The end of proximity: Rethinking offices, public transport, and cities

It is getting increasingly clear that the highest risk to get Covid-19 is to be in close proximity to an infected person for a prolonged stretch of time. Virus load – i.e. the amount of virus landing in your system – is the largest determining factor: The more virus you inhale, the greater the risk to catch it.

Since the start of the pandemic, clusters of infections started in close quarters such as religious sect gatherings in South Korea or Apres-ski parties in Austria. Clusters continue to flame up, always in restricted spaces such as immigrant worker quarters in Singapore and meat factories in Germany, places where precarious work meets cramped quarters.

The consequences are clear: until an effective cure is found, situations of close contact with others over a longer time in confined spaces carry the highest risk. This impacts a whole range of services we hitherto took for granted in everyday life, including public transport, working in crammed offices, studying in crammed classrooms, airplane travel, staying in dormitories, partying in clubs, or going to packed concerts and theatres.

Depending on how long it will take to find a cure, this has the potential to profoundly change the global economic landscape. Areas strongly depending on tourists are feeling the impact already. Office space – one of the pillars of real estate investing in cities – might stay vacant for a long time and hence will drive revenues down.

Discussions are also underway on the future of cities in general, which until now invested in public transport which took crammed space for granted, for the main purpose of carrying people into crammed office space in city centers.

Humanity relied on these practices mainly for historical reasons. With the industrial revolution of the late 19th century, people had to come from the depressed countryside to the places where the new industrial machinery was located, to factories. This created the need for expansive bureaucracies to manage these factories, and these offices were simply built in the likeness of factories.

Companies continued to build office designs which crammed people into confined quarters (“cubicles”) even when the advance of the Internet made these spaces less necessary. Now, in the face of the pandemic, it becomes obvious that companies followed habits shaped by the industrial revolution of the 19th century without rethinking them for the 21st century.

Bringing workers together in close quarters is about communication, but it is also about ownership and control in the sense of the industrial revolution. As working in close quarters has become a health hazard and more companies realize the cost savings brought with working from home, remote working will for many become a permanent situation also after Covid. This, in turn, will enable more people to move to the countryside to be productive from a safer environment.

It is high time for designers to reconceptualize public transport, offices, and many other aspects of our daily lives.

Podchain private/public transport concept by Mario Gagliardi Design, 2018: Autonomous pods enable door-to-door transport, but chain up in major transport routes to conserve space and kinetic energy.