Switching On: What Ifs for Manchester’s Post-Coronavirus Future

Partisan has hosted its first post-lockdown webinar, with a specially invited panel of expert commentators answering questions about the impact of coronavirus on the future of the built environment and culture of Greater Manchester.

On the panel for this Switching On webinar were:

  • Andrew McIntosh – Investment Director at the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA)
  • Nick Moss – President, Manchester Society of Architects
  • Dan Sodergren – Technology Advocate, The Landing, MediaCity

What If?

The closing lines of Lemn Sissay’s poem What If? read:

Let me get it right. What if we got it wrong?
What if the message carried in the wind was saying something?

The coronavirus is a crisis, but is it also an opportunity?

The Government’s strategy is to flatten the curve, control the infections, then support the economic recovery.

But what should this recovery look like?

One of the major lessons from COVID-19 is that it is possible to do things differently. Could this lay the foundations for doing things differently in the future? Is this the message “carried in the wind”?

It’s a difficult time to talk about silver linings when the death rate from coronavirus keeps rising, but for many businesses, the opportunity is there to get themselves in better shape for the future.

And the desire to get things moving again is definitely there.

What has coronavirus taught us about the way we can work?

What is the Purpose of Urban Centres?

People will have to work differently, if they are coming into towns and cities. This might be relatively short-term, or it could be an essential, long-term adaptation.

There are the logistics of work to consider, such as maintaining safe distances and moving people, and equipment, around.

Health and wellbeing are more important than ever, and the pandemic has exposed the lack of public open spaces in many built-up areas.

How might this influence housing, and the office sector?

For example:

  • Can residential blocks of the future be built on a much smaller scale, to give people more open space?
  • Will the investment value in offices plummet if these spaces are subject to restrictions in how many workers can be in them at any one time?

What about transport infrastructure? How can the current public transport network serve social distancing needs but also support a meaningful return to work as part of the economic recovery?

If the centre is less attractive as a centre for business, will this give the margins more scope for development, addressing the economic imbalance between Manchester and the regions?

Coronavirus may act to push these issues further up the agenda, but in fact many changes have already been underway.

What is the Role of the Future Worker?

More people are working remotely out of necessity, but this technology has been around for some time.

This change was already happening, but its pace has accelerated massively due to social distancing measures.

The example here is that technology doesn’t drive change so much as culture does.

Digital transformation has become much more of a reality for many more people through a collective response to COVID-19.

Will there be a significant return to people commuting, or will patterns change?

Examples might be much more staggered commuting times and office spaces which are used periodically, rather than regularly.

However, there are still plenty of sectors where working from home is not a realistic option. How will these industries cope if the future is one of marked, permanent transformation?

What Will We Build in the Future?

Currently, modular construction has been slow to gain a significant foothold in the built environment in the UK.

It is perceived as being expensive to invest in, but if the whole pace of work has to change due to the pandemic, then modular builds could offer a more widespread, attractive solution for the future.

The other question, again, is what sort of commercial builds would these be?

Could offices become a blank canvas on which to design a new kind of environment, based on the idea of the third place, where work an leisure intersect more closely?

What are the Barriers to Long-term Change?

Visionary thinking about long-term change and maintaining its momentum on the back of coronavirus is likely to face certain obstacles and barriers based on current economic realities.

Some of these are structural, some cultural.

For example, the current model for lump-sum construction contracts is fundamentally flawed.

For many contractors, they are operating with negative margins, where a race to the bottom is not sustainable in the long-term.

Nor is it going to encourage or enable a cultural shift in the initiation and successful completion of construction projects.

Very few lenders have sustainability as a core value when it comes to supporting investment in developments.

What are the implications of a much larger government debt for future investment in technology and infrastructure?

On the one hand, the NHS has demonstrated that with the right kind of political will, change can accelerate massively, making things possible that would otherwise run into management culture obstacles.

On the other, will months of lockdown lead to a kind of crisis-fatigue, where people, and businesses, just want some sort of semblance of normality, without radical change?

What Will Happen Next?

The Government has announced possible post-lockdown workplace rules, but what if coronavirus is not a one-off? What if we have to adapt our work and culture for a long time into the future?

There are obstacles to change, and economic challenges, but if coronavirus becomes part of the fabric of how we live, however unwelcome it is, then permanent changes will be unavoidable.

These changes will impact on all our lives, and the built environment and our culture will need to be able to meet them.

What sort of conditions will be necessary to support a permanent revolution?

  • Technological infrastructure will require a comparable amount of investment to physical projects such as HS2
  • What we build, and what its purpose is will become critical to how future towns and cities serve and interact with their communities
  • Sustainability and social value will become more conspicuous drivers of investment
  • The private and public sectors will need to work together meaningfully, creating bold, risk-taking partnerships to create foundations for future development.

COVID-19 is a forceful reminder that, for all our progress, nature is still very much in charge.

In What If? Lemn Sissay asks:

What if we weakened ourselves getting strong?

What if we found in the ground a file of proof?

What if the foundations missed a vital truth?

To make the future work, we have to spend time asking the right questions, even if the answers are challenging.

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