View: Design for hope amidst pandemic gloom

By Mihir Bholey

The good news is so far is that Covid-19 has not affected India’s countryside as much as it has affected the cities. Its outbreak in rural areas will be disastrous. But the bad news is cities are not designed to withstand the non-traditional security threats like pandemics. It is no surprise then that countries which are more urbanized are more affected by Covid-19. Its outbreak at Wuhan soon spread to Milan. Madrid, Paris, London, New York all fell in quick succession. In India too it is the cities which are worst affected so far, particularly the big ones. Though with the large-scale reverse migration the status may change any time. If not managed properly it may even take a crushing toll. Nevertheless, like other cities of the world, Indian cities will also remain vulnerable to threats like pandemics unless we re-innovate urban design and products having a large public interface. Making them safe and resilient is a challenge for urban planners and designers alike.

Juxtaposition of the WHO Covid-19 data and The World Bank data on world rural population gives an interesting insight. Nations with high urban population are more severely impacted by the pandemic resulting in higher morbidity and mortality as against nations with a higher rural population. Surely, the existing urban design which often gave precedence to form over function also has a responsibility to share. In terms of statistics, the USA having 82 per cent urban population has 1.85 million confirmed cases and 1,07,911 deaths at the time of writing. The UK with 83 per cent urban population has 0.283 million confirmed cases while the figure of death is over 40 thousand. Italy with 70 per cent urban population has suffered 0.234 million confirmed cases and over 33 thousand deaths so far. As against that, countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar having 66, 64, 63 and 69 per cent rural population respectively, have much less morbidity and mortality so far. A widely referred report by Ashish Awasthi and Dileep Mavlankar published in BMJ Global Health Blog also found that 50.08 per cent Covid-19 cases and 53.2 per cent mortality due to Covid-19 were confined to five major Indian cities namely: Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Chennai and Thane which accout for just 4.4 per cent Indian population. The data speaks a lot.

Reflecting on the future of post-Covid urban life, Ann Forsyth, Frank Stanton Professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University, Graduate school of Design writes: “For the past decades, those looking at the intersections of planning, design, and public health have focused less on infectious diseases and more on chronic disease, hazards and disasters, and the vulnerable. The current pandemic brings the question of designing for infectious diseases back to the forefront and raises important questions for future research and practice.” Ann not only underscores the need to creatively review urban planning and design from the perspective of new threats like a pandemic, but her view in a way also suggests bringing urban design back to the drawing board. The post-Covid design may bring in lots of innovation in urban design. For instance, sensing camera may record body temperature as one enters the premises, doors may open automatically without the need to touch, elevators may recognize faces and take one to his floor. What sounds like sci-fi is achievable through the integration of sensors, AI and design innovation.

The planning and design of cities are marked by two obvious factors – density and intensity. Density should be viewed in terms of built space and demography while intensity as the frequency of human interaction. Cities are meant and designed to facilitate interaction between people, spaces and buildings in their social, cultural and economic settings. They facilitate people-to-people and people-to-business network. Thus, they become both dense and intense. Ironically, together they also create the most ideal situation for pandemic and other disasters. Since there is no medical remedy available so far, maintaining social distancing is being considered the only option. The Imperial College Covid-19 Response Team in its report suggested ‘mitigation’ and ‘suppression’ as two strategies to ensure social distancing. While mitigation is the strategy to slow down the transmission by reducing social interactions without causing much interruption, suppression is an aggressive strategy to break the chain of transmission. This is a peculiar urban dilemma because it makes cities socially, culturally, economically unsustainable. However, if maintaining distance from people and avoiding physical contact from objects is going to be the new normal, then both product and urban design will require a massive makeover.

Neither people nor cities are meant to remain in permanent lockdown. Society can’t survive without social interaction. So, to ensure safer social interaction and strengthen urban resilience, design and innovation may provide scalable responses in terms of architectural, product and communication design. The existing physical infrastructure can’t be demolished overnight nor can the products of public and personal use be discarded at once. But they can certainly be innovated. Urban spaces may be redesigned as flexible spaces ready for mixed or multiple uses. Adaptive use and repositioning can convert single-use spaces such as malls and offices into multipurpose spaces. Robust digital connectivity can augment social distancing by reducing physical mobility. Adopting ‘new normal’ also requires behavioural change through nudging and reminders. Communication design interventions can help develop persuasive instructional and information signage, graphics etc. for offices, public places. Design can also be used to innovate wearable technologies to track and monitor Covid-19 patients health status during and after treatment from a distance. The product Bluebell InTouch, based on wearable technology solution developed by a London-based design studio Tangerine and tech start-up Connido is a case in point. It helps in elderly care and their caregivers. Covid-19 has created a huge opportunity for design innovation. The real challenge for design in the post-Covid era is not to create but to innovate. The success or failure to mitigate the threat of the pandemic will depend on how creatively we re-innovate and redesign our cities and products.

The author is a Senior Faculty of Interdisciplinary Design Studies at National Institute of Design.

[Source – Economic Times]


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