Mark Sackler 0:00
So always a pleasure to welcome back Cindy Frewen to seeking Delphi. Cindy, how’s it going?
Cindy Frewen 0:15
Hello, Mark, how are you?
Mark Sackler 0:16
Hope you’re holding up all right in this crisis? You are first and foremost an urban futurist. So we’re talking about urban and social issues post COVID-19. Let’s start with urban issues. And I’m going to start with the big picture. And the biggest picture is the 300 year trend we’ve had toward urbanization. Now, the UN Urbanization Prospect Report, from a couple of years ago, cited statistics like this; in 1700, the global population was 5% urban, by 1900 with the industrial revolution that had become 16% urban. That has only accelerated in the last 50-75 years it became 50% urban by 2007, it’s close to 55% now and is projected to – as of 2018 – approach 70% by 2050. But the big question for you is do you think you see scenarios ahead where this is going to change? Maybe people want more space, people are getting used to working remotely? How do you see this stuff playing out in terms of that trend?
Cindy Frewen 1:28
So Mark, that’s a great question because I like the long term aspect of it. This 300 year trend, and in fact we’re getting to this sort of peak urbanization, only because it trails, it lags peak population. Peak population happens because it’s part interactive with urbanization, education and health. These things create an environment where people move to the city, quit having as many babies, and healthcare elongates our age and so we age but we don’t have as high fertility, and the two balance out. And in this next century we see a leveling off or even a decrease of people. And urbanization is in part because there are so many people, and that we don’t have to be on the farm, and so there’s a whole economic component to it. So it’s a complex issue. It’s across domains. Urbanization happens not as a driver but as an outcome of other kinds of lifestyle issues, and population—it’s all very interactive, it’s a system. So will it reverse?
There’s places that are already starting to reverse in Europe and China and Japan. It’s starting to flatten because their populations are flattening, and as populations flatten you have fewer people moving into the cities because there’s fewer people. Right now it seems to be more flattening, but by the end of the century, we will see this long term trend towards shrinking populations. And how do we then deal with that? And that’s a whole different topic. We haven’t ever done that before (where we see we’ve never successfully shrunk although we have shrunk). I mean, there has been other time periods where we depopulate, and in part because of pandemics.
Mark Sackler 3:32
So perhaps you think maybe COVID can impact us? I have heard a report that some realtors already see people looking to move to less crowded areas. Even my millennial daughter who swore to be an urban dweller her whole life is suddenly wishing she had a little space. So is this going to be a sharp impact on on the trend or is it just that kind of a passing thing.
Cindy Frewen 4:02
One of the things that happens with this more virtual society, which I think is the long term impact of COVID-19, is that the trend towards having more online activities has been sped up dramatically. Instead of a slow climb, it is a sudden climb, it’s a sudden change. Will it ever go back? A rubber-band never goes back to the size it was right? It gets stretched. And I think that’s true in this case too, automation and virtual lifestyles are both going to be digital lifestyles. They are going to increase rapidly because of this intense pressure in just these few months.
Because this is — in terms of science — a 12 or 18 month cycle before vaccine, our behavior has changed dramatically already. We responded to that. And the people that have really taken the brunt of the problems are the first responders and the workers who were stuck on the front lines unprotected. And now the healthcare system is in a crisis stage because it wasn’t planned. It wasn’t planned for this kind of peak problem. So there is another thing that we have that we are not good at yet and we will become better at; how do you deal with peak moments without building unnecessary infrastructure? And so how do you deal with the concept like suddenly we need all these ventilators, masks and all the PPE immediately, and all these extra beds, but what do we do about it afterwards? And how do we always have the right amount without the ventilator going bad or going obsolete you know, how do you keep it up to date? Well, we have to have faster, lighter responses, combined with great networks and communication and the ability to act more quickly. Those are the sorts of things that’ll make us better at these sort of emergencies, which are becoming more and more frequently, not just because of pandemics but because of other kinds of disasters as well.
Mark Sackler 6:28
Getting into more specific urban issues, mass transit is a major staple of large cities. And yet, as you can see, people were packing into New York City subways, even as the COVID virus was just starting to occur in New York, and I wonder how this portends for the future of mass transit, in cities and the future of cities, as there isn’t an easy way to get some of these large numbers of people around in the most crowded urban areas.
Cindy Frewen 7:04
So they’ve had a few of these epidemics in Asia in the last 20 years and have learned to be better at it than we are, because we haven’t seen it as much. But they’ve learned better health [responses], but we’re getting better automation – so maybe we don’t have to touch all the same things. I mean, why is it that every single person has to touch the elevator buttons? Why is it that we all have to touch the doors as we come and go, these are things that are easily remedied in a touch free manners and why haven’t we done that? Because it’s a really automatic spread of germs.
So are you safer in the suburbs, or the urban rural areas versus the urban areas? Do the pandemic spread faster? Of course they spread faster because there’s more people to spread to. But this pandemic in Italy for instance, (which was the hot bed until the United States is making everybody else look like they’ve been brilliant in preparation by comparison) in Italy it was because a Wuhan engineer came from the car factory and went to a factory in Italy, which was also one suburb to another suburb, both of them industrial level factories that were out in the suburb area. And that is the beginning of this mess that they have in Italy. So Italy has not been [like this] because they’re all on subways, but it’s because they were in areas where they happen to have industrial, happen to have a car plant, and suddenly they got hit by a massive surge without protection, without preparation. So it was a combination of (not thinking it was because of the location, but because it was) a lack of communication and then a lack of preparation. These two things can solve a lot of the problems. Not that we don’t need to also to change our behaviors to be better at not spreading germs – handshakes for instance, kisses on the cheek. There’s all kinds of ways we spread germs to people that we don’t even know that well, right? We always shake hands or something, and we always touch each other. And that is something that may get less and less, or right now it stopped altogether. That may be the end of those kind of habits.
Mark Sackler 9:34
Well, we’ll kind of get into some of those broader social issues in a bit from the standpoint of urban life. Do you see any potential for future changes in urban design, based on this global impact? I mean, it’s only the second time I think in the world. history that we’ve had an epidemic globally of this impact. And of course, the last one, the world was only about 20% urban in 1918. So what are your thoughts about that?
Cindy Frewen 10:15
As I said earlier I think it has to do with speeding up trends that were already underway. And suddenly all the attention is on how do we work from home better? How do we be more efficient? How do we take advantage of that? I see more people out on the streets with their kids in the middle of the day, because the kids are not going to school. But that is not even, let’s say a healthy long term lifestyle. The kids are all at home, meaning they don’t learn all the social processes that you would if you were at school. So maybe there becomes a better balance between when do you need to be with people, and when should you be just using your own space at home, combined with why do we have all these unused spaces that are empty on the weekends at night times while we’re all at home? Why have we compartmentalised our lives so much that we have to have these huge highways that are only totally occupied about one or two hours a day and the rest of time have a lot of empty space on them? We have a lot of heavy infrastructure in our cities that have been underused for years and years and years because of a very, let’s say, awkward industrial-era set of ideas; about nine to five work Monday through Friday.
Mark Sackler 11:46
We’re kind of segwaying into more general social issues here, and this is more of an issue in urban centers, but it’s to some extent all over. And that’s simply crowds, crowded streets, museums, shopping centers, sporting events. You know, clearly this stuff still existed after the 1918-1919 pandemic. What do you think’s gonna happen with that? Are people going to be reluctant for years to come to go back to large gathering places? What’s your take?
Cindy Frewen 12:29
Sure, it would be until there is a vaccine. I mean, it seems to me like that is a really critical element. Now, what are they going to do in the meantime? That’s where there could be some interim, very unusual, situations for trying to get people together. There’s a lot of people that don’t even believe in it right? And will they then see these outbreaks? Will there be an outbreak, for instance, in places that decide to get together for Easter, and will see then an uptick? In Kansas there was 10 outbreaks, and three of them were at churches, and the churches that continue to decide to meet. And then one of them would be positive without even knowing it, right? Because that’s the problem with this pandemic, is that if you haven’t been tested, which most of us have not, you may be positive without exhibiting symptoms. And so you’re spreading it innocently. And that’s why we’ve all started being much more cautious with masks and such.
So the long term has got to be science, or we have to change a lot of things. There’s many hopeful solutions already on the horizon. It’s not that this is so rare and unusual that they have no idea what to do. It’s that it takes some time to test and make sure they’re doing the right thing. And so it’s not that this is so mysterious to them. It’s just that it’s new, it’s novel, and that it takes time for them to fix it. Now, is there going to be in the future quicker ways to respond to these things? I hope so, because in 18 months, a lot of people and a lot of changes have to happen. And what if these become rolling? What if it mutates by the fall and it just continues to change on itself? Then we really get into, do we ever get to have huge gatherings? Or do we have to go with some sort of virtual gaming games and parties and everything else? I hope not because people do desire large gatherings, they flock to them. And to not be able to do that – I can see where we can make solutions to not overcrowding other places. But most people are getting this on the front lines of very everyday habits. That’s is just the shopping and the going about everyday life, work, eating, the basic things that we can’t not do. But there’s so many changes happening at the level of deliveries, at the level of how you work, how we meet, how we play and socialize. The optional gatherings is where the vaccines are going to have to come into play if we’re going to continue to have large sporting or music events.
Mark Sackler 15:36
Well, the suggestion of virtual reality is interesting because I’m trying to figure out how to maintain my conditioning. I play tennis two or three times a week and the indoor tennis club is closed. You know, I’ve got a little bit of a home gym, but it’s not the same thing. And I tried to buy an Oculus Quest and see that they’re all sold out everywhere. So I’m curious what you think the role of virtual reality could be in the future, it certainly would be keeping us a little closer together at a time like this, maybe a little bit better than zooming. But the fact of the matter is, for the long run the impact is still to be determined, is it not?
Cindy Frewen 16:19
Well, one thing that’s really clear is that the people that are most damaged are the ones that are the least healthy and they have underlying conditions or they’re really old. But usually that includes your underlying respiratory issues. And so being healthy is the first line of defense. And the second line is personal hygiene, personal care against germs, just as an individual. Then what can we do in terms of the system? Well, some of this has shown that people that are black and brown in America anyway are being killed far above the number of people that are in society, far above the statistics that they should be. And it’s in part because they are the ones that are most exposed. By virtue, they can’t work at home, you can’t do some jobs at home, you have to be out in the public. And then they weren’t well protected for that. And they had maybe underlying conditions. And maybe they had to take the subway because they were so far distant from their job, that they had to use public transit to get there. All of these things add up to a disadvantage. The healthcare, the kinds of jobs, and where they are in the city that causes them to be in the public sphere when they shouldn’t be, and it’s an unfair disadvantage that has happened and really, something like a pandemic exposes the weaknesses of a society and in this cases, things gets exposed is a combination of the healthcare emergency, and the the workers that get exposed.
Mark Sackler 18:15
In terms of what we call a wildcard as futurists, and maybe the public knows them as Black Swans, the sudden unexpected event that changes things radically in my lifetime, I see that there have only been really two almost instantaneous events that caused the degree of social and political and whatever economic change that this is going to and I would call those the JFK assassination and the 911 terrorist attack. And I’m wondering how you see this in comparison to that. Obviously the after effects of this look like they’re going to be more sustained, but it has been a very sudden change. And I wonder if you see any parallels and distinct differences?
Cindy Frewen 19:02
So JFK, you would say that’s civil rights at the end of the Vietnam War, that entire social change era of the 60s, one of my favorite topics, the moonshot, right? All of these things happened out of JFK. It had a ripple effect from his presidency and assassination. And so those are still unfolding, they still have an influence on American life at any rate. [After] 911 we became more aware of security and terrorism, and that again was global – that was a very global impact compared with JFK. But JFK has been more of an impact on the US, I think. Because I’ve been overseas on 911 and people don’t even maybe mention it, [yet] on September 11, we’re still very involved, it’s very present in America, it’s alive. But the terrorism and those security threats going through the airports and the kind of things that you get into; metal detectors in all kinds of places. All of these have been global. These security issues have happened. Again, it’s another issue of so many people close together. And how can you be safe from people that are terrorists or in some way, you know, mentally unstable? So, what would this have to do with – seems to me it’s on a combination of healthcare and virtual automation, virtual/automation, that reality is getting sped up. And I think some of it will be very permanent.
I think we’re all going to be more aware of germs here, as they have been in Asia already. Will we be better at responding, will they actually have better health? I mean, we have enough beds. It’s not our problem. We have a lot of healthcare professionals. They may not be at the right place. It was really equipment where we showed. But we never would have gotten it to the point that we could have 325 million people wearing masks every day, right? We never would have had that level. At some point it becomes an individual effort, because that’s how you can aggregate faster. All of these things could be permanent changes. We will be more cognizant here in America about germs and about spreading germs. I think those will make behavioral changes.
I’m hoping it will make some changes in how inefficient our cities are, and making them function towards a new age as opposed to functioning towards an industrial age, which they are. We live in our parents cities, we didn’t design them, we live in them. And we’re stuck with these things that were designed in the 50s and 60s, for a different kind of lifestyle than what we necessarily need now, and this may cause us, may force us to think it through. Because the old way was very unsustainable and very uncomfortable in many ways. There’s parts of it that we’re adjusting already – virtual teams were becoming quite common in certain kinds of industries. But rethinking, when do you have to come together and when don’t you in terms of work? Maybe in the future, these grocery stores will primarily [carry] fresh produce, and the rest of it comes to you shipped on a regular basis. And it’s possible that the way that we shop and the way that we work will change dramatically. The thing that (as I said before) comes up for grabs is how do we socialize and play? Because that is optional, that is by choice, but people like to get together.
To see the closing of museums, that would be so sad. Maybe more people will have access to them virtually, but still seeing things in person. Being able to travel to Italy. I mean, we have to be able to see Italy in person, you can’t just hear about it or read about it. Or even see it in 3D glasses. It’s just not the same. It is a spatial experience that has to be seen in a tangible way. We’re tangible human beings. We just can only go so far, virtually. And it’s important we make those choices and then how do you make those choices safely. I think people will be thinking about it twice. The ships, I don’t know about the cruise ships, those have a long way to go to repair the damage. And you know, being on an airplane that has got all this recycled air that also is going to have an entire review of how it works. Buildings are going to have that kind of review of their ventilation and their clean air issues. You know, more sustainable buildings tend to be healthier, and being healthier usually means you have operable windows and less mechanics, and that you’ve used all the passive kinds of means that we had forgotten about when we sort of created these self contained boxes, and so how do we how do we take advantage in that regard? I mean, you can see that there could be benefits.
Mark Sackler 24:56
Okay, well, one last question here. We’ve compared this crisis to some past wildcards within our lifetime, but let’s go back to the the prototype for this, the 1918 Spanish Flu. I’m wondering, have you at all looked at that, and looked at the aftermath? And is there stuff from that that we can learn? Even not so much in terms of managing it now, because there’s five times as many people on the planet now. News is instantaneous. People travel more now. But in terms of managing the aftermath, have you looked at that and is there anything we can learn in terms of our future response and our urban design social change?
Cindy Frewen 25:44
So the Spanish Flu was massive and it happened on the heels of World War One. In fact, some people would say that it started in Kansas, and that it was then taken over to France, taken over to Europe, they only call it, I guess, the “Spanish Flu” because Spain was not involved in World War One, it was sitting it out and was reporting on this, whereas other countries were suppressing the information. So sharing information on this pandemic has been crucial to stopping it and making us learn to social distance and to wash our hands and to keep our hands off our face. The things that are behavioral and immediate, because the health system had some gaps, had some shortages. So how do you even stop it in the first place? Well, they didn’t have any of that with the Spanish flu. I think it changed our (in America I think the) life expectancy changed by, I don’t know, 8 or 10 years in a year because of it. It was really massive compared to what we’re having here (where [for us] the massiveness is in our behavior changes), not in the level of the pandemic at this point. The numbers of the pandemic have been controlled compared to what they could have been if it was 1918. And that’s because of our communications and our ability to make changes immediately. This is a little bit of the Y2K phenomena – if it didn’t kill you, did it really happen? You know, if it didn’t destroy our life expectancy, was it really a pandemic? And yet, it was because of our behavior changes. We did it ourselves. It was an action that they weren’t able to do then. People weren’t even sharing between countries how big of a problem they had. And so then they continued to spread it in the Spanish flu, and so a very different set of health care priorities. They just weren’t in the same mindset, of how do you stay healthy, not to mention the idea of being healthy in the first place, which is the best defense against these flus.
Mark Sackler 28:09
Well, one additional thing I’m gonna comment and if you want to add to this, please do but mentioning Y2K, that kind of showed that with foresight, we could solve a problem before it occurred. Now, that was something much more concrete. We knew what it was, we knew when it was going to happen. I heard people complained that nothing would happen. Well, nothing happened, because everybody worked to fix it before it occurred. And it’s a lesson that society’s got to learn for wildcards as well as the predictable stuff like Y2K. I think it’s the lack of foresight in the US and other countries that has been the biggest problem.
Cindy Frewen 28:51
Yeah, well, one of the things to note in this is things not to do, and one of the “not to do” is to see this as us versus them. For instance in either political or urban, suburban or urban, rural or east coast, Central, coastal center, versus center, all of these things that you can start parsing out and saying, well, it’s their problem. It’s everyone’s problem. So that’s the first piece. We’re learning from each other. And so making this a learning event, as opposed to a fearful event. That seems to be the key to making us move ahead and actually come out as more safe, more health conscious, more thoughtful society, making it so that it’s not just one domain so that it’s economic versus health. That’s another us versus them problem. And that isn’t true because the reality is it’s really become both. And it’s all of these other things to, its population. Its urbanization. It’s across domains. It’s a global problem. And so it’s what not to learn, but do we want to learn?
And it’s not to isolate permanently because people need people, and don’t leave people alone just because we have to be in these social distancing moments, because being alone during this time period is a very worrisome, anxious situation. And you know, mental illness is real, loneliness is real. And so how you can reach out to people? You see pictures of it, you see images and stories about it every day. And so what are the stories we come out this? I’m just completely entertained by some of the memes that happen on Twitter and such. You know, what day of the week is it and all of the home or working at home issues that others of us that have done this for years now, are very familiar with, which is, you know, it’s not funny every night if you shut your computer and say, Honey, I’m home after some point, it’s not funny anymore. Because if the computer pops right back open later, but it’s these kind of things, I think, affect the culture and they affect our habits and our rituals and eventually our stories about who we are. And so how do we come out of it with stories about how we did a better job than we could have, but the things that we could have learned in terms of preparation earlier, and being ready. We really have some things to learn on that.
Mark Sackler 31:44
Well, thank you, Cindy, your insights always very, very perceptive. And it’s always a pleasure to have you here. Thanks once again for for joining us.
Cindy Frewen 31:58
All right. Thanks, Mark.