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  • Writer's pictureHarjeet Cheema

The 2 Metre Distance Between Humans Will Be Filled By The Machine

Updated: May 27, 2020

Over the last few weeks I have been writing about the potential impacts I see of Covid- 19 on various aspects of business that may be coming on the horizon. I’m continuing with that theme today because, well, why not? It doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

It’s interesting to see that as we emerge from this phase of lockdown how businesses and various sectors adapt. We are now starting to look at a Y shaped recovery, with some sectors able to bounce back, and others like travel and hospitality on a slower, separate branch. One trend I’d like to focus on, is the shift that was already taking place to a more automated, data-driven world and how this current crisis is likely to accelerate this trend.

One of the key areas that has been discussed with people returning to work is, well, how do they get there? Public transport has been identified pretty early as a higher risk activity and certainly seems to aide the spread of Covid-19, as well as more 'typical' viral infections.

I recently read an article that showed people that use the Tube in London are more likely to catch respiratory infections, even pre-Covid. There is also a school of thought that London’s extensive tube network was one of the key drivers to the early rise in infections in London compared to the rest of the UK, although general population density and international travel links would also play a part. It has also been shown tragically by the number of London Bus Drivers that have suffered from Covid-19, with a number sadly passing away also.

So, before we can even think about what a workplace can look like, we have to consider how people will arrive? Driving has been mentioned as the most low risk activity, but if everyone chose this, city centres would become gridlocked within hours, furthermore a growing concern and one that has a link with Covid itself is air quality. So travelling into a city centre presents a conundrum with no immediate beneficiaries.

One of the data-driven trends that was already on the horizon is self-driving cars, and if this is a new era of pandemics here to stay, using vehicles that don’t have humans in them is certainly more appealing then not. It still doesn’t completely solve the challenge, shared travel would remain a problem, and moving to driverless in units of 1 or households will still lead to complete gridlock. Equally the legislation and technological infrastructure for driverless cars remains a considerable way off, and can't solve coming out of this particular lockdown.

Cities have a huge logistical challenge to overcome to get people working, socialising again. That approach will need to be data-driven, TFL has already been using Wi-Fi data for a number of years to understand peaks and troughs at stations, to prevent platforms becoming overcrowded and moving people through more effectively. This kind of approach is going to have to be taken to the city level. Cities will need to understand who’s walking, cycling, taking a bus, or driving? Where are they going? When? Etc. This smart city approach has been seen as a utopia that’s coming down the line, but in order to get people back to work in the short term and keep them safe over the next 12 to 18 months, some of these measures are going to have to be adopted now. That brings that particular data-driven utopia closer.

One of the distinctly low-level impacts of the lockdown has been the impact on my phone’s battery health. Fortunately, I am at home, so a charging point is never far. Frustratingly it’s how many times I’m finding myself sat within a cable distance of the plug socket on the wall that’s on my mind. I’ve seen a number of parents joke on social media that they have simply given up on screen time. My weekly report on-screen time has seen records tumbling and I imagine its similar for a lot of people.

What we’ve seen in the last couple of months of lockdown in a bid to survive is an increase in online to offline services where possible. A number of restaurants and chains have signed up with Deliveroo etc. and people wanting to retain a sense of normality have taken advantage of this.

Supermarkets that previously didn’t do delivery have started to; many people that didn’t use home delivery now have. Whilst increasing custom, the secondary benefit of this is the amount of data now available to brands and these habits will stick. If you’ve been doing your shopping online for 3 months during the lockdown then even when/if the world returned to completely to ‘normal’, why would you wrestle with a physical in-store shop again? Most of those customers will stay online, those brands have the ability to build up a better understanding of them through their digital footprint, profile them, and ultimately market to them, better retaining them from their competitors.

This crisis may see a bigger trend to 'online to offline' services. China is a model of the online to the offline world, with consumers having the ability to order home massaging services, hairdressers, and more. Home ordering food may overcome the barrier to others. Hairdressers may be an obvious one as restriction’s abate, if the transport is a pain, and someone can come to an environment I can control, then why not?

Personal Trainers who are without gyms at the moment are taking ‘advantage’ of the easing of restrictions and are now able to provide one on one distanced services in parks or gardens, taking advantage of the summer weather and equipment that many people have managed to procure over the last few months. This will likely soon extrapolate out to group training, and combined with increased social media presence and eyes, trainers will have the ability to market themselves directly to potential clients without having to use a gym floor. This is a classic online to offline service, and the best at it will be using a data-driven approach. A couple of gyms have offered video library platforms to their customers for the duration of the lockdown, these will be here to stay and another channel with which to engage customers. So, a model that was largely based on a physical location and social media marketing is now becoming increasingly intertwined and meshed together and what that does is generate more data.

Mobile devices are addictive in nature. The most successful apps have dopamine release at the center of their models. This keeps you coming back for likes, comments, shares, and lol’s. That 1-second buzz. This trend has only increased during the lockdown, with people isolated at home, my friendships have moved 100% to my laptop and my phone. Without delving too deep into quantum physics I have no way of proving that my friends even exist anymore beyond the pixels I see on screen. Given how quickly people form habits, and how invasive our phones had become already, interrupting conversations, dinners, performances to just wondering in and taking in sites in a new city. Eye’s on-screen have been here to stay, but they’ll potentially be even longer after this.

Especially as we emerge in an anxiety dream, looking to the news for constant updates on the safety of our day to day activities, perhaps even using apps to navigate corona hotspots. The relationship with our key frenemy the phone will strengthen and that will ultimately lead to more data. Social Media saw new users, Tik Tok for example. Or it saw people using it for different things, people have been posting less pictures on Instagram, because they have nowhere to go, but Instagram Live has exploded. Despite having nowhere to go, and no reason to dress up, we’ve been watching social media more than ever and that’s here to stay. More services, more apps, more users, more screen time, and more posts. That leads to more data, more accurate profiling and proliferation of the services that are to stay. Both humans and machines can be affected by virus’s, but for now, machines can’t infect us. They can keep us informed, safe, entertained and so for those reasons and more our relationship becomes increasingly symbiotic during this time. Before this crisis your phone was a gateway to enhanced services and experiences. For the last two months however it’s been a portal to the entire world outside of your four walls, and that is habit-forming.

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