The Tech Enabled Post-Pandemic City
Design needs to be responsive to human needs.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, we have no doubt experienced a global catastrophic event that will redefine human needs in a variety of ways. It will influence the way our cities function, and the manner in which we interact with each other and our cities. Changes in lifestyle, work methods, delivery of services, and methods of interaction that we are currently experiencing will not simply disappear with the virus. We are in the midst of the world’s largest social experiment. Like most experiments, there will be outcomes that will inform and influence the post-pandemic world.
We now have the opportunity to develop a more humane manner of inhabiting the planet.
The outcome of this experiment could be the greatest opportunity that many generations of humanity have experienced. It presents the opportunity to reverse many of the global trends that we have made central to urban life, and have come to accept without recognizing the consequences. Using human beings as a vehicle, an act of nature has caused our cities, and indeed our planet, to come to a grinding halt. However, the human race is resilient, nimble, and inventive in times like these. We have learned more in these past few weeks about an alternate way of urban life than we have in a lifetime of studying and practicing urbanism. These are important lessons that we must look at incorporating into our cities as they grow and evolve.
There are opportunities to make our cities more resilient; to utilize our social and our physical infrastructure in a smarter and more efficient manner; to deploy technology as a powerful connector and enabler in building these smart and resilient cities. In fact, technology has been both the backbone and the connective tissue that has kept the wheels churning in so many aspects of our lives during these difficult times, and it has played a significant role in the world’s efforts to flatten the curve.
Without technology, we would be much more limited as a society to enforce the level of social distancing that is prevailing in most major cities on the planet. In instances where the level of technology has not kept pace, we have seen distinct disruptions to administrative and business functions. Many institutions the world over, be they academic, government, or private business, are quickly looking for ways to improve their connectedness and effectiveness by deploying new technologies that facilitate virtual interaction and activity.
Technology should not be a device turned to in catastrophic times alone.
This crisis underscores the role that technology must play in the smarter and more efficient functioning of our cities at all times. The rapid deployment of technology, along with the associated infrastructure to support this deployment, needs to be the first priority of post-pandemic cities the world over. The benefits of this approach are manyfold; not only will technology facilitate distance learning, working, and socializing, it will also reduce our dependence on the struggling physical infrastructure of many cities, and enable development to occur in an entirely different manner.
By deploying technology in a manner that allows staggered commute times to work, and with partial work-from-home arrangements built into the schedule of all firms, our transit systems will see their burdens eased at rush hour. The same goes for traffic on our highways; if we imagine that working from home is implemented for a certain number of days each week, suddenly we will see the number of trips and the amount of congestion on our highways significantly reduced. With this will come a reduction in our carbon footprint and our dependence on fossil fuel.
As a firm, our response has been swift.
In only a few weeks, we’ve noted a significant reduction in the consumption of paper since migrating a remote workforce. Suddenly, the notion of an architecture and engineering firm that produces thousands of drawings each day, and uses minimal or no paper, does not seem like an insurmountable challenge. We have learned very quickly that we can significantly reduce firm-wide travel and still maintain connectedness between our 3,000 staff in 60 offices across many continents. If every corporation were to embrace these and other similar initiatives by investing in alternative technologies, we would make significant strides toward curbing climate change.
How can education evolve?
The pandemic has forced the hand of academics the world over in bringing technology to the forefront. New teaching models have quickly evolved, with teachers rapidly learning the art of conducting virtual classrooms. Is there a new paradigm in the education model that facilitates partial presence in the physical classroom environment, and promotes much more learning at home? Are we going to allow scores of teachers, who have taught themselves these new skills overnight, to go back to traditional teaching methods? Or, are we going to mainstream the role of technology in education? Would this greatly increase access to education in many parts of the developing and developed world that currently struggle with teaching resources and facilities?
How can our communities change?
Food and pharmaceutical services are considered essential and have remained operational during these difficult times. A number of innovations have been deployed to facilitate remote access to these key aspects of daily life, and technology has been central to these. Undoubtedly, they will become more the norm than the exception, which will once again alter the physical dimension of these facilities. Supply chain and delivery logistics are going to see major evolutions, with an even greater dependence placed on technology and remote sales. How does urban infrastructure support this? Will it be drones or dedicated “delivery lanes”, with programmed autonomous vehicles dispatched with goods purchased on-line? In the post-pandemic world, the physical state of our cities and their facilities will have to recalibrate in response to the increased use of technology.
Let’s imagine a city with most essential supplies and services available within a 10-minute walking radius of all residential zones. In fact, let’s not refer to them as single-use zones if we want to imagine such a city. Let’s think of them as mixed-use cities that no longer have single-use zones. This would include smaller scale grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, and cafes, along with all the other essential services that we require as part of our daily life. In fact, many of these smaller retailers may offer more than one service as a way of building resiliency into their own business model. It would also include schools, small-scale healthcare facilities, smaller-scale parks, and urban agriculture that is incorporated into residential and commercial developments.
Such a city would see a dispersion of the mega scale or the regional in favour of the local. There would be a resurgence of “Main Street” in a completely new manner, one that will be much more resilient than the local mom and pop shops currently buckling under the force of the pandemic. This will not happen again, because in the smarter, technology-connected city, ‘mom and pop’ will have a different relationship to the community; they will be part of a connected whole, a virtual community that can facilitate physical interaction in good times, but is not entirely dependent on it in bad times. It can transform immediately to provide a virtual service to a virtual community.
How can our living and working environments adapt?
What then of our living and working environments? What of our community facilities that thrive on physical interaction and commingling? Space has been constricted in every way possible, and walls have been brought down in our living and work environments. Transparency and openness have gained favour, but they leave us vulnerable and exposed at times like this. A recalibration of these spaces will be required as well. Spaces in our homes, offices, classrooms, and community centres will have to be designed in a flexible and fluid manner, such that they can be divided or combined based on need. A smart approach would be to plan for functional versatility, so that hotels can be converted to isolation units or temporary shelters, and community centres and sports arenas can easily convert to emergency care centres, testing centres, and hospitals.
There will be a need to revisit our approach to residential design too. The den, currently a token adjunct in tiny one- and two-bedroom urban apartments, will now serve an important function by converting into a home office or isolation space for a couple whose well-being may be contingent on temporary physical distancing. Amenities within residential developments will be geared to working from home; this will require them to have the flexibility to function normally in an open environment, while being able to transform into smaller spaces that can facilitate the physical separation that might sometimes be needed. Most importantly, these spaces will need to be outfitted with the appropriate technology to support such functionalities.
What happens when enormous volumes of virtually purchased goods arrive at the base of the 50-, 60-, and 80-storey residential towers proliferating skylines all over the world? Does parcel delivery take on a whole new meaning? How is this managed and controlled? It will no longer include shared lockers that are ‘touched’ by all; perhaps an exclusive locker per resident that includes cold storage for groceries and limits shared use, while also accommodating the increased volume of deliveries in the new technology-enabled retail environment?
Touch will be limited to the greatest extent possible, with license plate recognition to let you into your parking garage, telephones to call your elevator, and facial recognition to open the front door of your apartment building. Voice-activated calling to connect you to a virtual concierge would facilitate visitor access.
There is no end to the change we can create.
One could go on enumerating the endless list of possibilities, and the manner in which technology can influence the physical form of our cities while also creating healthier environments. There is no doubt that the effectiveness of technology has been on full display during these times; it behooves us to learn from it, embrace it, harness it, and facilitate its use long after this pandemic, in a manner that makes our cities smarter, better connected, and evermore resilient. This window has been opened to give us a clear view of the possibilities presented by a technology-enabled city. Let’s ensure that this hard-learned lesson is not easily forgotten.
Mansoor Kazerouni is the Global Director of Buildings at IBI. Mansoor graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a Master’s degree in 1991. With over 25 years of experience, he has a significant portfolio of projects completed or underway across Canada, the United States, the UK, UAE, Jordan and India. These include high density high-rise residential buildings, hotels, office, retail, institutional, and complex urban mixed-use developments. A number of these projects have been nominated for and received Urban Design and Architectural Design awards.
Mansoor has been a guest lecturer on the subject of architecture and mixed-use design at universities, conferences and various panels. He has also been interviewed on the subject by architectural publications, newspapers, television and other media. Mansoor’s abilities and expertise in his field have been recognized by his appointment to the City of Mississauga’s Urban Design Advisory Panel, the City of Markham’s Urban Design Advisory Panel and the City of Vaughan’s Urban Design Advisory Panel. He is also a past Advisory Board Member of the Urban Land Institute, and a member of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada.