Afternoon walk, Stockholm 8 April 2020

13. From Lockdown to Slowdown

“Chair-room-house-environment-city plan”; how the coronavirus could change the strategy for our patterns of distribution of workplaces and work, from home to town to countryside to nation.

Dan Hill
Dan Hill
Apr 21, 2020 · 9 min read

For years, research has pointed to a clear link between the patterns and dynamics of our development — you all know the list — and the increased emergence and more rapid spread of zoonotic diseases, viruses that jump from animals to humans. And so here we are, with Covid-19.

Those patterns of development emerge from the same governance systems, articulated as strategic planning, that are now exhibiting generalised frailty, a lack of resilience, in response to the coronavirus. The so-called ‘western’ models, in particular, are clearly bent out of shape, their boundaries irrelevant, the various scales all misaligned, the dynamics too slow, or too fast, wrong either way. The last few decades’ social and cultural values that have been allowed to corrode these infrastructures and institutions now look more horribly individualistic than ever.

And so, whilst many governments are struggling with the tactical response, never mind a strategy, a third of the world’s population is in some form of lockdown, a situation which was simply unthinkable only a month or so ago. This has inadvertently created some kind of Great Pause, a handbrake slamming on the global economy as the only way to kill the virus, that was equally unthinkable in January.

It’s a very curious form of slowdown. Leaders talk of war — and yes, people are dying, and all kinds of privations are in place, but it is not a war. There is a discernible frontline of health workers, emergency staff, and the bus drivers and cooks and childcarers that support them, with the acts of everyday heroism typical of a war. Many other workers do not have the luxury to pause or to work from home. There is suffering, particularly amongst those who were previously suffering due to fathoms-deep social inequalities, living on the streets, or on food parcels, or with various forms of precarious employment or status, or under the threat of various forms of domestic violence or loneliness. And yes, people are dying.

Yet for many, life has taken on a very different hue to that of a war, forced only to slow down, socially-distance oneself, and stay in place. It’s an odd dream-state, asked to work from home such that the days blur together, to somehow balance the distance-learning of children with your own apparently endless Zoom meetings, to wave at the neighbours through the window to the street whilst having on-nomi drinks with long lost friends on the windows of your laptop, to think about growing food in the garden or courtyard, or apparently, to bake bread at scale with the sole purpose of posting on Instagram, as if we have just discovered that bread exists.

Lucy Kellaway in the Financial Times even asks “Is it OK to be happy in lockdown?”, capturing this odd condition. For many, yes. For those with fewer options, no. Those working in at that ‘front line’ do not get to see the luxurious side of the lockdown. But then they did not see much luxury before the lockdown, either. We owe them everything, including simple daily acts of gratitude, yet as Mariana Mazzucato points out, applause does not exactly cut it when in countries like the UK and the USA, the status of public health workers has been systemically diminished for years. Similarly, the precariat working in Amazon warehouses or food delivery services were in a precarious condition before the lockdowns. That is not a war problem—unless the war in question is the wider campaign against inequality.

But for many, the virus has inadvertently provided a glimpse of something else. This pause, or slowdown, reveals something about that pattern of development. The almost instant regeneration of some of the ecosystems outside of our windows has made many realise that another green world could be just within reach after all. But more broadly, there may also be a dawning realisation that a more profound ‘slowdown’ had already been running, like a background process hidden in plain sight amidst all the sound and fury of constant GDP growth, burgeoning world population, increases in life expectancy, the endless explosion of new social movements, the impossibly rapid rate of technological change.

For as Oxford University professor Danny Dorling’s new book ’Slowdown’ suggests, none of those things are true. Every single one of those dynamics is in fact slowing down, pretty much everywhere, and has been for years. Just as nature is slowly reclaiming the streets and the skies outside the window, suggesting what our environment could be, the dreamlike psychological state of forced slowdown may be a loose sketch of what new forms of a community could be, what our economy could be, of other currents running deep.

(Ed: I wrote the first 12 Slowdown Papers before Dorling’s book was announced, or before I heard about it, at least. I’m reading it now and it’s excellent. It’s a happy, and useful, coincidence that many of his themes underscore — and backup with data — several of the angles in the earlier Slowdown Papers, and some others below. Equally, his book has many more angles to it, too. Do pick it up.)

’Slowdown’, Danny Dorling (2020)

It is appalling that it takes a pandemic metaphorically putting a gun to our head for us to place this slowdown in the foreground, but there we are. We are not an especially thoughtful species, it turns out. We respond to “show, don’t tell”, and as Dr. Dennis Carroll says, “we don’t invest in risk.”

Within weeks, thanks to a slowdown caused in the worst possible way, we have produced significant drops in carbon emissions, in pollution generally. If a coronavirus-impacted pattern of living is enforced, or sustained, throughout the year, as many think could happen, we are heading for perhaps the biggest drop in carbon pollution since the end of the Second World War (in 1945, we saw a 16% drop, as wartime machinery powered down.) This could be extraordinary, for as Dorling points out, one major pattern sticks out, as an anomaly to the Slowdown:

“Almost everything is slowing down apart from one thing: the rise in temperature of the air around us.”—Danny Dorling, Slowdown (2020)

We are no way near 16% right now, however—probably only at about a 5% drop in carbon emissions for the year, assuming a ‘recovery’ (not the right word) during the second half of 2020. This does not even get us close to the 7.6% drop required for every year between 2020 and 2030 that most governments promised under the Paris 1.5 agreement, despite a near-global-shutdown for over a month. This shows the backed-up legacies of supply and demand, over-production and consumption, the ‘lag’ of embodied carbon in our economic systems, and their built outcomes—those goods and services are just piling up in container ports, just as oil is becoming worthless being poured into storage tanks, yet the carbon has been already been spent.

That surprisingly low estimate also suggests how long we would have to maintain this pattern of living if we want to use it to make the case for effecting systemic change. Unfortunately, there is a palpable sense of ‘feeling good about ourselves’ for our belt-tightening and its assumed impact on the environment. Yet the numbers do not hold. This is not to deny the positive effect of the clear skies and quiet streets, the immediately discernible impacts that prompted me to write this series. It’s just that a glow of self-congratulation would be inappropriate during a pandemic in which people are dying. Equally, it took a pandemic to force us to slow down, so let’s not kid ourselves about our own agency.

Finally, the pause is not enough; we need to build motivation for a genuine transition. That difference between 5% thus far and 7.6% for Paris 1.5 indicates the scale and speed of transformation we require, and the need to maintain a focus on that transformation, as the virus begins to fade from view. Already, I hear mutterings in Europe that ‘coronavirus killed the Green Deal’, which, if true, would show a wilfully and dangerously short-sighted view of the situation we’re actually in.

In Stockholm, if I look out of the window we not only have clear skies and car-free streets, but a preponderance of hares, deer, and birds, all of whom were previously locked in asymmetric warfare with traffic. Venice has clear waters, Los Angeles has clear skies, for the moment at least. Towns and cities around the world are witnessing simple but extraordinarily meaningful acts of everyday kindness, amidst various forms of community cohesion,

Whilst people are dying there can be no talk of silver linings. Yet we can see that we will need to keep pursuing the question of the curves beyond flattening the curve, in order to maintain and develop those small transformative movements around us, whilst genuinely addressing the broader patterns that lead to this and other crises. The Slowdown, extrapolating Dorling, could help hugely with this, but will not solve it equitably without our careful steering. As he points out in his book, population growth does not cause carbon emissions. It’s the lifestyles and politics of a small proportion of the world’s population—largely, the wealthy West—that has created global temperature rises. So a general Slowdown, including declining world population after a peak in the mid-21st century, is not enough in itself. Shifting this will be an exercise in politics, not just letting a clock’s battery run down.

But in the spirit of engaging with the Slowdown, in the context of observing and reflecting on what the coronavirus may mean, how could we think about what comes next? My experience and interests largely concern our built and natural environment, our planning and governance systems, the infrastructures and architectures of everyday life, the essence of place and the cultures of public life that they are formed by, and in turn, enable.

The decisions we make about these fast- and slow-moving layers account for the lag in emissions above, as well as our ability to articulate and transform our cultures. So what patterns could be extrapolated, and to what end? And perhaps more importantly—as this is not an exercise in prediction, but a brief demonstration of one line of thinking at least—how might we think about these questions in the first place?

The Saarinen Principle

A century ago, the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen describes a way of moving across connected scales, pronouncing “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”

This phrase has become beloved by strategic designers, that peculiar hybrid strain of design (of which I am one) which realigns and applies some of the principles of design to ‘big picture’ systemic challenges.

Although the principle in itself doesn’t address dynamics of change, or how transitions might happen, it nonetheless gives us a way of exploring relationships across artificially disparate boundaries, spaces, experiences, and disciplines, using a spatial dimension to articulate how everything is connected. Thus it helps unpack something of the impact of human-created systems like Covid-19, and gives us a handy tool for thinking about what’s next.

What follows is a brief exercise in pulling on some threads in this way, in order to demonstrate a way of thinking that others might adopt and adapt (and no doubt improve). It is not a prediction or a suggestion; just speculation to trigger thoughts, and suggest practices.

Slowdown Papers

This is the second batch of Slowdown Papers, a series of observations, reflections, and ideas, emerging from my view of the early impact of the coronavirus Covid–19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2020. All Slowdown Paper are collected here.

13: From Lockdown to Slowdown

“Chair-room-house-environment-city plan”; how the coronavirus could change the strategy for our patterns of distribution of workplaces and work, from home to town to countryside to nation.

14: From Lockdown to Slowdown: Home-Work-Farm

As Covid-19’s Great Pause forces a blurring of home, work, office, classroom, studio, and shop, we get a glimpse of the patterns, spaces, and rhythms of a deeper slowdown.

15: From Lockdown to Slowdown: House-Playground-Street

Circling around our homes and their environs due to coronavirus-induced loops, how do the patterns, edges, and dynamics of neighbourhoods change in the Slowdown?

16: From Lockdown to Slowdown: Neighbourhood-City-Country

The Slowdown brings the return of the ABC-City, neighbourhood markets, crowds in the city, and greenness on the edge of town.

17: From Lockdown to Slowdown: Region-Country-Continent

The changing dynamics of a deeper ‘slowdown’, hinted at by the coronavirus-induced ‘pause’, could change the distribution and dynamics of production and consumption across city, region, and nation, with outcomes not only for sustainability, resilience, and wellbeing but also politics.

18: From Lockdown to Slowdown: Tokyo as Slowdown City

Polka dot city Tokyo as an exemplar of ‘Slowdown’ theory, as the world’s largest and smallest city, and as a case study for others post-COVID.

Slowdown Papers

A series of reflections and loose extrapolations, based on the early impact of the Coronavirus

Slowdown Papers

The Slowdown Papers are a series of observations, reflections and loose extrapolations, based on the early impact of the Coronavirus COVID–19 pandemic, particularly on the way we make decisions about cities, systems, infrastructures, cultures, and technologies.

Dan Hill

Written by

Dan Hill

Designer, urbanist, etc. Director of Strategic Design at Vinnova, Swedish govt’s innovation agency. Visiting prof UCL Bartlett IIPP + Design Academy Eindhoven

Slowdown Papers

The Slowdown Papers are a series of observations, reflections and loose extrapolations, based on the early impact of the Coronavirus COVID–19 pandemic, particularly on the way we make decisions about cities, systems, infrastructures, cultures, and technologies.

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