Get up in the morning, get a coffee brewing, grab a bite for breakfast, hit the sofa, and get straight to work. Does this sound familiar? Millions of people globally have been adapting to a "new normal" since the COVID-19 outbreak started to spread from mainland China after the new year.
Some have been getting used to telecommuting, others, including medical workers, are getting accustomed to working alongside new fleets of disinfecting robots, and many have taken movie and series binges to historic levels.
What impact is this surge in digital reliance and automation having now, and how will it shape our future? Here are 9 ways that accelerated city automation and digitalization, caused by COVID-19, will likely form the "new normal" for years to come.
1. What the impact of past outbreaks tells us
Though the scale of the COVID-19 outbreak might be unprecedented in our modern times, the impact of historic outbreaks, dating as far back as the Middle Ages, shows us how the socio-economic aftermath of a pandemic can lead to innovations and widespread changes in infrastructures.
After the Black Death ravaged the world and reduced Europe's population by 30 percent during the 14th century, large gaps left in the workforce led to the technological as well as societal innovations that spurred on what came to be known as the Renaissance. Cholera epidemics in the 19th century, meanwhile, led to the building of new advanced sewer systems and the writing of zoning laws to prevent overcrowding. Many more examples can be found throughout history.
This effect is also seen in a smaller scale with countries like Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam, where the 2003 SARS outbreak led to changes in infrastructure and protocols, meaning that these countries have so far been relatively successful at containing COVID-19 — Taiwan and Singapore have both recorded 0 coronavirus deaths at the time of writing.
These historical changes are leading experts to highlight key sectors — including city automation, digitalization, and architecture — where they believe COVID-19 will have a long-lasting impact.
2. A boost for widespread city automation
Though it's difficult to put a positive spin on a pandemic, there might be some silver linings. As Peter Xing, associate director in technology and growth initiatives at KPMG, said at Singularity University’s recent COVID-19 virtual summit, the outbreak provides "an opportunity for automation to happen at the last mile.”
That's to say that if restaurants today, as an example, are automating parts of the delivery process, our current situation will lead to more businesses testing the limits of automation in the service they provide. In China, for example, the use of automated delivery drones has already gone up since the outbreak began.
In many cases, companies that had previously been on the verge of experimenting with automated methods for parts of their delivery chain or services will be forced to take that step to survive. If they invest in that technology and show it to work successfully, they will likely see no need to re-hire humans to fill those roles after the outbreak is controlled.
3. Artificial intelligence, robotics, and big data
As already mentioned in this article, difficult moments in history provide opportunities for innovations to come to the fore. Broadly speaking, AI, robotics, and data analytics are playing a key role in fighting COVID-19. They are accelerating drug discovery, helping to evaluate the spread of the virus and, in many cases, allowing health professionals to carry out their work from a distance or with a safety that wasn't previously possible.
There are countless examples of the way these technologies have transformed the global reaction to the pandemic: demand for UV light-emitting robots that zap viruses and infections has gone up dramatically since the outbreak began; doctors are using AI to screen coronavirus patients; companies like Deepmind are publishing automated predictions of how COVID-19 will evolve.
All of this has led to a widespread reflection on the role city automation can play in our future and has renewed calls for a Universal Basic Income — more on this in section 7.
4. Digitalization of work and entertainment
We are currently in the midst of what can be viewed as the largest remote work experiment in history with remote work tools like Zoom, Slack, and Todoist seeing an unprecedented surge in demand.
Tools for remote work will continue to grow as will remote workers. The COVID-19 pandemic has already resulted in historic numbers of unemployment benefit claims in countries including the U.S and Spain. Much of this workforce will likely reconsider their future employment and look for jobs that are safer against future crises, and that are relatively stable in the face of accelerated city automation, including jobs that can easily be done from home.
Then there's the way we consume entertainment and art, and the impact it is having, and will have on these sectors. Large movie studios like Universal Studios and Disney have put several of their big releases on the fast lane for on-demand streaming. So many people are using streaming services that the European Union has actually asked Netflix to slightly reduce the quality of its streaming output so that the continent can put up with the surge.
As the Financial Times points out, several cinemas, which were already dealing with competition from early streaming releases, will see permanent closures due to the coronavirus. In general, any sector that was already struggling in the face of innovation and city automation will likely be hit hard by the coronavirus.
Despite the fact that people burning down cellphone masts amidst 5G coronavirus conspiracy theories is an example of the outbreak bringing out the worst in people, the pandemic will only provide further incentive for the rollout of 5G.
5. Redesigning cities for future outbreaks
“We’ve been looking at redesigning public spaces so that they can also work as logistics and treatment areas in cities for epidemics like this,” David Green, a principal at Perkins and Will, a design firm that has worked on “health districts”, tells FastCompany. Green is one of many urban design professionals that sees the pandemic effect as a reason to reevaluate how we design our cities.
As already mentioned, outbreaks of cholera in the 19th century led to the building of new sewer systems globally. That is just one example of the way disease outbreaks have historically affected urban design.
City automation will likely be at the center of future innovations in the aftermath of COVID-19, as will the adaptability, or modularity, of cities Green mentions.
Singapore's Changi Airport recently shifted to contactless screening for returning citizens so as to minimize waiting times and proximity of passengers. Such screening technology for outbreaks might be built into public spaces, while cheaper ventilation solutions and UV light technology might also be implemented to fight the effects of diseases.
6. Public transport infrastructures
Air onboard airplanes is actually well-filtered to prevent the easy circulation of viruses, Luke Leung, director of sustainable engineering at SOM explains to FastCompany. However, as Leung also says, “we can do it in our public transportation system, but it’s not done.” Cleaner, well-filtered air might become more of a priority in the future of public transportation following the coronavirus pandemic.
Public transport, another sector that is being increasingly automated, might also be part of a renewed focus on widespread city automation. Today, we are already seeing increasingly long trips be automated, and AI systems showing great promise for preventing enormous accumulated delay times. Systems for railways and metros, for example, are already being used to optimize efficiency so that trains are utilized properly during peak hours.
A similar approach to public transportation automation might be able to help with adequately distributing trains and buses amidst the reduced necessity for public transportation during an outbreak.
7. Renewed calls for Universal Basic Income
In 2016, a World Economic Forum report predicted the loss of 7.1 million jobs between 2015 and 2020. This would largely be due to "artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, and other socio-economic factors that will replace the need for human workers."
What do we do when the robots and AI systems powering these mass job losses are owned by a select few companies worldwide? “The benefits of automation aren’t being passed on to the average citizen,” Peter Xing said in his Singularity University virtual summit. "They’re going to the shareholders of the companies creating the automation."
Even before COVID-19's patient zero was infected, there were calls for policies like Universal basic income (UBI), whereby everyone in a country's population receives a basic monthly salary that allows them to survive regardless of whether they are working or not.
Spain, in fact, has announced plans for a permanent basic income to help vulnerable families in the aftermath of COVID-19. While this isn't universal basic income, as several big publications have wrongly written this week, it is undeniably a big step towards something resembling UBI in the country.
The driving force for calls for UBI has always been the belief that city automation will eventually replace an unsustainable amount of jobs. If it were implemented now, it would also be helping large amounts of people left unemployed by the outbreak.
8. "Under-the-skin" surveillance
As Yuval Noah Harari, author of ‘Sapiens’, ‘Homo Deus’ and ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’ wrote in an article for the Financial Times, "many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life. That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical processes."
As a darker, dystopian portrayal of the way things could turn after the coronavirus, Harari claims that temporary surveillance measures could be legitimized by the outbreak, leading to unprecedented surveillance of populations after COVID-19 with the pretext of preventing future pandemics.
As Harari writes, "today, for the first time in human history, technology makes it possible to monitor everyone all the time." China has already started monitoring people's smartphones, making use of facial recognition cameras, obliging people to report their body temperature and medical condition, and has tracked widespread individual cases via big data.
The distinction Harari makes with this new type of surveillance is that it's "under-the-skin" meaning that it would allow governments unprecedented insight into the way information changes our physiology — something that could lead to something akin to a Cambridge Analytica 2.0.
9. A rekindled spirit of global collaboration
Though Yuval Noah Harari cautions against authoritarian impulses being rejuvenated by the coronavirus (see point 8), he also envisions a future where this pandemic might renew trust in global collaboration and slow the recent trend towards right-wing nationalism.
"First and foremost, in order to defeat the virus, we need to share information globally. That’s the big advantage of humans over viruses," Harari writes. "A coronavirus in China and a coronavirus in the US cannot swap tips about how to infect humans. But China can teach the US many valuable lessons about coronavirus and how to deal with it."
In order to beat the COVID-19 pandemic, "we need a spirit of global co-operation and trust," he explains. This is already being seen globally, with partisanship being set aside in favor of pulling together, showings of solidarity spread globally and the scientific community demonstrating quick innovation through global collaboration. Much of this is thanks to city automation, which allows easy sharing of information.
Universal basic income, redesigned cities, and renewed globalization are just a few more examples of policies, innovations, and ideas that are coming to the forefront of public attention amidst these uncertain times — a time that could herald unforeseen, widespread changes that will be felt for years to come.