1 September 2020

5 ways COVID-19 will change social infrastructure

1 September 2020

In response to COVID-19, social infrastructure is responding to the adage “necessity is the mother of invention” in real time. Ideas that may have been smouldering in the periphery are becoming mainstream. Creatively devised temporary solutions may in fact prove permanent.

These five areas of potential transformation are not new concepts. What is new is the rate at which they are changing all over the world. 

1. Innovative medical facilities

Lightweight materials are a must for disaster care; large white medical tents are usually the first thing to appear. But they’re flimsy and useless against cold and high winds. The state of Hidalgo in Mexico recently came up with a brilliant solution – an inflatable hospital to test for COVID-19. All you need to erect the nearly 2000 square meter structure is a compressor. Such temporary inflatables may evolve into permanent structures in the future.

When speed may make the difference between life and death, modular construction is one answer, and a US company is taking this to the extreme. Complete single - and double - rooms usable for quarantines and medical care, are flat-packed for delivery and multiples of them can be transported by one flat-bed truck. Instant mini-hospitals in a box.

2. Focus on occupant health

The Healthy Building Movement has struggled against builders’ need for operational efficiency. Perhaps no more. If anything, forced quarantining in hotels has exposed the torture of canned lighting and windows that can’t open. Regardless of specific use, post-pandemic structures should incorporate ample access to fresh air, more natural light, indoor green spaces, and be active-oriented in terms of vertical movement: more stairs and fewer lifts.

3. Adaptive Public Areas

Social distancing is changing our perception of public spaces both indoors and out. For interiors, we can expect changes to entrances and foyers, the size of lifts, common areas on each floor, and access to the roof (and amenities found there). Outdoor areas will become critical components of social infrastructure, with a need to provide safe access while encouraging their use.     

4. Safer prisons

Worldwide, there are close to 11 million prisoners and few countries have escaped from COVID-19 infections in their prison populations. Overcrowding makes social distancing impossible, and extreme lockdowns are sometimes forcing permanent cell confinement.

The need for social distance will spur building design changes, including ways to safely allow inmates beyond their cells and prevent infection from outside, whether by daily staff movement or visiting loved ones.

It may also lead to structural reform in terms of incarceration periods and types. In other words, shorter sentences and more lockdown options outside prison.

5. Smarter courthouses

Certainly courthouse design and communication technologies must adapt to social distancing. But it is more than that: COVID-19 may forever change processes within the courtroom.

For one thing, what of the jury? Will appearances both in-court and in the jury room fall away in favour of teleconferencing? And what of prosecutors, defense attorneys and witnesses? For example, can technology prevent a witness participating from a remote location being coached from beyond camera range? If witnesses must be physically present, adjustments will have to be made.

At the very least, future courthouses will require heavy investment to increase IT bandwidth and areas allowing for safely-accessed isolation.

In this rush of change, guide posts are largely absent. However, one tool could be useful: the Global Infrastructure Hub’s Inclusive Infrastructure and Social Equity Guidance. Though devised for analysing large infrastructure projects, the same guidelines could be implemented on adapting to the demands of the post-COVID-19 reality. Perhaps it will soon be used to optimise all future social infrastructure.

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