In Wuhan, life looks different after the coronavirus. A strict lockdown was lifted on April 8th, and people have been slowly resuming their normal lives with some restrictions remaining in effect. To travel between cities, check into hotels, and enter shopping malls, people must get a green light from an app that assesses their health status. Masks are still strongly advised.
To other countries still in lockdown, the current state of Wuhan offers an interesting window into the future. In a likely scenario, we will face restrictions for the rest of 2020 – or even later until a vaccine is found. This period, which some call the "low touch economy", will be characterized by a gradual decrease of regulations around social distancing, hygiene, and travel.
Following in the footsteps of Singapore's contact tracing app TraceTogether, many governments in Europe, the UK and the US are investigating similar approaches to identifying people at risk after a possible exposure to COVID-19. Similarly, Apple and Google announced a partnership to build technology for encrypted, anonymized contact tracing. Less than a week later, the European Commission communicated a "toolbox for the use of mobile applications for contact tracing and warning.”
The design challenge
Without mentioning the ethical, political, and technical challenges of contact tracing apps, they are but one of many possible answers to this pandemic. They may work to contain the spread of the virus after exposure, but what about lowering the risk of exposure in the first place? What if instead we focus our efforts on solutions that empower people to regain their autonomy?
We call upon the creative community to look beyond the much talked-about approaches to contact tracing. There is ample opportunity to create solutions that focus on restoring our freedom and allowing the economy to flourish again – within the recommendations issued by public health authorities.
As creatives, we can help enable people to leave their homes safely without the risk of ending up in crowded spaces and long queues. Moreover, we now have the golden opportunity to take responsibility and create solutions that benefit not only individuals and society, but also the world – building on the positive environmental trends the coronavirus has been forcing us to take in recent months.
In short, how might we enable people to move, visit, and gather as freely and sustainably as possible, with minimal risk of infection?
Reservation systems to empower people
If social distancing guidelines continue as we resume everyday activities, the density of any future gatherings will be lower than we are used to. We already experience this today when we line up to enter a supermarket that has set a low maximum capacity of shoppers. This same concept could be applied to other spaces: public transport, hairdressers, fitness centres, museums, parks, and wherever people come together. But physically queing for every amenity and service is hardly viable in environments that were not designed with that in mind.
This is where reservation systems come into play; imagine that you could reserve a timeslot in the supermarket. Reservations have long been used to control access to products, services and spaces. Countless solutions are already familiar to us, from restaurant reservation books, to digital options like The Fork or airline seat reservation systems, to Airbnb, which has built its entire business model around a reservation site. As the coronavirus artificially limits the capacity of the spaces that we used to enjoy more freely, the ability to reserve could be our literal ticket to a responsible return to normal life.
Reservation systems are already in place in different contexts, here an example for reserving a seat on a flight with KLM.
Although it may sound tedious to reserve a spot in the park or a seat on the metro, reservation systems have advantages that go well beyond "just" containing the spread of a virus. We could be certain that during our limited time in the park, we would find ample space for picnics and playing frisbee. Grocery stores could anticipate precisely when customers would arrive, allowing them to plan their supply chain more efficiently; their customers would benefit from fuller shelves and fresher products. Public transport companies, which usually struggle to cope with rush hours, would be able to spread passenger demand – especially in combination with society’s newly gained flexibility in terms of working (from home). And above all our planet would benefit from a more predictable and reduced flow of people.
Criteria for successful reservation systems
Reservation systems for a low-touch economy will force society to negotiate new dynamics for using products, services and spaces. Without proper consideration we risk developing inequitable or unethical practices. Equality, inclusivity and impartiality are especially important for services that need to be accessed by everyone.
So, what criteria should we consider when designing a reservation system?
The foundation of any solution is that the basics work. Whether it is an app, a phone line, or a physical ledger, reservation systems must perform three essential functions: communicate availability, offer the means to reserve, and provide a waiting list for overflow.
The systems must guarantee that a reserved place is actually available at the desired time, otherwise users will lose trust. Depending on the amenity, verifying reservations, and enforcing access could be carried out by volunteers, private staff, government officials, or even users themselves if they have proof of their reservation to show one another.
Reservation systems should be easy to use and learn. We can rely on established conventions to ensure that a broad audience is able to utilize our solutions. Moreover, what someone considers easy to use depends largely on their beliefs, experience and preferences. For example, to make a reservation, some people prefer to call while others fill out a web form.
Photo by Tiia Monto
Considering that reservations could be used for all types of public services, solutions should be inclusive and benefit everyone. Such a wide target audience comes with a wide range of (dis)abilities, education levels, socioeconomic statuses, languages, access to technology, and many other distinctions. It is crucial that we do not exclude minority groups, otherwise any well-intentioned solution would end up disenfranchising them. For example, the elderly – already more affected by the pandemic – have a relatively low use and understanding of modern technology; we should therefore not rely purely on digital applications. And considerations like these benefit everybody - people in general benefit from more inclusive systems and exposure to diversity.
Queueing uses a simple and familiar concept: first come, first served. Reservation systems should follow logical social rules, offering everyone the same opportunities. We should provide transparency to assure that access to products, services and spaces is based only on equitable rules – not on factors such as wealth, social status, or internet speed.
From small hairdressers to large beaches, reservations will have to work in many different contexts. It is likely that many companies and governments will create or adopt their own specialized systems. We could think more structurally: build a modular, reusable template that can be tailored to fit different venues and industries. For example, a government could provide a single solution for all monuments, parks and beaches within a country, while not imposing its platform on privately-owned amenities.
Reserving spaces that we have previously accessed freely may sound like a tedious task. It is therefore critical that we think of reservation systems more like an empowerment than a constraint. We should strive to understand the frustrations that arise during a reservation process and turn them into highlights. A true pleasurable solution is one that fits into and enhances a user's life; it brings joy, and bonds users with it on an emotional level.
As we try to improve our situation from a human-centred perspective, we should not neglect the impact of our solutions on other areas such as communities, wildlife, and the climate. It’s our responsibility to create solutions that enable sustainable consumer behavior, humane policies, and respectful use of resources. Reservation systems could play a role in minimizing overconsumption after lockdowns are lifted. In general, the nature of our solutions, processes and collaborations should be ethical, so that our efforts benefit individuals, society, and the environment.
Let’s start a movement
Reservation systems have the potential to return to us a certain degree of freedom as long as some restrictions continue. If designed well, even people who are most limited in these times will have a fair chance to participate in society. Such solutions are challenging, but certainly achievable. We can build on concepts that already exist from long traditions - and they remind us that not everything has to be solved with technology.
We have presented a first proposal here, with many questions still to be answered and details to be worked out. In the meantime, we ask you in the creative community: what other ideas do you have to empower people in these times? Which criteria have we forgotten? Let us know! We look forward to using your solutions in real life soon.
Photo by Nathan Esguerra