Work with me here… It’s post COVID-19. Let’s say it’s post-2020. The combination of the 2020 shutdown, the paused economy and global recession, the viral-yo-yos of reinfection that followed throughout the year and into 2021, and the months of physical isolation, in many ways, woke us up.
We were still reeling from the Black Summer. The rapidly escalating virus protocols forced us into our homes at a time when, more than ever, we just wanted to get back to “normal”.
Thousands lost their jobs. Even more lost their savings. One by one our industries and finally our schools all closed. It was a cultural shock unlike anything most of us had ever experienced.
We scrambled and hoarded. We were far from our best selves. People slipped through the cracks, not just those on cruise ships but those who never had a voice in the first place.
We were lucky that we eventually turned to each other rather than on each other.
And as we learned to cope with the forced transitions, it gave us time to stop, to think, more deeply than ever.
We pondered. We grieved. We agitated. We reflected. We had time re-imagine and re-calibrate how we wanted to come out the other side.
Thousands of students around the country started their online learning journeys, valiantly facilitated by their teachers. Parents took on the dual roles of supervisor-mentor and home-worker. We struggled, and we were exhausted.
But we learned. We got better at it. Our collective mindset changed in subtle, but valuable, ways.
We found more efficient ways for our children to complete tasks, to engage more online, to collaborate virtually. The world’s museums and galleries geared up and presented virtual exhibitions.
The kids started to self-organise and coalesce in cyberspaces and cyberplaces, creating virtual worlds, meeting places, classrooms and workshops.
Gradually, through months of lockdown and physical isolation, the adults started learning too. The “Zoom Boom” of the early days of our physical isolation rapidly evolved into new modes of online creativity and learning.
We became more proficient at solving wicked problems together, generating new knowledge, new insights, new revenue streams, and new ways to grow a business.
Month after month, businesses, organisations and entire industries fell. But others were born, at first with tentative, uncertain steps, but then with increasing confidence and ambition.
It became a renaissance of innovation that not only found better ways of doing things, but we found ways to bring everyone along. Socially-driven enterprises brought us together in new ways. Cyber start-ups specialising in online virtual and augmented collaboration and learning flourished to feed the insatiable demand.
The online economy boomed, spurning new growth in cyber-knowledge and AI, 3D printing and drone logistics. The Airbnb’s and Uber’s birthed by the GFC in 2007-08 were nothing compared to what emerged from the paused economy of 2020.
And sure enough, we started to notice some things that once taken root, wouldn’t let go.
For many of us, the commute was gone. We ate better, and more often with our families, with our children. We saw each other during daylight hours, we got to know each other again.
We were distracted in ways that reminded us of our own un-complicated childhoods. We softened. And as the teachers started to find their pace with online teaching and learning and facilitation, and the children adapted as they do, and the parents started to regain their productivity and found more time for learning, for networking and joining, for thinking, for appreciating how wonderful it was to be able to go outside and feel the grass under their feet on a “work day”. We all realised something…
It was better…
Sure it was hard work in a way, but we continued to adapt and find more efficient ways of doing things. Our homes thrived, becoming hubs of living, learning, loving, working and playing, and the wave of innovation and emergent industries fed our transition.
We made our homes vastly more energy efficient and comfortable, connected with nature in any way we could. Our “working day” started to blur and meld into our living and teaching day. We collaborated as families, and intergenerational learning took on a new meaning.
We started to question how we once did things before the virus. Our offices sat idle for 70 per cent of the week, our schools for more than 80 per cent of the year, and we spent so much time moving from one function to the other, spending billions on the infrastructure to do so. It seemed like a wastefulness all of its own.
It was a handful of the private schools that started the shift.
Under the pressure of dwindling cash flow, exhausted savings and a growing cohort of families who opted to continue home schooling as the lockdown faded, the schools sought new ways to survive.
They discovered ways to regain and even create new revenue from buildings that were already there, once sitting idle for much of the year.
Surplus classrooms became collectives for local workers and small businesses, sharing resources and floor space. Others were adapted to cater for university students, with weekend intensives and residentials.
School operating hours began to shift and expand. Gates and fences were opened up to the community. Open space was used for gatherings, growers’ markets, food swaps.
School grounds became community grounds with play spaces, urban food gardens and places of respite.
Community outreach, local health and med-tech services, consultancies and neighbourhood re-planting programs emerged.
The business hubs thrived, birthing even more innovation, community initiatives and social purpose start-ups. The boundaries between working and learning became blurred.
Living spaces were added to provide close-to-work accommodation for the new heroes; our nurses, teachers, fireys and the raft of front-line workers who, before the virus, couldn’t afford to live anywhere nearby.
The first schools to pivot and innovate led by example, inspiring more to make the transition, eventually even the public schools.
We spent more time in our own neighbourhoods, working and learning locally, and less time on the roads and in city offices. Local streets became greener as we reclaimed them as our own.
Our cities continued as vibrant cultural and institutional hubs, but profit-driven outward growth was now less viable and somehow just less attractive.
Our local communities continued to grow inwards, to fill out the formerly empty spaces and empty hours with an incredibly rich and productive ecology of learning, working, creating and playing.
The schools were still schools, but they had become something new as well. They had become regenerative in many senses, healing the community, giving back, driving innovation, and allowing us to retain all that extra time we’d thrived on during those challenging months of physical isolation.
By now, many of us around the country are somewhere in the first few weeks of our work-from-home-and-home-schooling journey. And for most of us, we’re discovering that the blending of work, schooling, parenting and having some semblance of ourselves remaining at the end of the day is hard work. It’s even exhausting.
But we’re also realising that it has a lot of upsides. We’ve removed the commute, we’re eating well (some of us too much), we’re learning to socialise and collaborate online (and there’ll be some great things that come out of this) and we get a lot more time with our families, which is exactly what we need in this increasingly stressful and worrisome time.
And in the months ahead, we will have time to ponder, to think, to imagine and maybe even create a better way to do things when we come out the other side.
I’m already seeing the strength of our local community starting to emerge and for mine at least the vision of a vibrant, equitable and restorative community hub in our now-empty local school is a compelling one indeed.
Digby Hall is Northrop Consulting Engineers’ sustainable communities + climate resilience lead. An architect and climate resilience specialist, Hall integrates the newest thinking in climate resilient communities with business strategy and continuity. He provides strategies and transition plans that support property owners and organisations in their shift towards zero carbon and restorative outcomes.