Co-Designing The Way Forward: Re-Opening Shared Spaces

Jose Acuyo Cespedes is a Senior Consultant at PPL with a background in pharmacy and public health. During lockdown, he was responsible for developing the “re-opening public spaces” framework, and has since been working with the public sector stakeholders to develop COVID-19 recovery plans.

On 23rd March 2020, the British public received a very direct message from the Prime Minister: “From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction - you must stay at home”.

The timing of lockdown measures around the world will likely be debated for years, and the full impact is unlikely to be known for some time. However, in terms of the objectives of protecting the NHS and saving lives, there is broad consensus that the measures have flattened the curve of infection; and, despite many tragic losses, including amongst frontline workers and in care homes, these measures helped to safeguard both individuals and key public services.

As a result, it became difficult for many of us to imagine feeling safe without social distancing.

But social distancing comes at a cost, not just to our society and economy, but also to us as individuals and communities. In the same way as we adapted to lockdown, it became increasingly important to start thinking about how we moved into a new paradigm – where we still needed to protect the NHS, vital care services, and lives; but also to re-build broader public services, communities, and the life of the country.

Much debate centred on how you can maintain full social distancing until an effective vaccine is found, and the honest answer is that we can’t.

There is no need for testing, tracking or tracing, expanded access to personal protective equipment etc. if we can all remain isolated from each other, but for many key workers, staying at home was already not an option. The schools that educate our children, the public transport systems upon which we rely, the places that act as a sanctuary for those in need, as well as those that entertain us and help us with our daily lives, very few of these could return to operation sustainably simply by imposing two-metre separations.

For increasing numbers of workers, individuals, families and communities, the challenge involved staying safe, and protecting others, supported by other means.

This is not to say that social distancing won’t remain an important part of any pandemic response, and many measures which have been identified are supportive of, or supplemental to, continuing with social distancing where possible. However, if we cannot wait for a vaccine or cure, then this process showed that there were nonetheless things we can do to help ensure that any re-opening of public spaces, when it occurs, happens in a way which harnesses all the potential tools at our disposal.

The framework that resulted was co-developed using international best practice, national government guidance, and focussed thinking around potential issues and how to mitigate them.

It covered eight core elements:

1. Physical space: how spaces could be adapted to allow staff and service users to interact more safely, including areas such as hygiene, seating arrangements, ventilation, and signage.

2. Flow: optimising the flow of staff and visitors to minimise “unnecessary” contact and maximise social distancing opportunities.

3. Equipment and supplies: ensuring people have all the equipment they need to interact effectively and safely.

4. Technology: exploring technological solutions to enable safe and effective working, for example reducing contact points, supplementing physical interactions or enhancing cleaning.

5. Travelling: ensuring people are able to travel to and from the space in the safest way possible, including expanding facilities such as secure bike storage.

6. Engagement: working with staff and visitors to understand and adapt to the rapidly evolving situation.

7. Meetings and events: ensuring that larger meetings can take place safely, including tracking attendees and making spaces as COVID unfriendly as possible.

8. Service continuity: developing and updating business continuity plans, and regularly updating risks relating to staff, service users and the organisation as a whole.

Whilst there is a lot that was identified that could be done, challenges remain, including:

• Individual circumstances: Whilst some people may be comfortable or even anxious to re-enter public spaces, everyone’s situation in relation to the pandemic has been understandably different, and many find themselves uncomfortable with the idea of going back into a shared space.

• Imperfect solutions: The pandemic has evolved rapidly and is something that none of us have experienced before. The reality is that few solutions will be perfect first-time round.

Co-design is a proven way of helping to bring people with a range of perspectives together to develop ideas that are stronger than anything we can produce alone.

Critical to the success of these types of initiative has been giving people the (virtual) space to air new or existing concerns whilst simultaneously providing shared forums for the generation of new ideas.

An iterative and flexible approach is key.

The pandemic is a situation that affects each one of us and it is important that we are all involved in designing solutions. Having the humility and flexibility to recognise the need to change direction gives us the best chance of restoring spaces and services which are important to all of our health, wellbeing and our broader lives.