Article by Michal Šourek KORONAVIRUS AND US – WHAT’S NEXT?

Some countries report that they have passed through the peak of the pandemic, while other claim they have already managed to have it under control - i.e. In Europe, North America, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. In Africa, especially in the south, and in South America, the real troubles are only at the beginning. During Easter, exemplary discipline of people in the Czech Republic has been relaxed but daily counts of positive cases continue to fall.

Viewing figures of coronavirus statistics, however, are not as high as they were some time ago. More and more people stop panicking and their attention, especially in Europe and North America, has focused on two issues: when the coronavirus is over and when we can get back to our own lives and return business back on track. The answers to these questions are expected to be provided by governments - in most cases however, to no avail.

We should learn to live with the fact that the answer to both questions above is “NEVER!” SARS-CoV-2 may disappear completely but learning to live with it is more sure and sustainable outlook. And in this case I do not mean rapid spread of infection between 60% or 80% of population, but the system of early diagnostics, efficient preventive hygiene measures, registration and health care (in general and especially in relation to people at risk) and sophisticated quarantine with minimum economic, social and cultural impacts.

For now, it is only China that claims they have (almost) no case of coronavirus but nobody believes it. In South Korea, which serves as a model, the counts of new positive cases remain at low but no zero figures. Exemplary Singapore now even seems to witness the second wave.

Mankind has been accompanied by epidemics (no later than) since the beginning of its cultural history and numbers of people affected used to be incomparably higher. The first historically documented “Antonio's” pandemics of presumably smallpox killed five to ten million people in the Roman Empire; bubonic plague during the reign of the Emperor Justinian killed 40% - 50% of population in Europe and west Asia...

Our current pandemic has turned into the crisis especially because governments are unwilling to accept responsibility and information and communication technologies are overused in society. Spanish flu - the best known of pandemics - might kill up to 100 million people after the first World War but since that time epidemics have become something that happens beyond the borders of our world: “We, the Europeans (and North Americans, Japanese and South Koreans, ...) do not die from epidemics”.

And we do not die even now. While honouring all those who died and respecting survivors it is necessary to say that even if the number of respiratory disease victims in Italy, Spain, France, the United Kingdom and USA amounts to tens of thousands, these death rates are not an alarming deviation in mortality statistic on a year-on-year basis.

We are in the crisis because we have totally got out of being exposed to existential threats, and because covid-19 is a popular topic for media and social network. While, at some of its stages, the pandemics lead to crisis of the health care system or the virus spread at higher rate, it all could have been prevented by taking well-established and available measures and applying them in time. And the fact that the overloaded health care system has not been able to provide standard care to critically ill patients can also be attributed to getting out the habit of being exposed to the risk. The British Prime Minister had to be hospitalized and, for a couple of days, he need a mechanical ventilation for oxygen saturation after the United Kingdom has rejected to order any hygienic measures claiming that “pubs stayed open even during the [second world] war”. It all turned out well; pubs got closed and the Prime Minister has recovered – let's laugh and learn a lesson.

The period of last fifty or maybe seventy years have been the time of happy and easy-going anomaly. The point today is not to conquer the coronavirus. We have got back to normal conditions and we have to learn to live in them. Let's get used to the fact that some viruses will haunt humanity now and then; more or less quiet and peaceful period of last one hundred years (in the Western world) were the exception rather than the rule. SARS-CoV-2 may mutate (just like influenza viruses do every year), or disappear – but some other will come. Let's get used to the fact that we will have to face other risks as well - and they won’t be crises discussed only by “café society” as was the case of climatic crisis until it got sidelined by coronavirus.

A new “normal” era has stated with economic crisis. However, we should also get used to more individual threats and private risks. It may well happen that current (or any of future) crises will finally “bury” the European model of the welfare state. The earlier we learn to live with risks and efficient responsibility on the level of public administration and every individual as well, the better for us. We have the technical equipment which is as perfect as never before.

Urgency of two questions - “When will it happen?” and “How will it happen?” is based on three factors: concerns that human or civil rights and freedoms will be restricted, nostalgia for dynamic nature of physical public space and economic losses of businesses and households. Because epidemiological and health issues have become “business as usual” in developed countries after Easter.


Concerns about human right restrictions

In the name of population protection against Covid-19 and its potential fatal consequences in particular, many governments have restricted freedoms of movement and reside for their inhabitants. In Hungary, ownership rights have been restricted firmly by the government deploying army in key companies, and large interference in private property, e.g. state intervention in large enterprises at risk, are discussed in a number of other countries in relation to fixing economic impacts of quarantine measures.

Czech citizens could not travel abroad, because the borders of the Czech Republic were closed until 23 April. This extreme and, in practical terms, unnecessary intervention in basic rights of own nationals might have been perceived by many especially in relation to traditional summer holiday in Croatia, but it is much more important as an indicator of intentions of Czech oligarchs.

Moreover, technologies of so called smart or electronic quarantines also balance on the edge of violating people’s privacy. This results in frequent discussions on social media and in parliaments on violation of articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And it's actually so simple. In his comment, Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor expressed the forgotten principle: “As much freedom as possible, as much restriction as necessary.” One man's freedom and right end where another's start. If I can infect other person and endanger their life and this might be prevented by a controlled (!) state intervention in my privacy, I should (be obliged to) tolerate it. Smart e-quarantine cannot be rejected in advance as s “big brother” issue. Nevertheless, travelling abroad and exiting the state will not put any life at risk and imposing travel restrictions will not save any life. Thus it is unacceptable to impose any such ban a priori.

Nowadays, we wear face masks in accordance with government regulation and face masks have become an attribute of the national unity. National unity, as it always happens in the Czech Republic, ends with a symbol - sewing and distributing face masks is an act of solidarity for some, a silent protest against the incompetent government for others or even a tool to support it for the rest. The urgency of “my face mask protects you” principle starts fading away and we all look forward to the period when no face masks are needed any more. But this will never happen. Long before covid-19, people with face masks had not attracted any attention in the streets of cities and means of transport in Japan, China and other densely-populated countries. And the purpose of face masks was not only to protect people against air pollution. During the development of our civilization, from the cradle of Minoan civilization on the island of Crete and cultural area of ancient Greece, covering certain parts of human body in public became a standard where hygienic reasons played not the only but surely important role. Is it so complicated to imagine that mouth and nose also belong to these covered parts? Maybe they would not need to be covered as strictly as our genitals, maybe just in case of intensive social contact. At social events, gentlemen would match their face masks with pocket squares in their jacket breast pocket, for ladies face masks would be an exclusive fashion accessory and they could be decorated with various fancy goods, rare metals, stones and pearls...


Nostalgia for dynamic public space

A public space is the platform of urban communication and through this platform also the basis of our culture including everything that belongs to it - efficient economy, knowledge and sciences, safety, health and social security, art, politics that has been done without any war in Europe (except for the break-up of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union and the sphere of its influence), North America and Japan, Australia and New Zealand for 75 years, lifestyle, work-life balance, life quality and unprecedented life expectancy. Public space prototypes include ancient fora and theatres, caranavanserais of the Middle East, squares of medieval towns and Maßhaus (food halls) of town houses, cathedrals of ancient and Christian gods. Since early modern times, other forms were added: schools, pubs, merchant’s shops, streets, public parks and fine art galleries, concert halls, museums... Physical part of the public space is further developed by virtual public space - the field of information sharing and storage. Both parts of the public space originated at the same time - literaization as well as urbanization (together with metallurgization) mark the second anthropological transformation that had been in progress in various parts of the world since the fifth millennium BC. At first, physical public space played a decisive role. With the printing press, however, the situation started to change. Electronic media - from telegraph (1836), through radio (1895) and television broadcasting (1936) to the internet (1959 or 1962) - and information and communication technologies have pushed the public space out of the centre of interest. Only seemingly. A week or two of closed public spaces were enough for us (with some exceptions) to long for it and we began to miss it intensely. At the same time, social media - considered to be the top of the virtual public space until now - have confirmed (with some exceptions) that they are shallow and insufficient in terms of information and communication.

These days, physical public spaces should reopen as soon as the epidemiological situation seems to make it possible. The situation in virtual public space threatened riots if public spaces remain closed. However, people return to physical public spaces not as quickly and spontaneously as in preceding social media discussions. Many people still feel at risk and consider taking it. Some activities and parts of public spaces are considered to be less dangerous (landscape surrounding settlements and walking and bike routes) contrary to others. Parents do not want to allow their children to go to kindergartens although they are open, people prefer working from home although they might get back to their offices and despite knowing that it needs discipline to be productive while working from home.

Low profile use of public space is (hopefully) not temporary; it is not just panic subsiding. It is related to getting out of disillusionment of the previous life without any risks. We do not and will not try to quickly use and enjoy everything that is not forbidden although, after the first week of mobility and activity restrictions we might have thought something else. It is the same as when most of us don’t get drunk as a skunk every day although the store would like to sell any quantity of alcohol to us. We have a glass of wine with dinner, sometime two glasses - and we like it that way.

In his breakthrough book “Understanding media: The Extensions of Man” in 1964, Marshall McLuhan showed that „housing and cities are the extensions of the man – they are extensions of man’s limbs, organs regulating body temperature, … and man’s thinking: as soon as these functions are taken over by electronic media, housing as the extinction of the mechanisms to control body temperature will get outdated, … in an environment made by electronic technologies and information architectures becomes the content of the new information environment, … the old technology that is automatically promoted to an art form”.

And (let’s hope) this is exactly what coronavirus has done. Physical public spaces - McLuhan’s “dwellings and cities” - have been sidelined by public space of electronic media for a long time. As soon as we have lost them, we realized (although subconsciously in most cases - as with art mentioned above) their quality. We have realized them because we started to miss them and we have realized that public spaces cannot be taken for granted and that they are not completely risk-free - as is true with wine.

Let's put aside the quality of our “cost-benefit” analysis of respective components and entities of physical public spaces, it needs time to get (at least a little bit) mature. Let’s just be glad that it will have effects in tourism as well. Before the coronavirus pandemic, most of the world population preferred holiday abroad, the further the better. If they could afford it. Most of population of developed countries could afford it and preferred such type of holiday because they could (as with alcohol - they could buy as much as they want). The quality of experience was measured by geographical and cultural distance of the destination from home. There was no need to deal with risks because “we, the Europeans, are vaccinated and no one would dare to hurt us.” Well, there were some exceptions ... just exceptions and the state did its best to help the individuals in need whatever the cost. In most of cases, the benefit of this type of holiday - cultural one because physical relaxation or social benefit related to the destination were out of questions and they were not included in the “cost-benefit” analysis - was insignificant.


Threat of Economic Loss

Crowds of unemployed people, massive loss of revenues in businesses and business that will never renew their operation have become reality. And governments want to help - some give away money, while others only promise to do it and in their effort to show off they mention figures that are so high that they (as is the case of the Czech minister of finance) may even have problem to imagine them. Immediate assistance for people who lost their source of livelihood overnight through no fault of their own is surly necessary; but “investments” is the key word. And this word has not been heard much so far.

We are and we are not well prepared to enter the new era. During the “lockdown”, we tried using technologies and applications designed a “long time ago” and well known to everybody - but their functionality has only been verified now in live operation. Like communication platforms for video conferences and education for example. Their weaknesses, hidden before these platforms were used regularly, became apparent. It has also become apparent that developers and owners of such technologies and applications do not intend to support public welfare by providing them free of charge on such a massive scale. First graders and even pre-school children along with university and secondary school students could start their lessons thanks to the internet and network applications. The younger children the more assistance they needed from their parents and the higher standard of abilities they required from their teachers. But first of all, equality of children in the primary education system ends where there is no internet coverage and where there is no proper computer in the household. And this is an opportunity to invest directly and selectively in education; the Czech Pirate Party have allegedly taken this opportunity.

Lack of medical and related facilities marks current fight against coronavirus globally. Investment development of such facilities should be a commonplace. Public investments in health care system will also support economy fixing. Not only that. Has anyone offered retaining to hairdressers and restaurant staff who have lost their source of livelihood to start working as health care staff? Or could a (premium) part of any financial support be conditioned upon participation in such retraining? Remember that we will need health care staff also “after” the pandemics (their number had been low even before the pandemic outbreak...).

Automotive industry in Europe and globally is in big trouble. The inventory of unsold cars is unprecedented, and the employee administrative leave costs money as well. There are no doubts that governments will not let automotive companies down and it would not be right. But the thing is whether the “business as usual” is supported by automotive companies or financial funds will be available on condition that research and development of new products and technologies is completed and these products and technologies are put in production and sold. It is open secrets that, in addition to unsold cars, many automotive companies keep results of their (almost completed) research and development for themselves unwilling to introduce them in the market before they duly amortize their costs of current product development. Such results relate to new power systems and power recuperation, new product articulations - service instead of goods, autonomous means of transport...

Quarantine and public space closing have resulted in existential problems for some industries and businesses, and turnovers they have never dreamt of in wildest dreams for others. Rohlík and Tesco were struggling to settle all orders and they did not want to return disappointed customers back to contaminated brick-and-mortar stores. During the “lockdown” Amazon increased the property of its founder by $ 300 million and the situation of Netflix is the same. Selling food products from convenient windows some restaurants allegedly achieve 80% of their regular turnover with undoubtedly lower costs. Is this a business plan for the period after the pandemic? An application was developed which enables to order (food) from any brick-and-mortar store (that joins) and pick the order using contactless method. This application is expected to work also after the pandemic. How will the retail infrastructure respond?

Zoom and MS Teams have always been here but we started to live with them and understand what they take only after schools were closed and we started to work from home. Rohlík and Košík companies have always been here, too, but many customers preferred seeing and taking products on their own. Now they have found out that they can live without it. The same is true for physical concentration. There have been no grounds for it since the end of the last century at latest but we used to move to find “happiness”, (better) education, (better-paid) job, (better) career, (better and more interesting culture to big cities: SARS-CoV-2 has shown us, that we can partially achieve it without any moving and partially no moving will help (if you work or do business in gastro industry). When we understand that there won’t be any “then” we should shift up to the next gear (or rather to one more up) in development of transport and communication infrastructure, as well as transferring construction development to small towns.

Due to the “lockdown”, CO2 (and other) emissions have dropped in an unprecedented manner globally – much more (in relative terms) than in any other previous crisis. The call for development of transport infrastructure does not intend to erase this unintentional and welcome effect - it is based on efficiency development of passenger and freight transport. In freight transport, development is based on lossless logistics and new distribution and production technologies, and principles of circular economy. Passenger transport needs to become a balanced complement of practical functioning of information and communication technologies. When electronic media became efficient extensions of the man (McLuhan), it is expected that physical public space which includes passenger transport will not only meet material functions but provide especially experience. These three areas provide opportunities for robust public investments. Increased demands for quality of physical public space go hand in hand with more conscious and, as a consequence, low-profile approach to consuming benefits of any physical public space.


Chances for Developers

Renaissance of physical public spaces and decentralization of the settlement system including in economic terms offer a huge opportunity for construction and architecture. And this means not only the development of transport and communication infrastructure as well as development of job and business opportunities in small settlements, i.e. construction of offices and premises for small and medium-sized enterprises. As both sectors have custom-based rather than goods-based production they have remained unaffected by industrialization to a significant extent, and it is considered to be economic and political populism when “Industry 4.0” is mentioned. This results in the long-term productivity of the construction production stagnating worldwide (since the 1970s) (in other industries, productivity has increased by 300% within the same period and in agriculture it was 700%). We are left to guess impacts on quality of designing in architecture...

Bad situation is an opportunity for change. High-definition media - usually films but also You Tube operate in virtual public space and they will move away from the physical public space. Thus they will clear the area for intrinsically low-definition - “cool” (according to Marshall McLuhan) architecture. This opportunity will take place directly in the physical public space. Covid-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis create opportunities and at the same time they encourage huge public investments Large construction and development companies as well as architectural studios should also invest in research and development of new construction technologies and materials fundamental for the revolution necessary in construction industry and architectural designing. These sectors have “saved” enough funds in the previous good times, and with a decrease in building construction expected in short term necessary human resources will be released.

Cybernation and robotization in construction have been discussed for a long period of time but until now we have not been able to admit that not all materials, structures, activity or work may be “cybernised”. It is better not to write about 3D printing. Firstly because there are many articles about it, and secondly because the information provided on 3D printing in the context of building construction is mostly crap. 3D printing will become building construction technology only with totally new construction materials: but we don't have any so far.

Smart prefabrication and dry mortarless systems may be considered perspective development trends. Although the application of thin-walled steel profiles in structural systems of multi-storey buildings including modular construction is very unusual in the Czech Republic, it is very promising. It makes construction faster and cheaper and thus it will be crucial for construction development of smaller settlements in terms of territorial and economic decentralization. The potential of ground rent and traditional construction technologies in relation to reducing real estate prices has practically been exhausted in small towns. If these new focal points of the decentralized construction development need to offer cheaper real estate - and this is exactly what they need and will need - the only chance is cheaper construction. This, however, will only be possible with new technologies for manufacturing construction components, construction, and construction proposing and designing.

A new stage will be included in the manufacturing process - the stage of “structure cyberization”. It will be based on preparation of the data for fabrication and subsequent assembly and construction robots from project or rather design documentation. In general, these data will be of (at least) two types: “project specific“ and “general”, i.e. ad hoc for an individual unique structure (e.g. the wall of specific dimensions built on the spot, prefabricated room consisting of components made in factory and assembled on the construction site), or general for repeatedly applied structural elements – for example, pipe joints will be 3D printed instead of using fittings. BIM is not a solution in this regard but just an aid.

The third step will include extended application and importance of design preparation. Nowadays, designing is based on the principle of clarification and detailing. Compared to an industrial design, a pre-manufacturing (usually verifying in most cases) design solution is prepared in every detail. The difference against currently usual design and construction preparation of buildings is in accuracy and optimization of the solution already “on the paper” or in the computer file and binding prioritization of recurrent production-proven solutions.

The same should apply in construction industry - standardized components and procedures should be available. Conceptual architect – the one who opens the entire project and whose work is and will be followed by all other traditional and completely new professions of “building construction preparation workers” - will not be limited in their creativity by prefabrication. Following the consultation with a designer, the solution meeting the needs of the product being designed will be selected from tried and tested solutions. Working technology of the architect will be changed fundamentally. The one used at present has not been changed since the beginning of this profession regardless of computers and computer aided design. A design is created and, for a long time, exists in architect’s head only - all sketches, drawings and calculations are used only to verify and capture the idea - then continue, work on it and convert it into a physical implementation. Let’s hope that in not so distant future, the designing process will take place in virtual reality. At present, tens or hundreds of rendering software tools are available. These software tools are again used only to show architect’s ideas. The work in virtual reality will be similar to playing with Lego pieces - the difference will be in availability of any and all shapes that will be connected with database information on the nature of shapes and areas delimited by them. Architectural design will be available in virtual reality at any time for inspection from any views and perspectives and in any detail even remotely and properties of the design will be monitored in the real time. The approved output necessary to discuss about the architecture - building with authorities and the building developer will be created automatically by the software.

Most of these visions are not new. Unfortunately, we have lacked motivation to work on and implement these visions and economic reason for research and development for many years. If it is necessary to use injections of funds to fix the economy forced to its knees by coronavirus crisis, we have the reason. Investments in research and development of new construction materials and technologies will pay off for the public sector. It will profit from favourable prices resulting from research and development. It seems we needed SARS-CoV-2 to force us to follow the promising path.

Michal Šourek