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Redesigning the future in a new world order

Silvio Pietro Angori | Updated on July 09, 2020 Published on July 09, 2020

Silvio Pietro Angori, CEO, Pininfarina   -  LaPresse

The Head of Pininfarina, the Italian car design company, dwells upon new design dynamics evolving beyond the auto space

Pandemics are intertwined with the history of humankind. Through the centuries, viral outbreaks caused the decimation of entire populations, and the fall of long-established political powers. However, they equally brought about the creation of new economic orders and growth, leading to the development of new technologies which created the conditions for cultural exuberance.

Take for example, the Plague outbreak which devastated Europe in the mid-14th century resulting in a dramatic and long-lasting economic depression. Subsequently, unprecedented economic growth diffused wealth, leading to the Renaissance in Italy and to the creation of masterpieces of geniuses such as Michelangelo, Bernini, Raffaello, Leonardo and many others we admire today.

New beginnings

History seems to prove that catastrophes open the path to new beginnings and are sources of unexplored opportunities that significantly increase the wellbeing of people. Covid-19 emerges as one of the worst pandemics in the last century and unlike more recent ones, it will have lasting effects on human lives.

Scientists will hopefully find therapies and perhaps vaccines against it. However, the true nature of coronavirus seems to imply that medical sciences will be more successful to heal than prevent at least for some time.

With the lack of vaccines, people need to adopt preventive measures such as ‘social distancing’ that are opposite of ‘social compression’ - the millennial habit developed by humans that live in megacities, move through overcrowded metros, gather in large stadiums, work in cramped offices, and interact physically 24/7.

The need to stay safe is opposite of the need to stay close. The dichotomy brings fear and uncertainties that paralyse the ability to imagine a different future.

That future will entail the shifting of social behaviour from “individual focused” to “community focused” because selfishness would actually endanger people’s health.

We need to respect the intimate and comfortable sphere of each individual, while creating a collective imagination richer than before, that bonds us together.

To overcome the current situation, people and businesses have no alternative but to evolve fast, creating renewed comfort to individuals and a “new normal” for businesses. Design has the ability to innovate continuously while enhancing the lives of people in normal times and to provide the response to imagining a new future.

Successful design has always touched human emotions and ignited their desires. Now, for the first time, design also needs to be used to awaken feelings of “support” and “protection”. We have to conceive environments where human beings can enjoy their own safe, private space without feeling isolated from the human connections they naturally crave.

The greatest change for design post-pandemic, is that it can no longer just stimulate people’s feelings but must listen to their feelings and adjust the design of whole environments based on how people are feeling at any given moment. It is this “humanisation of tech” that will make people feel “reassured”. This will reflect, among other things, in the way we plan, the way we live, the way we move, the way we conduct business, and the way we communicate.

Two principles of urban planning

In the last 30 years, urban planning has leveraged two principles: density and mass transit. From now on, when designing the new town square or concert hall, we will have to face an ever-evolving dilemma: should we favour social distancing, or foster social interaction? While cities are beginning to reopen, a series of precautions to significantly limit the aggregation of people are being implemented, continuing the concept of social distancing.

Our responsibility, through design, is to facilitate the experience of interaction but embrace latest AI and 5G technologies (like thermal scanners, pedestrian monitoring, dynamic flow management, rapid access to testing and emergency facilities) to mitigate the risks of contagion, but to “humanise” them through design at the same time.

Private housing of the future will be radically different as the boundary between home, office and leisure becomes increasingly blurred. The design will have to take into consideration enhanced needs such as more private spaces, the need for family members to spend much more time in the house for homework, online learning, and open space for individual use.

Once you have experienced a closed quarantine in an apartment, you will no longer want to live in a unitary and static space; therefore, as a reaction, the market will probably favour residences with green outdoor spaces and complex environments.

For this reason, tomorrow’s homes should favour complex and reconfigurable spaces, adapting according to the different situations of everyday life. Proper home offices, cinemas, gyms, should be considered and integrated according to residents’ preferences.

Lower household incomes will be around for some time and result in more affordable housing choices, forcing the adoption of new constructions methods. Modular constructs and off-site building processes will be the norm. Developing inclusive solutions to serve the needs of the local population and involving the local community and stakeholders in the development of architectural projects, will not only be a plus in a rating system, but an inevitable starting point.

Within the home, each family member will have to play several roles, a challenge, existing as they are in the same space. A parent, son/daughter, or work colleague while being a supportive and reassuring companion or confidante, must somehow function normally.

Remote working

Even in the most banal of cases, remote working will force us all to have at least one neutral background for our new reality of many video calls with little or no distance between spaces. To fully play these roles and feel escape for hobbies or recreations, a perceived feeling of space and an ambience that sustains good mental health and healthy personal relationships will become critical in the interior layout and design of homes.

How will office space change? Retrofitting the existing cramped office spaces will be a costly battle so working from home where possible could be one solution. Where this is not possible, both interior and exterior spaces need to be rethought.

To create a feeling of “reassurance”, personal areas could be created using pre-constructed units which can be dropped into public space areas which make people feel “protected” without them feeling “isolated”. This could be done by rejecting the standard approach of “square space” primarily used in architecture, in favour of “curved space” which is also split vertically to avoid direct contact yet still allow interaction.

Public transport will need substantial rethinking. Digital surfaces could be used to psychologically comfort passengers. Mass transportation needs to use these techniques to create virtual private spaces within the condensed public space otherwise passengers will feel uncomfortable about travelling. For example, the interior of planes and trains can change colour, screens could depict calming scenes and individualised music could be played to adjust to the feeling of each individual.

Seating arrangements and most importantly surfaces people touch like grab handles, need a completely new approach. Could we see rotating stand up stalls where we all stand back to back on trains?

Social distancing will affect retail spaces as well. This is a primary arena for trying out ways to control “social compression” without alarming people. We can imagine retail spaces where the building becomes “alive” and literally “talks” to customers, suggesting the safest way to move around a building to avoid the fear of confronting other shoppers by using lighting and “live walls” to guide them.

Retailing business models

In fact, retailing business models will have to undergo a complete transformation. During this crisis, retail has shifted almost entirely online: how will this affect the industry once we repopulate our cities? Society will be forced to make design and purchase choices much more through virtual methods.

This will revolutionise retail space design and social interaction. Fulfilment and last-mile execution, merchandising and pricing, the workforce and increased organisational transparency are the key areas where challenges are being exacerbated by Covid-19, while maintaining high level customer experience and engagement. The future retail world is going to be reshaped in full.

During the last decade we moved from buying in a physical mall to a click buy in digital stores. However, buying large categories of goods remain in physical malls. The acquisition of new a car for example is an emotional process because driving is still a physical act that provokes emotions. Searches for a new car will be conducted on the web, but before inking the pen, buyers will desire to touch and feel the car selected. Dealerships will have to become borderless virtual and physical spaces.

VR (virtual reality) will give a significant new impulse to retail. In car design, VR has already revolutionised the need to make full-size models. VR gives one an authentic understanding of what a real car would look like by leveraging the latest digital technology. With VR, we could be looking at buying cars and clothes “virtually” at home. Even cheap VR headsets give a very accurate impression so two girlfriends can literally “watch” each other try on clothes as if they were in a real shop even though they are both alone at home. Luxury goods will appear on the doorstep through chauffeur delivery as will brand new cars bought through the same VR system. We will be following whole virtual events like motor shows, sports events and concerts from the comfort of our homes.

Mobility will also need to be redesigned. Car sharing has been increasing at the expense of individual ownership, but what will happen post-pandemic? This is something car designers need to consider, and the materials used in the future must now also be chosen based on how easily and quickly they can be cleaned between driver changes. Will fear of how long the virus remains active on different surfaces influence the choice of materials used? Most definitely! As with all design aspects and when the lockdown relaxes, it is about “reassuring” people.

Scope for online services

The growing adoption of remote working from home and the problem of social isolation will lead to a strong demand for efficient communication services to allow the massive use of video conferences, exchange digital documents and contents, access entertainment platforms and other online services.

This situation will put pressure for the expansion of communication infrastructures, especially those related to the diffusion of the 5G technology. Digital technology and 5G will form a foundation to allow the post-pandemic world to function safely and rebuild business confidence at the same time. The artificial intelligence and the data that it generates, needs to be shared for the common good.

Designers need to make this sterile data “reassuring”. The leveraging of this advanced technology is necessary to free us from the constraints we know today. Today however, this technology often lacks social value.

“We must reimagine it to make it synonymous with “well-being”. We will welcome it for this reason and for the benefits of its low impact on our environment.

In the words of Walter Gropius, a pioneer in modern architecture: “Our guiding principle was that design is neither an intellectual nor a material affair, but simply an integral part of the stuff of life, necessary for everyone in a civilized society.”

This is more true today than ever before. Designers can and must play a crucial role in shaping a brave new world.

(The writer is CEO of Pininfarina)

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Published on July 09, 2020
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