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Bounce back or bounce forward?

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The ability to “bounce back” is held up as a hallmark of resilience after a shock or stress. But should we aim to bounce back from the coronavirus crisis? Wouldn’t it be better to bounce forward?

This month, Salon Canberra hosted two innovative design thinkers—Dr Alexander Smith and Anitra Nottingham—in an online forum which explored this question.

Anitra, RMIT Online’s senior learning experience designer, kick-started the conversation with an observation from @EbThen, who identifies as an autistic designer.

EbThen recently tweeted: Able-bodied folks are finding out what disabled people all eventually figure out. There is no ‘back to normal’. There’s a ‘before normal’ and a ‘now normal’ and a ‘future normal’.

We are all “effectively disabled” by the ramifications from COVID and must now work out what our “future normal” looks like, Anitra said.

Anitra Nottingham.

It’s a scary thought, but this future normal must balance “the hammer and the dance,” Anitra argued, as periods of isolation and social distancing are interspersed with easing of restrictions and moments of celebration.

“To build the best future normal, we need to build for both the hammer and the dance,” she said. That means creating businesses, systems and communities that function well online—when the hammer falls—that can be adapted to work well in person, during the dance. To do this, we must “think in terms of translation, not in terms of replication”.

Anitra’s fascinating design career has spanned book and brand design, teaching typography and design thinking, and today she makes online learning practical and beautifully functional. So, she has experience and insight when she says “some things can’t be reproduced online”.

The secret to success is to “ask what you are trying to do, rather than focusing on the way you are doing it”. This helps us to choose the right technology and tools for the task.

Credit: Arran McKenna.

Anitra also talked about how to build trust online, which she says is underpinned by “credibility, intimacy and reliability”.

Relationships can be consciously forged over text and video chat—but “people have to think you are around”. Proximity isn’t about geography, it’s about time, Anitra observed.

Creating connection is also occupying the mind of PwC’s Dr Alexander Smith, who designs programs and immersive experiences to help organisations solve their complex problems.

The symbols of connection and community cohesion—from hugging to handshaking—are no longer possible. Humans are social animals, so how do we form trusting relationships when we can’t connect physically.

Dr Alexander Smith.

Alex pointed to the work of Jamil Zaki, director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory, who argues the linguistic dissonance of “social distancing” is unhelpful. Instead, we should be focused on “distant socialising”.

“The technology that has held us apart is the thing that is keeping us together,” Alex said.

While we are “hyper-localised in a lockdown state” we are also “hyperconnected” because technology “gives us a flat playing field to connect with anyone”. It is no harder to have a conversation with someone on the other side of the world than it is someone on the other side of the street.

The danger is to mistake connection for connectedness, Alex argued. At the first stages of lockdown, Alex noticed a reversion to the “late 90s meeting culture” as everyone “felt the need to stare at each other on screens” without “bringing any humanity” to interactions.

But what was once a “flat one-dimensional screen” is now a “multi-dimensional window” into the lives of others. We are learning about our colleagues’ pets and children, the décor in their living rooms and their choice of casual clothing.

This gives us “a sense of depth, understanding and connectivity” that is richer than any we could get from “sitting in an office together”.

Technology may be the window, but the pandemic is a portal, Alex said, quoting Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy, who has called COVID-19 “a gateway between one world and the next”.

There can be no return to normal, Alex said. But amid the disruption and despair, we had a “responsibility to reimagine a world we’d want to inhabit”. In reimagining our future we will bounce forward, not back.

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