How will the way we live look different in the wake of the pandemic?
We don’t yet know the answer – and, in some respects, we don’t even know the right questions to ask. That’s why we’ve been surveying dozens of global thought leaders, doers and thinkers for our special Unknown Questions series, in which we’re unearthing the biggest questions we should be asking as we move toward a post-pandemic society.
In this edition, we look at how the virus will continue to change the way we live – from the way we build and live in cities to how we move between countries and continents.
Tony Wheeler: Co-Founder, Lonely Planet
Will only the wealthy be able to travel?
When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, I keep repeating baseball player and philosopher Yogi Berra’s wise advice that “It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
In the travel game, it’s tough even to understand what’s going on in the present. Some countries (Australia) won’t let people out, other countries (America) won’t let people in, even when they’re coming from a place with a better virus story. Or you can leave (the UK) and go somewhere else (the list changes daily) only to find (typically at 4 a.m.) all sorts of restrictions on your return.
None of this encourages travel, and it’s probably a safe bet that merely making the decision to head for the departure gate is going to be a fraught choice for some time to come. Quite apart from dealing with the bureaucracy and rules, I’m afraid that post-pandemic travel will be to a very different new world. Will we be welcomed? Will we be safe? And can we afford it? It will be a sad new world if travel becomes something only for the rich and gap-year travel becomes a rite of passage that ceases to exist.
Of course, a travel reassessment will give us the opportunity to tackle some of the industry’s inevitable drawbacks from a fresh perspective, but will we tackle overtourism and climate change, or just turn the power back on and hit restart?
Audrey Azoulay: Director-General, Unesco
How will AI shape our lives post-Covid?
Covid-19 is a test like no other. Never before have the lives of so many people around the world been affected at this scale or speed.
Over the past six months, thousands of AI innovations have sprung up in response to the challenges of life under lockdown. Governments are mobilising machine-learning in many ways, from contact-tracing apps to telemedicine and remote learning.
However, as the digital transformation accelerates exponentially, it is highlighting the challenges of AI. Ethical dilemmas are already a reality – including privacy risks and discriminatory bias.
It is up to us to decide what we want AI to look like: there is a legislative vacuum that needs to be filled now. Principles such as proportionality, inclusivity, human oversight and transparency can create a framework allowing us to anticipate these issues.
This is why Unesco is working to build consensus among 193 countries to lay the ethical foundations of AI. Building on these principles, countries will be able to develop national policies that ensure AI is designed, developed and deployed in compliance with fundamental human values.
As we face new, previously unimaginable challenges – like the pandemic – we must ensure that the tools we are developing work for us, and not against us.
Ezekiel Emanuel: Member, Biden-Harris Covid-19 Advisory Board and Chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy, University of Pennsylvania
What will we be craving in a post-pandemic world?
There are three clear legacies from the Covid-19 pandemic. They all derive from the unnatural and unpleasant circumstances imposed by the pandemic and the necessary public health responses.
First, we all want security. The pandemic has filled us with uncertainty and insecurity. The natural response is to want security. This means security in having an income, child care, family leave and other things necessary to care for your family during a pandemic. Every country will have to critically evaluate its social safety net and shore it up.
Second, we all want sociabilities. Human are social animals. The isolation imposed by Covid-19 is debilitating. We want to have opportunities to be with other people, share meals, share a drink in the pub, and share activities. We see this when restrictions are eased how people run for parties and group settings. Opportunities and venues for sociabilities will become huge post-Covid.
Third, travel will explode after the pandemic. People like (safe) novelty and changes of scenery. We have all been locked down with the monotony of the same rooms, same walking routine, inability to see new things. When it is safe to travel, people will go, go, go.
READ UNKNOWN QUESTIONS, PART ONE:
- Melinda Gates, Zoom CEO Eric S Yuan and more answer: How could the world of work change forever?
- Readers’ thoughts: The biggest unknowns in a post-pandemic work world
Giuseppe Sala: Mayor of Milan and Chair of the C40 Mayors Covid-19 Recovery Task Force
How can we protect city dwellers?
Cities have already fundamentally changed as a result of the Covid crisis. By delivering a green and just recovery from the pandemic, we can create the cities and the future we want. Working closely with local communities and businesses, mayors around the world have taken urgent action to protect the health and wellbeing of our citizens.
We’re helping create good green jobs, supporting key workers, investing in safe, resilient mass transit, rapidly expanding bike lanes and increasing the amount of green space in our cities. The experience of lockdown has made clear the need for well resourced, local amenities, which is why many people are looking at 15-minute cities, where all city residents are able to meet most of their needs within a short walk or bicycle ride from their homes.
Many of these innovations have been introduced incredibly quickly, demonstrating just how fast things can change. And they are here to stay. A return to ‘business as usual’ would not just be a monumental failure of imagination, but lock in the inequities laid bare by the pandemic and the inevitability of more devastating crises due to climate breakdown. That could be the most hopeful legacy of this most challenging year.
Ma Yansong: Architect and Founder of MAD Architects, Beijing
What’s the role of public spaces in cities?
Covid-19 at the very beginning is a public health issue, and then was further developed as a political concern. It challenged the nature of urban design, and pushed us to reconsider the use architecture and city space.
“Sharing” used to be one of the most important agenda in urban design and planning. In our past architectural practices, we used to make a lot of efforts on providing more open space to stimulate social interactions, which was considered as a positive and revolutionary action. However, the pandemic led to more discussions on isolation and social distancing, rather than sharing and co-living. Our efforts on providing better public space is questioned, and they might be considered not that important anymore.
However, in the long run, public space will still be the foundation for sharing our cities. We can’t imagine the city as a perfectly functioning hospital, because the city should surpass functionality and reflect our ideal for living. Interpersonal communication is still essential, but in the post-pandemic era might be greatly challenged.
Maimunah Mohd Sharif: Executive Director, United Nations Human Settlements Programme
How could cities help solve pandemic inequalities?
With an estimated 90% of all reported Covid-19 cases recorded in urban areas, cities have become the epicentre of the pandemic. At the same time, I believe that the solutions to the socio-economic and health challenges will be found in cities.
Cities are already changing because residents have transformed the way they live and work. Governments have woken up to the urgent need to address issues around inequalities.
It is not the density of cities that leads to people being infected, it is unequal access to adequate housing, energy, water, sanitation, transport, green public spaces, healthcare and education. Cities will see dramatic changes because citizens will not put up with these inequalities. What we will look for in a home and in our living environment will be determined by where we find ourselves. My hope is that people will use their new-found political muscle to ensure that there is an equitable spread of resources in cities. As we build back better, we will need an empathy revolution to ensure we do not leave behind the most vulnerable groups.
Another major change for many is the discovery that we can work from home. We will seek to retrofit our homes to be able to maximise the opportunities and tackle the challenges this transformation presents to us all.
Ultimately, cities are made up of people and the pandemic has shown that infinite growth has its limits. We either need to adapt, or go the way of the dinosaurs. I believe we can and will change. This is our opportunity to plan and regenerate environmentally sustainable cities which power the Secretary-General’s vision of building back better and greener.
Janette Sadik-Khan: Former Commissioner, New York City Department of Transportation
What will transport look like?
Just a few months ago, the future of transportation was app-enabled mobility and visions of driverless cars. That version of the future crashed as the coronavirus advanced, and as car traffic vanished from city streets.
The transportation rescue hasn’t come in Ubers or robot cars. Cities on every continent responded by returning to old mobility and reclaiming roads for new uses. Milan, Paris and London are just some of the cities that have converted hundreds of miles of former driving and parking lanes into bus and bike lanes, and outdoor restaurant and café seating, allowing millions of residents to come outside safely simply by providing six feet of safe distance.
These steps, which would have been controversial before the pandemic, are today a first draft of what a new future of transportation could look like in post-Covid cities. Six feet of safe space on roads and sidewalks is all that cities need to transition from life shut indoors to a reopened, outside economy. There is six feet of space concealed within individual lanes on almost every street that can be readapted for safe, socially distant mobility, to create open-air commercial districts, and to make space for outdoor classrooms and civic activities like voting. The six-foot streets that the global economic recovery will be built upon are already within reach, and the outdoor, place-making activities that they make possible can make cities, safer, more resilient and more sustainable long after the pandemic. The six-foot city is already within reach on thousands of roads around the world, and wherever there are six feet, there is just enough space to hold us all together.
Michael Banissy: Professor of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London
How will we socialise?
Social interaction affects many areas of our lives impacting on the workplace, home life and many day-to-day activities. In many cases, one of the biggest predictors of mental and physical health is the quality of social relationships.
For me, the big questions linked to the pandemic therefore relate to how we can support social interaction as we move forward. With a variety of stages of lockdown there is no doubt that our opportunities for social interaction have reduced. Managing this reduction, whilst ensuring that we support social wellness across our communities is critical to how we live within, and recovery from, the pandemic. Will we be open to using technology and social robotics more? Will technology give us the same quality of social interactions that are important to social wellness, social innovation, and social productivity? Or will a craving for face-to-face interaction mean that we are less likely to engage with, and benefit from, these alternative forms of interaction?
There is no doubt that there will be many new social norms, but we can be sure that we’re likely to want to be social – to get together and talk about it all.
Rafat Ali: CEO and Founder, Skift
How much will the travel industry shrink?
The big question we at Skift are grappling with is this: is the future of travel smaller? As in, will be $3tn global travel sector become permanently smaller in the post-pandemic world? There are signs that the learnt behaviour of a world shut for months and maybe years to come will persist: the airline industry will most definitely be a smaller sector, with bankruptcies, layoffs and shutting down routes. Parts of business travel, the wanton criss-crossing of the global for a single meeting variety, for example, may be gone forever as we have become habituated to the good-enough world of Zoom, and lot more tech innovations to come that make video meetings lot better. The giant events industry that spawns a lot of travel may not return to its full physically glory of the past, as virtual events take hold and erode the economics of the till-now-very profitable sector.
As the international borders are shut in some form most likely till end of 2021, people are staying, driving and traveling locally, while short term rentals like Airbnb are doing better than hotels. There are some hopeful signs for future: domestic travel, in large part sustained by small locally owned businesses and usually ignored by the giant travel marketing machinery in favour of big ticket international trips, is getting a boost and if people begin to appreciate their local regions more in years to come, it would help with a smaller footprint on a planet that desperately needs it. Radical localism, as I call it.
Dani Simons: Head of Public Sector Partnerships, Waze
How will we get around?
Covid-19 has reshaped urban mobility. Instead of traveling to things, we’ve brought them to us, working from our living rooms, eating take-out at our tables. We’ve set new patterns that were unthinkable before. But most of us want to go out again. As that becomes possible, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how it’s done, to encourage new, more sustainable habits.
In some cities, traffic congestion has already crept back, exceeding pre-Covid levels. Transit budgets have been hit hard in big cities around the world, and service cuts loom. If we don’t act quickly, we could see more driving than pre-pandemic. Governments and businesses must consider how to optimise city infrastructure to keep traffic and pollution down, and ensure all residents – whether they can afford a car or not – can get around.
Data will play a vital role in helping us choose wise interventions. Some, already in progress, like expanding space for walking and cycling encourage a ‘new normal’ for our transportation network that will be better for our cities. Carpooling will also help. Once social distancing measures are loosened, cities and businesses can incentivise citizens and employees with longer trips to carpool to help reduce congestion and provide a flexible, affordable mode of transport.
Cities are made up of people and the pandemic has shown that infinite growth has its limits. We either need to adapt, or go the way of the dinosaurs - Maimunah Mohd Sharif
Sam Kling: Global Cities Fellow, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
How will cities weather economic challenges?
Big, crowded cities already faced especially disruptive changes during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now they face a set of economic challenges to match.
These challenges are unique in that they target many of the very same features that propelled big, global cities to new economic and cultural heights over the past decades. Law, finance and consulting – industries whose high-flying growth helped create the modern global city – have abandoned ritzy downtown offices for Zoom (surely temporary – but for how long?).
Bars, restaurants and retail, the essential amenities serving an affluent ‘creative class’, are withering. So is mass transit. Tourism declines have altered the face of meccas like Paris and London. In New York, word of an ultrawealthy exodus to the suburbs – tax dollars in tow – sparks even more budget panic.
Facing these challenges, cities will find pressure to do what they have in the past: target budget cuts to the vulnerable, direct resources to luring the wealthy to stay and prop up the existing system. But a pandemic which shows the costs of urban inequality also shows the dire need for a better system. Cities did not create these problems alone, and they won’t solve them alone either. But is there will to do it? If so, they might create a fairer, more resilient and more humane urban life.
Anjali Mahendra: Director of Research, World Resources Institute
Will cities emerge stronger after the virus?
Urban planning has been shaped by infectious disease outbreaks for centuries. Cities are at the frontlines of Covid-19 impact with the pandemic exposing existing fault lines related to lacking physical infrastructure and inequalities in access to public services. Large numbers of people do not have decent housing to self-isolate, basic water and sanitation for handwashing, access to adequate healthcare or transport options, as healthcare systems are overwhelmed and public transport systems are upended.
We are also seeing the fragility of jobs that underpin urban economies. Numerous low-wage formal sector jobs, as well as jobs in the informal and gig economy, lack a stable income or essential safety nets in the form of employment contracts and insurance. Almost 13 million people in the US are now unemployed, and 80% of India’s almost half-billion [person] workforce is in precarious informal jobs.
Cities have a major opportunity to build resilience to future such shocks in a way that is much more inclusive. Investing in public services and infrastructure, including health surveillance and testing systems, improved living conditions for low income people and supporting vulnerable workers, while enforcing guidelines to balance economic and public health concerns through collaboration between local and national governments – are some ways cities can emerge stronger from this crisis. Still, important questions remain around whether these measures will help address structural inequalities and whether the economic stimulus packages many countries are implementing will focus on making cities more inclusive, resilient and sustainable.
Amanda Levete: Principal, AL_A architecture, London
Can our community connections become more meaningful?
This pandemic has raised overwhelming existential issues – issues around race, inequality and the environment. But it has also revealed the breath-taking power of collective responsibility and shown that radical change is possible.
Adversity has reminded us that we all have a part to play in our interconnected world, to be more responsible, accountable and generous and to appreciate the importance of small things. We need to desire a more equitable society, and then design a more equitable model around that, to create places where we can live better together and better with nature. Places that promote a network of co-operation and where people can rediscover the art of living.
Cities are places of opportunity, and their success is the result of centuries of re-use and re-appropriation. Change is the one constant in cites, change is exciting and change is the engine of progress.
We need to get closer to nature in our cities, maximise not minimise space standards in our homes, re-purpose office buildings that people no longer want to work in and understand the importance of local.
Covid may attack our bodies, but distance and remoteness are threatening the very cultural foundation of our lives. More than ever we need to create better connectiveness in our communities to improve the quality of life for everyone.
Parag Khanna: Founding & Managing Partner, FutureMap
What will happen to our passports?
In recent years, we have grown accustomed to Asian passports climbing the ladder of global access – but not to Western passports tumbling down. The every-country-for-itself Covid-19 response has been particularly cruel to Americans, whose visa-free access plummeted from 183 to only 86 countries. And while those 86 included Canada and Mexico, America’s only two borders remained closed anyway.
Furthermore, the European Union kept the US off its ‘safe list’. Even with a vaccine, the system will not return to what it was before: nationality will not suffice to guarantee safe passage. Even for still-powerful passports such as Japan, Singapore, South Korea and the European Union, additional protocols will be required to re-attain relatively frictionless mobility.
For example, to avoid onerous quarantines, individuals will have to certify their health immunity through vaccination certificates and other special registrations. The new global mobility hierarchy may thus be tied much more to individual merit than nationality, with countries requiring significant checks on an individual’s financial, criminal and professional history. This may seem like an onerous new development, but it also levels the playing field for hard-working professionals from developing countries. There is no question that these trends in combination have boosted the appeal of investment migration and citizenship programs, whether for ‘digital nomad’, those looking to acquire second passports or those changing nationality altogether. Connected hubs offering hassle-free entrepreneur visas such as the UAE, Singapore and Thailand are likely to benefit. Every country for itself is also becoming every person for himself.
Donovan White: Director, Jamaica Tourism Board
How will ‘the post-Covid generation’ change the way we travel?
Without a doubt, the ways we used to explore and engage while travelling have changed drastically. As we are now living with Covid, it is imperative that destinations, hotels, attractions, airlines – really the entire global tourist industry – continuously innovate solutions to meet the needs of “Gen-C”, the post-Covid generation. Our communal experience is driving changes to lifestyle and safety requirements for the new way of travelling.
At the forefront is restoring traveller confidence and communicating how adjustments are impacting travel experiences at the local level. The heart of this is creating and marketing experiences that lend to stress-free travel within this new world.
We are seeing a growing number of bespoke and private experiences that allow travellers to more easily physically distance. We’ll also continue to see a growing number of extended stay experiences that cater to work-from-anywhere and remote learning circumstances. For example, most international leisure travellers can stay in Jamaica for up to 90 days. Our visa extension application is turnkey for travellers, enabling extended stays for further remote work.
As the way we socialise shifts drastically, so will the way we travel – but the comeback of travel has begun as more destinations open their doors and as Gen-C takes to the skies.
Sahil Gandhi: Visiting Fellow, Centre for Social and Economic Progress, India
How could Covid response improve housing quality?
It is now clear that densities were not the catalyst for the spread of Covid, but rather it was unmanaged densities, i.e., crowding. Slums in India and poorer neighbourhoods in US cities have been among the most affected areas in the Covid pandemic. Poor sanitation and lack of clean and adequate water supply, together with high indoor crowding and small dwelling spaces in Indian slums, have largely to be blamed for this.
City governments and health departments have struggled to control the spread of Covid in these areas. Besides suffering disproportionately from Covid outbreaks, slum dwellers have faced loss of livelihoods due to lockdowns and the ensuing economic slowdown. Historically slums have emerged due to the lack of formal housing for the urban poor. Slum settlements also tend to come up in core cities where there are sufficient employment opportunities for the poor since many cannot afford to commute long distances. However, their conditions have been neglected by policymakers. Efforts for slum improvement have been met with limited success and rehabilitation to areas in far-out suburbs has almost never worked.
Covid has brought to the fore the need to prioritise slum improvement and livelihood support for the poor. Housing policy solutions such as granting tenure security, upgrading amenities and services and folding decent-quality public housing within the remit of public health need to be explored.
It is imperative that destinations, hotels, attractions, airlines – really the entire global tourist industry – continuously innovate solutions to meet the needs of “Gen-C”, the post-Covid generation - Donovan White
Jerold Kayden: Professor of Urban Planning and Design, Harvard University
Will cities remain resilient?
What will happen to cities? The honest answer is, no one knows. To be sure, the pandemic has shaken the modern system in unprecedented ways, but there is a raison d’etre for cities not so easily dislodged. The human thirst for live engagement with people and place is not easily quenched. In the past, in crisis after crisis, urban resilience has proved the sceptics wrong.
Still, the pandemic has revealed, and in some cases, accelerated urban vulnerabilities. Many office-based businesses have come to appreciate that some work performed by employees can be done remotely. That means fewer employees at the office, fewer meal eaters in restaurants, fewer shoppers in stores. For some storefront retail, that could deliver a terminal blow to a patient already suffering from the inroads of ecommerce. Cultural attractions may suffer to the extent of a reduced worker population that previously stayed on into the evening. A less-dynamic city may be less alluring to tourists. Municipal finance and services could experience declining tax revenues. All in, the risks posed by knock-on effects cannot be easily dismissed.
Opportunities may arise elsewhere. If the locus of work becomes relatively more decentralised, then individuals at their remote locations may create a demand for new or enhanced local amenities. The pattern that emerges may include dispersed clusters of business, retail, cultural and public space offerings that serve dispersed populations.
Rachel Haot: Executive Director of Transit Innovation Partnership, New York City
How can the public and private sectors work together?
In the Covid era, innovation is not optional.
In New York, we’ve created a framework for collaboration and innovation in the Transit Tech Lab, a public-private initiative launched by the Partnership for New York City and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which moved more than 1 billion people per year via bus, subway and train pre-pandemic.
First, we define goals and publish an open challenge, inviting companies to pitch their solutions. Next, public and private sector experts evaluate applications. Transit agencies then select the most promising technologies for a rapid proof-of-concept and, if successful, a longer partnership. This approach encourages innovators to work with government, broadening competition. Transit partners report that Lab graduates have saved them millions of dollars by optimising planning and operations.
To restore confidence in public transit amid the pandemic, we announced the Covid-19 Response Challenge, which drew nearly 200 submissions internationally. Transit agencies are now testing eight technologies to create a healthier transit network, ranging from air filtration to digital monitoring.
Together, our partners are building a modern and efficient public transit system – and making New York more resilient in the process.
Chan Heng Chee: Chair of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre of Innovative Cities, Singapore University of Technology and Design
What will city centres look like?
I belong to the school that does not see great transformation post-Covid. We have exaggerated the changes that will take place. We should not underestimate how much people will revert to the norm and behaviours will not change substantially.
In advanced industrialised economies, there is great concern about the future of the office and the death of the city centre. Make no mistake, there will be massive job losses because of the pandemic. For those who have jobs, workers are embracing working from home and working digitally. Clearly, the digital economy will grow. So, there will be both an online and offline approach to work and our way of living. Some call this the emergence of the “blended city”.
But what will become of city centres? After all, what is a global city or a leading city without a vibrant city centre? Unused office space would be repurposed and ways of revitalising the city core will be seriously attempted. Online meetings via different platforms have ruled the day, but it is uncertain if Zoom meetings will produce the same trust and seal a deal with Asians. Business travel will return, but perhaps will be more prudential, at least at the start of the recovery. We can expect to see a greater adoption of automation and robots in factories in advanced economies. That was happening and will be accelerated.
But perhaps the city core will not lose its place. Leading companies and banks will always need a CBD (Central Business District) head office . In less developed economies, there will be severe job losses too and a society in greater distress but there will be little change. These cities are overwhelmed by the pandemic and are trying to create jobs and growth. A small segment will work from home, but given the competitiveness of the tight job market, many will choose to show up in the office. We will not see automation or use of robots accelerated as labour is cheap and resources are scarce, which may not be a bad thing.
This series is produced by: Philippa Fogarty, Simon Frantz, Javier Hirschfeld, Sarah Keating, Emmanuel Lafont, Bryan Lufkin, Rachel Mishael, Visvak Ponnavolu, Maddy Savage and Meredith Turits.