As many of us languished behind laptop screens for the last 18 months, our entire existence was reduced to pixels. Almost overnight, finding strong connections became so much more than a full stack of Wi-Fi bars. The transition to remote work — and essentially, remote life — means we’ve had to broaden our thinking about how we connect with our colleagues, communities, and built environment.
Over the past year and a half, most of us spent the year watching the world through windows and screens. The level of physical separation from our surroundings and peers was unprecedented, and it took a significant toll on our collective well-being. But while we navigated the isolation the pandemic imposed, innovative ideas took root. Connection became more imperative than ever before — and we created new ways to spark and leverage it wherever we could.
In a post-pandemic world, many of these innovations will still serve us well as we reimagine new landscape for how we work, how we interact with public spaces, and how we interface with the built environment. COVID-19 was a catalyst for rapid change, and we’ve advanced by leaps and bounds when it comes to big data, smart buildings, connected transportation and health-conscious, human-centered design. Here are some of the most significant changes that have emerged, which will continue to evolve long after the pandemic ends.
Connection became more imperative than ever before — and we created new ways to spark and leverage it wherever we could.
Resilience through data
As much of the workforce shifted to remote, online-only work and our physical spaces needed to suddenly become as safe and touch-free as possible, we’ve seen huge growth in how we collect and use data. In addition to physical infrastructure to minimize touchpoints, like automatic doors and lights with sensors, we’ve also seen expansion and innovation in our digital infrastructure.
While most public spaces sat unused, our hospitals were poised to become the nexus of innovation for big data. The sheer amount of data that flows through a hospital on any given day is enormous, and we are only beginning to tap into its vast potential. Using tools like vast wireless networks and sensors, some hospitals are beginning to use new technologies to connect staff, patients and processes to optimize operations and improve patient outcomes and experience.
However, a critical piece of building resilience through data is paying close attention to cyber-security concerns. With vast amounts of sensitive patient information pinging through the system, hospitals have been targeted in cyber attacks throughout the pandemic, with hackers disrupting crucial systems and data access. With smart, connected devices dispersed widely throughout a building, there is suddenly a vast array of potential vulnerability points for cyber attacks. This makes end-to-end encryption between all devices, alongside other cybersecurity best practices, mission-critical.
Data, sensors and smart technologies have applications in almost any building you can think of. Over the past decade, we’ve already seen more commercial and residential buildings with an extensive network of sensors, collecting data and optimizing everything from lighting and ventilation to security and temperature.
Hospitals provide us with a leading-edge example of the vast potential of this smart infrastructure. With enough sensors in place, hospitals could begin to map out people, equipment and supplies, provide advance warning of system failures, locate and separate infectious patients, and even control the air quality. One U.S. hospital system is creating a standard sequence of operations that will be used across all of its facilities, including a “pandemic mode” setting to turn an entire emergency department into a negative air environment.
But hospitals aren’t the only building getting more connected as a result of covid. Smart buildings will likely have an even greater role to play as more and more people return to in-person office environments. A smart building can provide much greater insight into who is in them, how they are used and how well they are functioning. And leaders in the smart building space are already thinking about how to utilize these technologies to offer greater peace of mind about disinfecting protocols and health and safety.
In many cases, this won’t be about building a whole new system — it may just be about re-thinking and re-configuring existing technology to shift focus from hospitality to health. For instance, commercial and office environments may begin to prioritize sensor use for touch-free entry and strict occupancy monitoring to limit crowding.
A smart building can provide much greater insight into who is in them, how they are used and how well they are functioning.
As urban populations gradually return to using public transit, we will likely see smart tech proliferate in this sector as well. Transit providers could implement user-friendly apps to provide greater transparency around disinfecting protocols and real-time data for route-planning and avoiding delays. Connecting riders with more data with a shift toward smart mobility platforms could be of great assistance in overcoming rider hesitancy after a year away from transit use. A single app that can provide data on everything from trip delays and traffic volume to setting up your Uber ride to the Go Station could enhance rider confidence and improve efficiency.
In urban areas, we may also see a permanent shift toward more active transportation options and micromobility. With fewer cars on the roads during covid lockdowns, and an increased focus on fresh air and exercise, multi-modal transportation involving bicycles, walking and more could remain a popular choice. This is also a positive contributor to positive health outcomes, building more connection points in our communities, and making our communities more inclusive for those of every socio-economic status.
While covid-19 has been a long-lasting event with significant impacts on our daily lives, planners and designers need to take a broad approach and look beyond the event itself to seek an understanding of how those in our communities want to live in the future.
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