As we tried to get a grip on living in isolation over the Easter period, I don’t believe phrases such as – “in times like this” make sense. Our world is undergoing a challenge which is unprecedented, one that is exacting a huge and painful human toll in terms of fatalities and suffering; which has also caused a major economic shockwave that impacts both the demand and supply sides; and is shining a laser- like spotlight on how our political and social systems perform. All of this is happening in real-time, in every part of the globe and with equal intensity. We’ve never seen the likes of this before…
There are just no precedents to help us navigate the uncharted waters of the devasting human effects caused by this coronavirus crisis. It has crept up on an ill-prepared world like an invidious enemy, one that is invisible and indiscriminate.
In the absence of precedents we need to devote sufficient time to think this through. One of the great comforts during this tumultuous period is poetry and a recent poem ‘Lockdown’ by Franciscan Capuchin Brother Richard Hendrick, is one which I feel captures the essence of these unusual times, as it also posits a case for hope. (You can hear the full version on the BBC or on YouTube).
For me the following extract says it all: –
“All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting
All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality
To how big we really are
To how little control we really have
To what really matters”
However, one line of Brother Richard’s poem really hits home as “to how little control we really have”. This highlights how this pandemic has shaken us to the roots, as we are witnessing how our 21st century know-how, coupled with modern medicine technology, has so far has proved ineffective. It has brought us all back down to earth with a bang as we realise just how fragile our way of life is today – and not only because nearly 3 billion people in the world are in lockdown. As the reality of the events unfolding in the Spring of 2020 have started to have an impact, Covid-19 has also exposed the fissures in society into the glare of public awareness. This is not just a humanitarian crisis but also one which requires us to address both lives and livelihoods. Whilst we have to cope as best we can with the immediate difficulties; we need to use this period of lockdown to consider the medium and longer-term implications.
For those of us interested in making the best use of the built environment, the enforced large-scale shift to remote working poses both a huge opportunity and a huge challenge. Already, much has been written about the implications of remote working and the emergence of a ‘new normal’. Author and workplace strategist Neil Ushers’ recent post on this topic hits the nail on the head, when he remarks we shouldn’t be ‘writing the obituary for the office’ just yet. Especially, if the magnetic pull of a return to old familiar habits and practices prevails. Since the reality of remote working for many means trying to work while living in cramped conditions, not having the luxury of a study or even a garden shed, perhaps while also trying to look after locked-down children at the same time. For these people a return to commuting and the sanctity of their own desk is now something they can only dream about and even desire.
The jury is out as we cannot foresee what the future post-crisis world will look like. I suspect however that it will herald a period where we will be faced with some really hard-hitting choices. I had the opportunity of mulling on this recently, as I was asked to write a piece for my friends in Italy which I called Necessity is the Mother of All Invention. Building on this, I asked myself how we could use this time of lockdown to produce something good. By necessity we are all forced to isolate and by doing so, could we discover new or different ways of doing things? The nature of work and how we use both spaces and places will be affected by the crisis and a return to the ‘old world’ is unlikely. Could we by using this “time to think and reflect” invent some fresh thinking about workplaces, work and the workforce? Our world is changing, work is changing therefore the built environment needs to adjust – it will be a time to re-set, re-assess and re-imagine. But it will have much wider implications than just buildings…