How will COVID-19 impact our approach to public space?

Swiss furniture brand Vitra shares four hypotheses for how coronavirus will influence design

Sinks In Public Restroom

Although many countries are still gripped by the first wave of the COVID – 19 pandemic, much of Europe is now moving beyond the initial crisis into long term management mode. It’s already clear that we cannot return to business as usual, however, meaning public life may change forever.

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Based on our understanding of designing for public space, Vitra has drafted a set of four hypotheses for what this new normal may look like:

Hygiene standards will be permanently increased

With every national government pouring untold resources into pandemic prevention, it was ironically the simplest hygiene measures that had the biggest impact. Social distancing, surface-cleansing, hand-washing and mask-wearing highlighted the importance of relatively straightforward precautions.

Just as airport security changed forever after 9/11, so too are we likely to see a profound shift in public hygiene. Cleaning crews will become more visible in daily life and many operators of public space are already planning for two modus operandi: virus season and off season.

Design measures such as self-operating doors, cashless commerce, wipeable surfaces, movable screens and flexible spatial layouts will become the norm.

We will travel in different ways.

COVID – 19 has reminded us how profoundly we rely on seamless connections for global economic security and the general consensus is that giving up on physical travel completely is not an option. We may need to travel less but will do so with more intention, interrogating which interactions still require a personal presence. This is particularly true of global events such as trade fairs, where annual calendars may need to be rethought completely.

Many interactions can be transferred online – but not all

Although the pandemic lockdown had a huge impact on our social interactions, digital technology rapidly facilitated new forms of work, education and leisure. There is no way back from this and our lives may have shifted irreversibly online, but there has also been a renewed focus on the importance of certain physical interactions. Digital is great for speed and efficiency, but it cannot compare with the personal connection of a local store or the creativity of a team workshop.

We will therefore see a polarisation in interactions, where much will move online but what remains physical will be high quality. For instance, this could mean stores that are about brand-building rather than shifting units.

Social and environmental responsibility leads to more human-oriented aesthetics

The pandemic has been a time of untold suffering for so many, but it has also been an awakening of sorts. The positive environmental impact of reduced consumption has been profound, while inspiring stories of selfless care workers and community activities have caught the international mood. It will be hard to roll back from this renewed sense of social and ecological responsibility, which indeed only accelerates trends that we’d seen before the pandemic.

Companies will respond by making their supply chains more transparent, committing to ecological missions and focusing on ‘humanness’. There will be more investment in well – designed spaces for healthcare and more emphasis on design for the elderly or vulnerable.

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On the sustainable side, there will be more emphasis on design that can be repaired or recycled, while natural materials will become public signals of environmental consciousness