deep dive

written by
Tim Fendley
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Choreographing the coronavirus dance
Techniques exist of how to reduce friction

The hammer

We’ve been in lockdown for a number of weeks. Unlike in the disaster movies, nearly everyone has learned how to and stuck with dramatic social distancing. There has been good behaviour. Nearly all of us have had our lives turned upside down, worried about our futures – or for those on the front-line, putting ourselves at real risk. But this might prove to be the easy part.

Total lockdown reduces social contact by about 95%, bringing a rapid halt to the spread of the virus. In Wuhan, it is calculated that the R number was initially 3.9, and after the lockdown and centralized quarantine, it went down to 0.32. It’s a strategy that’s been dubbed the ‘hammer’. It’s what is needed but it leads to dramatic impacts on the economy, service businesses especially and employment. Some irreparable damage could be done.

The realistic view is that inoculation and herd immunity is between 12 and 18 months away. We, therefore, have to choreograph a dance between the virus and the economy. During this ‘Dance’ we need to keep the R number below 1, by reducing social contact by 50%. While allowing as much of the economy to flourish. As much of normal life to be lived, our freedoms enjoyed and our social bonds maintained.

Avoiding the bottlenecks

As our cities and their systems start to wake-up it will be difficult to maintain social distancing without creating bottlenecks. At the same time, government bodies have their hands full. Protecting healthcare, finding an antidote, setting up tracing teams, clamping down on outbreaks and keeping whole business sectors from going to the wall. Most of all, their challenge is ramping up testing capacity, so that they have some idea of what is really going on.

Transit systems are seriously impacted. How can we organise safe air travel? How do we cater for the density of travellers on trains and buses that we are used to? They have access to bottlenecks as well as some serious proximity issues. For retailers, it’s perhaps partially restrictive. These are places that don’t normally generate serious bottlenecks so they should be able to adjust easier. They will, however, have new forms of access bottlenecks that they have not managed in the past. Social gatherings: theatres, bars, restaurants and nightclubs are another matter. By their very nature, they are places created by human gravity, they attract and are attractive because of crowds. They have all the problems. Access and activity bottlenecks, and serious challenges of proximity, along with an inability to control the spreading out of gatherings.

And yet, our economy and our sanity desire us to travel, spend and socially interact.

Applied’s information language can help choreograph pedestrian flow, remind everyone to stay apart, and help co-workers navigate the new rules of the office.

Friction between people

There are many ways we can impact how people move, how they gather and interact with places. Our work has supported retail centres, planned campuses, made large building complexes easy to navigate and created memorable places that generate crowds. We help reduce the friction between people, transport systems and the places we spend time in.

We work really hard to make moving around easy, to make people feel confident and free. We have proven that when people feel this way they interact, spend their time and cash, and enjoy being with each other.

We do this by really looking at how people make decisions, by understanding their world and working within their knowledge – to widen their perception of how they behave, and change what they think. When people can see things they can interact with them. The opposite is true, they can be unaware and blind. One terrible advantage of a virus is its imperceptibility, it only exists as a story we are being told.

So storytelling is crucial. We enable people to use transport systems, to feel confident to switch lines, to use bus services. We help places explain themselves so that every corner is visited, and we make buildings and campuses efficient, easy to visit and leave a lasting impression. Placemaking, naming lexicons, smart technologies, wayfinding, mapping and intuitive design are our tools. They work fast and they are pretty well effective.

What can be increased can be reduced

But the same techniques that increase proximity and tackle friction can also reduce it, strategically. The skillset we employ is directly relevant in designing how we tackle bottlenecks and proximity. We know the triggers and the way we can engage the public to guide them to change their behaviour.

To do this we need to choreograph our whole population. We need everyone to play a part and take responsibility for their actions – or it may lead to a return to lockdown. While individual businesses and organisations can and will take responsibility, this needs to be led centrally by the Government. It’s our interactions with others, who we may not know, and yet we have to dance with. Not easy at the best of times.

So how to dance?

Here are three things that cities should be looking at right now:

One size does not fit all. Not all places and transport modes have the same issues. These workplaces and venues can be placed into a typology. Some tackled individually, depending on the venue, and some need national, if not city-wide, standards. Why? because it’s easy to confuse, and it takes time to build an understanding of how we are going to get city populations to dance without stepping on each other’s toes. We also know that when people buy into a system, they lean into it and it becomes the de facto ‘way’. The system needs to be adaptable and consistent in the right ways.

People are open to new ideas because everything has changed. We can change how cities work overnight, part-time working, and give more road space to walkers. A study from the Bartlett School highlighted how 70% of London’s pavements are not wide-enough for social distancing. Vilnius has closed streets for outdoor cafés, Berlin has painted temporary cycle lanes. We will need a method to stagger travel times. This needs to be city-wide, not for each business. Reducing socialising by somehow rationing, as well as our best efforts when we are inside venues. A recent study proved that making toilets uni-sex reduced bottlenecks by 40%. We can encourage everyone to protect others if we have clear signs to tell us when to wear a mask. What does 2m feel like and when is it crucial to be observed. We could have coloured face masks to identify the most vulnerable. And green wrist tags for hairdressers and waiters to donate they have been recently tested. We surely can only fly when with a positive test before flying – this is already happening in Dubai.

We can only implement what people can understand and see. Keep the codes we use consistent. They don’t have to be simplistic, they can be sophisticated so long as they don’t confuse. Signs outside stores to make clear of the guidelines in operation. We need to encourage people to embrace the system instinctively. We have maybe two years to move around in this dance. We could choreograph the moves within a month. What is needed now is a fast strategic approach based on what we already know and rapid consistent implementation. This won’t work if it’s ad-hoc by different organisations. The key is to be fast, consistent and smart in how we apply this.

The virus needs to be visible to nudge people towards the right behaviour changes

Investing in behaving differently

Our economic well-being is dependent on returning to something like normal life. This will only happen if we get everyone invested in behaving differently. This needs leadership so that we can all follow. We if employ the techniques we already know we can help the economy flow more freely in cities, at various speeds. When COVID is not a problem anymore, and thanks to the experience, maybe we will have new habits that will make our cities a better place to live and work for many centuries to come

written by
Tim Fendley
Tim founded Applied Information Group to push the boundaries of information design. He is driven by the need to make cities more inclusive and explorative and has set a new standard for urban wayfinding with his notion of Legible Cities.
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