We’ve changed.. #27 #cong20


This virus has changed our lives, but a vaccine will reset most things. However the office may not be the same, and our cities should not be.

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Key Takeaways:

  1. You’ll get your lives back, but city and office life should be more complicated

About Will Knott:

A nerd who usually asks questions and changes things.

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By Will Knott.
We’ve changed…

When 2020 started, I did not foresee us fighting a war against a virus, while wearing masks on the streets and with light wielding robots fighting on our side. To be honest, if you described the things we all did in 2020 to our 2019 selves, it would be the basis of a comedy sketch.

It is even harder when you remember just how little the pandemics of the past changed us. Not the changes from the 1918 Spanish Flu, most of lessons we forgot, the conclusions of this 2007 paper outlining the 1918 recommendations in a modern setting are forehead smacking obvious now, but were definitely ignored. But looking back at the history of modern pandemics, we just ignored the 2009 H1N1 pandemic and went on with our lives.

1914-1918 and the massive casualties of world war one brought about massive societal changes. The changes brought from the second world war caused even more societal changes, to the point where we stopped measuring by regal generations and switched purely to decades. Yes folks, we are well past society 3.0. The actual 3.0 was the Iron Age. We are leaving the silicon age behind and are transitioning through the cloud to the quantum.

However, this is supposed to be about what is going to change. How our lives will revert to a “new normal” after the vaccines do their job (ignoring the Charles Stross-ian nightmare scenario of a limited effectiveness). Well, for a lot of us, we get our old lives back. In some places, they already have their old lives back (we see you New Zealand, congratulations).

Travel and tourism will return (but there will be more airport health checks). The Craic Economy of music and cinema opening nights and restaurant meals and nightlife will return. And the slightest sniffle will see facemasks.

Not everything will reset back. Part of that will be work and cities.

We have an unscheduled experiment of working from home on our hands. Broadband is an essential service! And we’ll all dutifully return when the all clear set of jabs arrive. Right?

Well, maybe not.

Anecdotally, productivity has stayed steady (somehow), and depending on roles, some are preferring the new now. There are friends of mine, usually tech and programming, who are enjoying home-work (and the ability to lower the volume of irrelevant meetings they are encouraged to attend but not interact with). Others (oddly, managers) are really missing the interactions in the office.

Why does an office exist? In the past, work could not be organised to run remotely. Now it can. There are some workplace things that can’t be done at home, lab-work (actually..,), secure meetings and office romance. Is it for convenience, tradition or control?

Work from home measures emptied offices across the globe, and made us realise that the shelf stacker is essential. The pandemic hollowed out the cities. But a city without tourists and office workers had impacts. If you build a section of a city for a now absent daily grind, removing the grinding makes a lot of patron-free shops (even if they can open) and lots of suddenly available parking. The shell needs to be un-hollowed, and getting more people in there. In short, cities shouldn;t be high-rise business parks.

It will be interesting to see if our cities turn into a collection of 15 minute towns, something for the better. In that respect, Ireland may be lucky. Most of our cities are, in an international perspective, large towns. Outside of Dublin, the republic’s cities are almost 20 minute towns, small changes are needed. There may need to be a crackdown of apartments being rented out on a daily basis to tourists, but that’s a legal area I’m not going to write about. Reintroducing and encouraging accommodation above the shops is probably a good starting point. When the Ballymun Towers first opened, they opened without amenities, we should not need to re-learn that lesson.

Caution will be heeded. The traditional office pool vanished in the 1960s, the individual office started to vanish around the same time, even the cublical farm went open plan. Ideal for the spreading of viruses, as the first few weeks after the return to school taught us. When the return is called, it will be decades before a return to laptops on a long row of benches or tightly packed desks. Some offices will close.

Which means that for some, the lure of high-end offices may go away. No high end canteens, shared games rooms and an array of healthy options (with a bowl of sweets). If children couldn’t safely go door to door for sweets, do you really think there will be desk to desk trips?

On the note of children, remember that Santy is a special case. As a “jolly old elf”, it turns out that elves are immune, why else would some people (aka fools) allow them on their shelves? Also, it appears that he happens to follow all the guidelines for pandemic deliveries. Besides, there may indeed be more than one.

Smaller towns will be more important.They may turn into 15 minute cities themselves (of 5 minute for some places). Co-working spaces are expanding across smaller towns (low commute, work near home, but have home-life separation), but it’s early days and how safe they are is currently unclear. In the past, they were designed for small groups or the self employed, in the future, it may be an expanded workforce for employees. Working from home is less than ideal if you are sharing with a couple of others, some of use will be running back to the office. But, these shares are usually due to house prices and the move to cities. What if your trip to the city office isn’t necessarily a daily trip to the city office? A weekly one? Or a monthly one? Would you need to move to the city, rather than want to? Will universities spread lecture halls to Zoom in the future with occasional practicals?

The new rush hour in cities may be for the weekend of fun and bump-n-grind rather than the morning and evening for the daily grind. It’s an interesting recasting of our lives, one where we get to really know our neighbours once the masks can come off.

And the guards can come off, but be prepared for the next pandemic. Even if it’s not for another 100 years (or 2039).

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