December 3, 2020

Reflections for a postCOVID world



We have been in a pandemic for eight months now, and it is often difficult to talk about anything else. Inadvertently, we have become familiar with terms such as the R factor, the contagion curve, PCRs, antigen tests, and asymptomatic cases. In each conversation, after a few minutes, hope arises in a vaccine, in a long-awaited return to a life without restrictions that, each day, is further back in time. Almost on the brink of oblivion. Meanwhile, hospitalized and deceased are growing at an increasingly worrying rate.

The world, however, has changed and it will not be the same again – neither with the vaccine, nor with herd immunity – because the processes of social change are not rubber bands, that you can stretch and that will return to their place when you release them. Nor do they look like those memory mattresses, which when you lie down remember your favorite position. Each change, whether technological, regulatory or customary, carries an impact that affects everything to which that change is anchored. A small movement in one corner of this socio-technical framework in which we live causes profound changes at the opposite extreme and, as a result, the framework finds a new balance. Precarious, like the previous one, of that there is no doubt.

If that’s true, and decades of social studies of science and technology have shown it, perhaps it’s worth asking what we want this post-Covid world to look like. Because, although it may seem impossible, social change is not exclusively the result of chance. You can intervene, you can, to some extent, guide. I would like to talk about that in this short post: how we identify problems and how we seek solutions. Or rather, how we identify problems and become obsessed with finding solutions, even when these solutions generate other problems and lead us to forget what the problem was that we wanted to solve.

Any solution to a problem will be only as effective as the definition we have given to the problem. If we were to use the well-known saying of real estate agencies about what are the three most important factors in deciding the price of a house (location, location and location), I would say that, in our case, the three most important factors to solve a problem would be: definition, definition and definition.

In our post-industrial, hyper-technological society, we are used to seeking remedies to the problems we have through simple, fast, well-defined and, above all, technological solutions. For example, we are used to thinking of cars as a quick, efficient and pleasant solution to the problem of mobility. Of course, on many occasions, the car represents that kind of solution. But precisely because we had this solution, throughout the 20th century, we began to build our lives around it. We have begun to live more and more away from our frequent places: work, school, friends, food stores, cinemas, etc. We live further away from our nerve centers of life and we take the car to reach them. Jams are generated. A lot of time is wasted. In fact, we lose the same time we used to travel by car, with the difference that before we were walking and now we are sitting in a car. When the 2008 crisis hit, in California they were considering the possibility of promoting the transport of people by rail, but they found a problem that was not expected: they did not know where to build the train stations. As daily life was based on the car, an urban geography characterized by the existence of dispersed housing estates, villas and suburbs had been generated: there was simply no place to install a station that would be useful. Now tell me: Is the car a solution or a problem?

I wish things would end here. As we have never wanted to question the problem (mobility) again, we remain obsessed with its solution (the car). We know, for example, what pollutes, so how have we been solving this problem (generated by a solution to another problem)? Inventing technologies to reduce pollution, but without questioning the car. First, we invented unleaded gasoline; then hybrid cars; and now, electric cars. Pollution has been reduced, but the associated problems have not been eliminated: we have only bought time. The traffic jams will continue. There are wars in developing countries to control the extraction of rare metals and minerals necessary for the creation of batteries, and we have a major problem with managing those batteries when they reach the end of their useful life. Furthermore, not all the energy stored in these batteries comes from a clean and sustainable source.

Let’s get back to our car. It was a solution to a mobility problem: What is the best way to move from one place to another ?, we asked ourselves. I do not want to answer, but to ask another question: Why do we need to move? Let’s change the problem, let’s change our perspective. We commute every day to go to work, drop the children off at school or do the shopping. It is true, there are trips associated with leisure or tourism, but they are not the ones that move us on a daily basis. Now, what if we eliminated the need to travel? Imagine: you can live next to your work, in a town, in nature, walk the children to school and, back, buy what you need. Daily movement, human rhythm of life, small reference community, quality of life. There are always people who prefer to live in cities, of course. But let it be your free choice.

Many will say: of course, what you propose… It is teleworking! Yes and no. The pandemic has shown that many jobs can be perfectly carried out remotely, with a computer and a good connection. But teleworking from home also has its difficulties. It is difficult to concentrate in a domestic environment, the furniture, tranquility and adequate internet connection are often not available, and loneliness is not exactly the best ally of a good job, with few exceptions. So?

We need offices, but we do not need them concentrated in the center of the city but rather dispersed throughout the territory. Co-working places where workers from different companies can work daily, meeting their schedules, in a social and professional environment. Each worker, a staff of the same company, could choose a different co-working company, in the place that is most comfortable for them. Can you imagine it? Work for a company or a public administration where we like, using one day a week to meet with the team at the headquarters. Working in these multidisciplinary spaces would foster relationships between professionals from different fields and would create much richer and more diverse work environments, where synergies would be generated and from which very interesting collaborations could be born. Developing life in the same area would lead to greater political and social involvement, the construction of neighborhood support networks. This would also bring us a recovery of emptied Spain, a significant adjustment in the cost of housing and a significant reduction in traffic jams. In addition, it promises a better quality of life and a significant cost reduction for companies, which could reduce the size of their headquarters in a very significant way. On the other hand, people who chose to stay in the city would also gain in quality of life, by lowering the level of gentrification.

When, no matter how hard you try to solve a problem, you can’t move forward, you don’t have to change the solution, you have to change the problem. If we change the definition of a problem, new possible solutions emerge. Today the pandemic offers us a unique opportunity: let’s not look for solutions to solutions, let’s change problems.

My thanks go to Marta González, hired in JAE-Intro practice at the Institute of Public Policies and Goods of the CSIC, and to Kenedy Alva, Data Scientist at ViewNext, for the comments and contributions to previous versions of the text.

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