Interesting Times: Positivity In A Pandemic Era

Despite COVID-19, zombie fires and social upheaval, 2020 is shaping up to be a remarkable year. A year of change and choices; activism and pushback against the status quo. 

Hello. My name is Matt Armitage. You might know me from… I’m sorry, I promised myself no Simpsons jokes and blew it in the first paragraph. Some of you may know me from a weekly radio show and podcast called Mattsplained. It’s a weekly futurism show that looks at technology, science and innovation and tries to figure out what kind of impact they will have on people and the planet. More importantly – I hope – we try and connect the dots to give listeners an idea of how these developments will help to shape the society of the future and whether those changes are being made in our interest or not.

Which means it’s not a nuts and bolts tech show. We’re not interested in processor speeds, megapixels or displays. We don’t geek out over the latest gadgets and devices. We’re interested in the things that give societies a nudge. Like the ultrasonic pressure wave system that creates a virtual Braille touch pad with haptic feedback that will enable those with vision impairments to use ATMs and other touch screen devices in our increasingly digitized public spaces. 

I was extremely humbled when Think City approached me to become a guest editor for The Citymaker. I’m not a policy expert and I have no experience of the kind of life and habitat improving work that Think City excels at. But there are parallels. Most of all, the area I work in is about where and how we live. And the importance of looking to the past when we design for the future. 

I’m genuinely optimistic about where humanity is heading.

I often like to explore the darker side of where technology may lead us, so listeners are sometimes surprised when I tell people I’m genuinely optimistic about where humanity is heading. That may seem strange during a year where hundreds of thousands have perished in the COVID-19 pandemic that shows no sign of abating. One that has put millions out of work, sent economies into free-fall and subjected our political and public governance systems to the greatest pressure in a decade.  

This year has shown us how fragile our way of life is. How unliveable and inhospitable our towns and cities have become. How few green and open spaces we have access to when our movements are restricted and curtailed, and how their absence impacts our physical and mental health. It’s also a year where we’ve seen the effects of climate change played out in widescreen on our digital devices. Zombie fires burning in Arctic forests. Glacial melt conforming to worst case scenario predictions. Wildfires, heatwaves and drought raging across California and many other parts of the world.  

We’ve learned an important skill: how to be bored again.

Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

Oddly, despite all these challenges, 2020 is shaping up to be a remarkable year. 

For all that we’ve experienced a high tech COVID-19 lockdown where we can stream the latest movies and TV shows via digital clouds attached to remote server farms, and order pretty much anything to be delivered to our doors by a global logistics army of packers, shippers and delivery riders, it’s also been a time for people to get back to basics. We’ve learned how to be bored again, an important skill our hyper-connected world has eroded. People have thrown themselves into cooking and baking. With trips to the supermarket transformed from impulse-buying bonanzas to what feels like a martial exercise, we’re planning and choosing more carefully and wasting less food. Plenty of reasons for positivity.

We’re seeing what might be the permanent end of cheap air travel, those last-minute flight bookings to exotic and interesting places that have become so integral to an Instagram-worthy lifestyle. Instead, we’re buying bikes and hiking in record numbers. Campsites are booked months ahead of time. Residents confined to their communities are rediscovering their community spirit. Our world has shifted. In late 2019, Britain’s BBC predicted that upmarket food courts would be the food trend of 2020. It’s hard to imagine what that might look like now.

There’s a business revolution going on.

At the same time, there’s a business revolution going on. I’ll return to this in another piece, but during the pandemic, companies have discovered that the weakest link in their supply chain is people. That goods and supplies have been able to move but workers have not. So, while they’re investing in services that enable offsite data sharing and collaborative working from home in the short term, they’re also accelerating their adoption of automation services that are likely to transform the way businesses are run and fundamentally alter our relationship with work. 

This is an enormous amount of change to throw at people in a very short space of time. Especially as we live in an era that technology is already transforming at a seemingly unadaptable pace. But in the global wave of social activism that has accompanied the chaos of 2020, we’re seeing huge numbers of people asserting their right to determine their future, rather than blindly accepting whatever privacy invading or job-shrinking trend Silicon Valley has devised that week.

We may see companies retreating from our business districts. A potentially catastrophic loss for the businesses and services serving the people that work in them, but an unexpected opportunity for us to reclaim and redesign our cities. To decide what new, creative purposes we can put those soon-to-be redundant glass towers to. 

We may see the revitalisation of smaller towns and cities.

Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

In parallel, smaller town and cities may revitalise as the expansion of remote working reduces the brain drain that plagues them, and, in the process, free us from the pressure to descend on urban centres to earn a living. A recent article by serial entrepreneur and author James Altucher proclaimed the forever death of New York. A quick search through Twitter or Google finds multiple examples of New Yorkers celebrating this exodus of the moneyed class they blame for the city’s exorbitant rental and living costs. 

We live in interesting times; with all the potential for ingenuity and catastrophe that brings. Which is what makes this such an exciting time for me to be editing The CityMaker. Community activism. Advances in renewable energy and energy storage systems. Urban farming systems making metropolitan food production possible. Smart construction materials that offer an alternative to the concrete and steel that have turned our towns and cities into deserts in terms of their biodiversity.

Above all, we’ve been reminded that we have choices. That doesn’t mean we’ll make good ones, let alone the right ones, or that your choices are the ones I’d choose. But I hope we get to see some of them play out over the next few months on The Citymaker. 

Matt Armitage

Matt Armitage is a future obsessed writer, broadcaster and consultant. He hosts the radio show and podcast Mattsplained, and is the founder of social design consultancy Kulturpop.

He is a Guest Editor of The Citymaker and co-hosts The Citymaker and Reflexive City podcasts.