Improving society in a post-COVID world
With millions of people globally leaving large cities and a dramatic shift in how the world lives and works, what innovation opportunities does the post-COVID world offer to improve citizens' lives, and that of humankind?
When COVID came along, it called into question where we live, how we work, how we shop, how we spend time, and how we use technology.
Almost overnight, all of the trappings that make a city lifestyle appealing vanished. Shops, cafes and bars; shut. Public transport; risky. Friends; online only. Generally speaking, many Aucklanders spent their lockdown trapped in densely populated suburbs, enjoying the lack of traffic yet lamenting the loss of almost everything else.
It’s obvious why domestically and internationally, people have seen their city lives in a new light - and one that didn’t contribute positively to their worsening mental health. The physical and mental freshness, the housing affordability that rural areas offer over cities, the lack of traffic and associated parking or fuel costs, the “back to basics” environment so often sought by modern parents…
A late 2020 report titled ‘Kiwis shifting from cities to regions’ revealed that 7 of 13 New Zealand cities show an internal migration outflow last year, and cited the pandemic as a supercharging factor in the shift in working patterns. For just over a third of the population, as long as there’s a stable internet connection work can be completed remotely - so now that employment doesn’t necessarily have to be the deciding factor on where you live, we discussed what people need to make this “new normal” life work.
REFRAMING OUR MENTAL & PHYSICAL HEALTH
Health globally has suffered. There’s no need for a citation there - it’s a reality we see in the fog around us. Right off the bat during our roundtable discussion, mental health was raised as an important current global issue - with the COVID pandemic significantly contributing to that. Increased anxiety, fear and isolation has been brought on by lockdowns and social distancing.
Certainty is what people look for when confronted with anxiety, but without the ability to control the events in the world, or even their own ability to move around at times, individuals instead set about reframing personal priorities and taking control of their mental health.
In the first 11 months of 2020, Calm reportedly brought in $99.4 million in revenue with a little over 28 million installs, and collectively the top 100 mental wellness apps cleared over $1B. Our client partner, Ignite Aotearoa fast-tracked portions of their mental wellness platform during the 2020 lockdowns and have now rolled out their complete online Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) offering - an area set for high growth post-pandemic.
The unique set of challenges brought into a workplace by the pandemic means that support for employee mental health needs and new ways of working are a priority.
A SMARTER, MORE CONNECTED WORLD
While there may be mental or physical health improvements associated with remote or hybrid working, collaboration and keeping the company culture alive are harder to coordinate when teams aren’t physically together.
The global Internet of Things (IoT) Market is forecasted to grow at a rate of 26.1% from USD 245.08 Billion in 2019 to USD 1508.01 Billion in 2027. So with the rollout of 5G technology, improved access and affordability of connectivity, there is an invitation to innovate to ease the stress caused by isolating situations, or connect our lives up in a smarter way.
What if we created a virtual water cooler to encourage friendly banter when people are remote?
Imagine a smart connected fridge, and as you open it to get something to drink, you might say “hey dad, we’re out of milk, can you bring some home?” and this voice activates a task.
What about simply creating a work or study environment so that as you sit at your desk you can opt to be part of the ongoing chatter - there’s no particular purpose other than feeling like your colleagues are sitting there with you.
Connectivity could expand to connect smart homes or smart workplaces to each other in a community - but we must consider how we democratise access. There's a general assumption that everybody has access to the internet, but one of our roundtable participants described living 100 kms from Auckland where connectivity isn’t very reliable.
And when around 2 billion people live in poverty globally, how can we keep forging ahead when so many are still far behind?
This pandemic era has made people open to new realities, and this is an opportunity to develop open source access to technologies to help all humankind. We can only move forward with creating a smarter, digitally enabled world where people can choose where they live and work, when everyone has basic access.
LEARN FROM THE ANTHROPAUSE
Without disruption, humans will continue doing the same things - even in the face of climate change. But lockdowns really changed our physical world. Traffic disappeared, the skies cleared up, birdlife was more abundant and greenhouse gas emissions dropped dramatically. To be precise, 4.5% over the year from March 2020 to March 2021. The sad fact is that, in Auckland anyway, traffic returned quickly to pre-pandemic levels like nothing had changed.
Vehicle technology is already advancing with electric cars, but what if personal transport was better regulated - or even banned? The carbon credits that we generated could be used to pay for free public transport? This may seem drastic, but we experienced how much better life was without traffic and air pollution, and we still went back to our old ways. We must be able to incentivise the reduction in private vehicle use, that’s an innovation worth pursuing.
Danu has more than a few ideas for how we get rid of private cars… at the very least let him sell you on the benefits of an electric vehicle.
This article first appeared in ‘Connecting for a Better Future: a collection of essays’ in response to the RUSH x AUT Techweek Roundtable Discussions published in September 2021. Read the full whitepaper here.