The catastrophic economic impact of lockdown calls for a global rethink of how we might live and work in future, says Gleeds’ Richard Steer

richard steer BW

The latest estimates of the economic impact of the workforce staying at home, huddled over PCs laptops and smartphones, sits at around the £15bn mark - the equivalent to a 1% dent to GDP. It is not surprising when the headlines are dominated by talk of empty commuter trains, deserted concourses and a frightened workforce. 

If we take one firm, Aon, which is based in the London Cheesegrater as an example, last month it had 6% of its 2,800 staff back at work and  hopes to get, at most, a further 20% following suit in the coming months. This is not good for their staff, their business or the wider economy.

They are not untypical. Bloomberg is reportedly offering a stipend of up to £55 a day to get its workers back to its building in London. The average office could safely work with 25-60% of its staff on site while maintaining a two-metre distance between individuals. But offices which span more than five floors rely on lifts; the queues for access, when only two people are allowed inside, can stretch around the block.

Some offices are trying to make themselves safer places to work and therefore more appealing. The managers of a new skyscraper in London, 22 Bishopsgate, have switched off its recirculated air-conditioning. Others have installed hand-sanitising stations and put up plastic barriers. But even if offices are safer, it can still be hard to get there. According to a survey from YouGov, just over one in five Londoners does not believe they will use the Tube as often as they did prior to the pandemic. The same poll also found that 21% of respondents thought their reduced bus usage would be permanent.

I would argue that, hopefully in the short term, there will be a gradual seepage back to work as the long-term effects of being away from physical contact with colleagues and the shared work environment start to move productivity backwards rather than promoting its growth. However, I believe we are tinkering around the edges of a far more important debate here.

At some point a global society that needs to continue to function against a backdrop of recurring pandemics may look to its architects, constructors and  consultants to come up with a new way of living 

While covid-19 may have rapidly changed the commercial landscape, this is about more than where and how we work – it raises questions about how the shape of society may be forced to change if this pandemic proves to be the first of many, all with their own contagion rates and resistance to treatment. In other words, if this is only the beginning, where do we go from here?

Surely governments will be forced to take a more holistic view, considering not only the way we work but the way the ever-growing global population lives? The catastrophic impact of a worldwide lockdown will mean that we may eventually need to find a way to contain and control mass movement. 

One solution that has cropped up time and again, in theory at least, is the “city-in-the-sky” approach, where every aspect of life is contained within a high-rise tower. These towers would come complete with commercial, residential, leisure, education, and healthcare services all contained within a central hub, in essence creating fully operational economic bubbles. In its most basic form, this kind of building could be relatively quickly and efficiently constructed using modular build techniques coupled with 3-D printing methods (assuming you can make the necessary space available, of course).

Italian architect Piero Lissoni’s studio has designed a far more complex and aesthetically pleasing version of this conceptual building in the wake of covid – a self-contained community and vertical urban farm on an imagined 80 by 130 metre site in New York. Its scheme uses geothermal energy and photovoltaic panels for power, a rainwater recovery system and water use management for water, and features space for a school, university, offices, and its own well-equipped hospital for residents. Similar ideas have been proposed in years gone by, most often in response to competitions seeking the most outlandish imaginings of “tomorrow’s world”, but never before have we looked at the concept as a viable solution to emerging global health disasters.

If governments were to adopt this approach, instead of having to lockdown on a national level you would have the ability to “quarantine” a building and the population within. You can approach cleansing, test, track and trace on a floor by floor basis while ensuring society is still able to function and the country outside its walls can carry on as normal. The buildings can go up into the sky as many are doing in Asia, and down beneath the ground with linked transport systems. As evidenced, this is not an entirely new concept, but a compulsory form of housing provision like this would solve the problem of needing a populace to move about and spread infection for the sake of the wider economy.

I appreciate that this may seem a somewhat dystopian, totalitarian and futuristic suggestion, however with the current approach to managing the pandemic causing a huge worldwide recession, almost inconceivable death rates, and untold interruption across the globe, there needs to be a practical solution to how we live, work and play in a post-covid world. 

Few epidemiologists believe that this will be the last pandemic of its type, or even the worst. At some point a global society that needs to continue to function against a backdrop of recurring pandemics may look to its architects, constructors and consultants to come up with a new way of living, just as it is looking to its clinicians for a vaccine today. 

Richard Steer is chairman of Gleeds Worldwide