Ghosts Outside the Machine: Coronavirus and the Built Environment

You’ll be familiar with this old philosophical puzzle:

If a tree falls in a forest when no one is there, does it still make a sound?

But, as we get deeper into the coronavirus crisis, our city centres are now becoming as quiet as that forest, and whatever work we continue to do is increasingly unmoored from its normal physical setting.

The challenge for many businesses is to continue to make a sound in the empty city.

We are separated from our normal working environments and the lockdown has shutdown much of supply and disrupted or destroyed demand.

In the face of this challenge, what should those businesses and brands involved in the built environment do to cope?

Are We Now Ghosts Outside the Machine?

The phrase, ghost in the machine, refers to the problem of the relationship of the mind to the body. The Cartesian philosophy of mind-body dualism holds that mind and body are completely different entities.

However, in 1949, Gilbert Ryle dismissed this view as wrong. Really, the mind is the body’s intelligent behaviour. It is, therefore, the ghost in the machine.

Forced to embrace remote working, we are now divorced from the physical workplace. In our own minds we become ghosts outside the machine.

We risk feeling disembodied and alienated from the physical fact and routine of work.

The physical structures we are used to entering and interacting with lie empty.

COVID-19 is asking some tough questions, not just about the resilience of the economy, but the very purpose of work itself and the infrastructure we normally expect to support it.

How Agile is Your Business?

Suddenly, the digital tools for remote working such as Zoom, Slack and Trello have taken on a far greater significance.

But they are just tools. They can only be as effective as the people using them.

How can we integrate these platforms meaningfully into our working practices?

Much of this comes back to purpose: in the midst of lockdown, can you retain your core objectives if, for the present, there are huge barriers to achieving them?

  • What can you supply if no one is buying from you as they normally would?
  • How do you create a new set of business objectives for the immediate future, beyond the basic issue of survival?
  • Can you hold your nerve, hopefully with the right kind of support structures in place, and ride out the turmoil?

Will Construction Continue?

At the time of writing, the Government has not said construction sites must stop operating, providing they establish safe procedures for workers.

However, thousands of building sites have now started to close, as developers and contractors reassess health risks to workers on site.

In fact, the industry appears split, between those firms who are halting their projects, and those who are continuing to work.

Build UK has issued guidelines and continues to issue updates to the industry. It has emphasised the need for sites to implement special safe operating procedures during the coronavirus crisis.

However, it also points out that currently there is no clear definition of what essential work means for construction. It has asked the Government to classify construction workers as essential workers, though at the moment this only applies if their work is in response to COVID-19.

Contractors are understandably nervous about work pausing for any extended period of time, especially around issues of contract liability.

At the moment, apart from essential support workers in various sectors including health, logistics and food, anyone else actually going to a place of work is starting to look like an anomaly. Times are far from normal, or predictable, and things are likely to change.

Can Looking Inwards Provide Inspiration?

It might be difficult to see an enforced absence of ongoing work as a potential benefit, but for some, for the time being, this may be their only option.

Where there is a lack of outward-facing opportunity, the alternative is to look inwards at various aspects of brand-building and internal infrastructure.

This activity can have clear value, it if helps create clarity about issues such as positioning in the market and brand identity.

In much busier, buoyant times, there often isn’t the breathing space to stop, take stock and consider long-term strategies.

Now, there is.

This might not be easy, and there are inevitable pressures and stresses surrounding cash-flow, and how long the current lockdown will last.

But the strategic space is there, should you feel able to take advantage of it.

Partisan’s Digital Community

A key part of our approach to working with people in the built environment has been to build a community of professionals interested in the culture of the built environment and the practical issues supporting it.

We can no longer hold our regular, physical roundtable meetups. During the current circumstances, therefore, we’ve begun a series of digital-only networking gatherings.

If you would like to find out more, please register your interest here

Guests at our first digital meetup included:

Martin Lucass, GeoSmart
Gavin Watts, Define Architects
Chris Marrow, Midollo
Andrew Jalali, Mosaic Town Planning

Upcoming Events

Eighty Twenty is a once a month invite only event for business leaders within the built environment - hosted by Partisan

Register Interest