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Coping with the New Normal - Covid-19 and after

This is about transformation, not recovery

By Jo da Silva, leader of Arup International Development
Header jo da silva   international dev london  c daniel imade arup


I have spent the last decade thinking about and working to improve the resilience of communities and cities across the world. How do you prepare for the worst and, once it’s happened – be it an earthquake, a typhoon, a drought or a flood – how do you recover from it so that you are stronger next time? There are many parallels that apply to this pandemic. And yet the magnitude of what we’re all living through now feels unique.

Back in 2005, working in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, I was impressed with the government’s decision to set up two parallel working groups – one to address the immediate effects of this tragedy and another to look to the future, thinking about a reconstruction effort. That was a smart move, because it accelerated recovery while buying time to think carefully about the window of opportunity a disaster offers to build back better.

For this crisis, the term ‘recovery’ feels inappropriate. Rather than talking about 'recovery' from this pandemic and its impact on the economy, there is an opportunity to reflect on the lessons learned and decide to set off on a new trajectory that will lead to a sustainable future.

The Covid-19 pandemic is one of a number of significant challenges we are facing collectively: climate change, and a growing population consuming more and more on a finite planet. We must do things differently to avert further crises triggered by these.

Back in 2008, the hopes of a sustainable recovery did not fully realise. But we’re in a different world now. Companies with strong ESG (environment, social and [corporate] governance) credentials are outperforming others in the face of this crisis, helping make the case that boardrooms need to redouble focus on sustainability. Meanwhile, as governments prepare to invest billions in infrastructure projects to jump-start economic recovery, there’s a unique opportunity to make sure that all new infrastructure contributes positively to greenhouse gas emissions reduction and is planned and designed so that it is resilient to future disasters. This is not just about minimising costs but also carbon, not just about optimising performance through improved efficiency but building in redundancy and flexibility which matter in times of crisis.

Meanwhile, this crisis has also brought to the fore the complexity of our supply chains, as governments struggled to source PPE and testing kits, and stores scrambled to avoid shortages. As we wake up to the fragility of global supply chains in the face of an extensive crisis, we may think differently about how products are sourced.

Our reliance on technology has accelerated as a result of the lockdown. Whilst increases in global travel contributed to the size of the pandemic, advances in digital technology helped us manage it and stay connected in a way that would have been impossible just a few years ago. Forced into faster adoption we discovered just how much we can achieve remotely. And this shift is taking place beyond just conference call technology. More businesses than ever are using drones instead of deploying humans to survey remote, sometimes tricky-to-access assets, such as wind farms. Even though this technology was available before lockdown, today’s reality has hugely accelerated the adoption of this more cost-effective and less-dangerous method.

But there’s also a much more profound and new shift under way. Our experience of lockdown is helping us distinguish our needs from wants. In the face of a crisis, we revert back to the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, valuing again basics like a decent place to live, access to food, water, sanitation and healthcare.

I grew up in the 70s in the UK. Back then, as we lived through the three-day working week, when I said to my mum “I want a new pair of jeans”, she’d matter-of-factly state “But you don’t need a new pair”. This crisis is giving us a glimpse of this world again – one where we can get by on much less. One where we look at the long-term value of things prioritising durability over fast fashion.

We’re also connecting back to our communities. Unable to travel, we’re more reliant on our corner shops or the local post office. And we’re appreciating more than ever the infrastructure that underpins our lives: the water mains, electricity, healthcare facilities, broadband connection.

How can we make sure to take those lessons and create a new, better world? As an engineer, I focus on thinking about ways we need to re-organise our cities. Is there still space for out-of-town shopping centres in a world where we know we can rely on a mixture of local shops and deliveries? Are large hospitals the best way to deliver healthcare or would smaller, community-based healthcare be more fit for purpose to deliver mass testing or vaccinations?

We have a responsibility as a profession to push for better solutions, more sustainable and resilient infrastructure is needed to ensure everyone’s basic needs are met in a world that can withstand not just pandemics but also future extreme weather events or natural disasters.

The memory of a disaster only lasts a generation. It’s well documented that an earthquake that strikes a community that hasn’t had one in more than 30 years can be more deadly, unless learnings are codified and institutionalised. If we take the lessons from this pandemic, we can do more than recover – we can revolutionise the way we live and change the world for the better. Let’s look at just one area in great detail – the workplace.

The pandemic has challenged so many of our existing assumptions. In the workplace this includes basic questions like: is our office safe to work in? How far apart should the desks be? How will people move around if lift capacity is constrained? What’s the optimum number of people in our existing space? As businesses return to the workplace, Arup’s new Space Explorer service tackles these questions.

Many organisations are returning to workplaces now, in limited numbers, planning to ramp up tomorrow. But that poses new questions – how to return to capacity safely? Space Explorer can help your recalibrate operations, maximise productivity, and identify the optimal occupancy level as regulations change.

Explore your options

Space Explorer combines the power of our MassMotion software with data and spatial analysis tools, to help employers optimise their workplaces in the emerging post-pandemic phase. We work from the specifics of your site, be it an office, laboratory, retail space or other venue where people congregate. Our data team will execute a risk-based approach to visualise and document the safest options.

Workplace safety obviously has many other elements and the implications of the virus outbreak continue to develop.  It can help you to gradually increase and better manage occupancy as the current situation develops. Space Explorer can help you to explore what’s possible, safe, optimal and practical. Using the service will help you to work out which design interventions or temporary layout changes will produce the safest outcomes for your people.

Space Explorer lets you:

Plan your response.

Understand capacity.

Model people’s movement. 

Learn more about the Future of offices in a post-pandemic world in Arup’s latest report.

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