an uneven distribution of amenities, space, privacy, time, and all other forms of equity and privilege, we are certainly very conscious of others with far reduced access. What has been echoed across all our Urban C:Lab chapters is the guiding principle for the future.

We need to be guided by human-centred empathetic and emotive design in order to create meaningful places, memorable experiences, and connect to the soul of a place.

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