City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

8: An A/B test on our way of life

Written in


Morning walk, Stockholm 6 April 2020

The lumpiness of history, how events change the world, World A versus World B, and six questions to prompt reflections about what the coronavirus might mean.

Making lumpy decisions in the Slowdown

The word ‘crisis’ effectively implies decision-making itself. According to Jonathan Safran Foer, in his book ‘We Are The Weather’, the contemporary understanding is derived from the Latin crisis, and from the Ancient Greek κρίσις (krísis, “a separating, power of distinguishing, decision, choice, election, judgment, dispute”) and κρίνω (krínō, “pick out, choose, decide, judge”). Interestingly, that older definition does not capture the magnitude of decisions that are suddenly possible, or even required, in a crisis.

“Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.” — Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, 1962

That Friedman said this also indicates the danger lying in wait within the response to crises. His book, which the quotation is taken from, somehow became the ‘inevitable ideas lying around’ at the end of the actual and perceived crises of the 1970s. It kickstarted a half-century of political thinking and action in most ‘Western’ countries that now leaves those same countries facing the coronavirus with battered healthcare systems, poor quality governance, and diminished trust. So, decider beware.

Yet this is another salutary remind for those of us with the word ‘strategic’ in our job titles—it is events that shape the world.

As William H. Sewell described, in a fascinating paper exploring how global events produce change, via the lens of the 1789 French revolution:

Lumpiness, rather than smoothness, is the normal texture of historical temporality. These moments of accelerated change, I would argue, are initiated and carried forward by historical events. While the events are sometimes the culmination of processes long underway, events typically do more than carry out a rearrangement of practices made necessary by gradual and cumulative social change. Historical events tend to transform social relations in ways that could not be fully predicted from the gradual changes that may have made them possible. What makes historical events so important to theorize is that they reshape history, imparting an unforeseen direction to social development and altering the nature of the causal nexus in which social interactions take place.” — William H. Sewell, Jr., ‘Historical Events as Transformations of Structures: Inventing Revolution at the Bastille’, Theory and Society, Vol. 25, №6 (Dec., 1996) (My emphasis)

This “lumpy texture” precisely describes the series of sudden moves forwards and backwards, and perhaps even the visual language of rather bumpy curves we’ve been suddenly thrown into. Equally, as I’ve hinted, the patterns beneath the emergence of the virus are increasingly clear, just as the potential changes are suddenly visible too. Yet if they were difficult to predict before, they are difficult to predict next, too. To labour the point one more time, this is when we observe and learn, rather than strategise too much.

But right now, for those not on the front line at least, the Slowdown outside offers a chance to explore alternatives, to see what might be ‘lying around’, in Friedman’s words, once we move into the next phase. As Sewell continues, “Events are sequences of ruptures that effect transformations of structure. If structures are multiple and overlapping, it follows that any transformation of structure has the potential of touching off dislocations and rearticulations of overlapping or contiguous structures.”

In other words, the Slowdown enables us to test ideas that seemed a long way from reality at the turn of the year.

An A/B test on our way of life

The idea of A/B testing is drawn from the user experience research practices which drive the product development, especially in the the tech industry. The formal definition would go something like this:

“A/B test is the shorthand for a simple controlled experiment. As the name implies, two versions (A and B) of a single variable are compared, which are identical except for one variation that might affect a user’s behaviour. A/B tests are widely considered the simplest form of controlled experiment. However, by adding more variants to the test, this becomes more complex”

A simpler way of thinking about it is just to say compare two options, learning from peoples’ responses to them. In effect, the slowdown going on outside the window right now means we are inadvertently conducting a mass A/B test on our entire way of life. World A, pre-virus; World B, the glimpse of something else, suggested by the impact of the virus on everyday life.

We will need to make decisions about the tactical interventions that can be halted or removed once the peak of the virus is over (assuming it will be), and the interventions that can be seen as more strategic, those that enable us to transition to another green world, genuinely addressing the systemic challenges posed by the linked crises of climate, health and social justice — of which the virus is merely a terrible manifestation.

As per my promise at the start of this, I will not be proposing actual measures or interventions; I’ll be merely observing and reflecting, writing to memory. They of course relate to my ongoing interests in cities, systems, cultures, institutions, infrastructures, and public life. But with the spirit of this inadvertent A/B test, many others have started logging the different patterns of activity happening in this temporary World B.

There are hundreds of these sets of observations, and thoughts about what to do, already out there. I urge you to be observant and reflective too, and to question the value of some of these changes, positive and negative.

To be clear once again, many of the changes posed by the virus are appalling: most obviously people are dying, health workers are burning out, there are transformed mental and physical health and wellbeing, loneliness and domestic violence, dictatorships and surveillance states are emboldened as much as environmental campaigners, and we are facing an unprecedented exacerbation of widespread economic hardship. Despite it being a global pandemic it is, as ever, affecting the disenfranchised, the poor, and the vulnerable the most. Pandemics reveal the faultlines deep in the bedrock of our systems and cultures.

Yet, again prompted by Latour, and many others unless we pause to publicly explore what the crisis means, we would be entering the deeper climate crisis with a blindfold on.” Or perhaps wearing a mask.

As I have suggested, the causes of virus, climate, health and social justice crises — and the reasons they are particularly dangerous — appear to be linked: ecosystem degradation, pollution, biodiversity loss, over-tourism and untrammelled globalisation, industrialised agriculture and unhealthy food, decreasing health and social inequalities, and so on. These collectively producing clear systemic shocks.

Continental-scale bushfires and global pandemics like COVID-19 are only weak signals, albeit terrifying ones, of slowly tightening noose of the climate crisis. That same system has produced vast wealth, but unequally, and been invested in ways that have not built resilience, in our cultures of decision-making or infrastructures, places and patterns of living; Piketty and many others have demonstrated this so thoroughly that this is the clearest of faultlines.

However, given these are combinatorial systemic effects, the transition to different systems can be linked too: after the urgency of the initial response, which is rightly focused on respirators and beds, medics and vaccines, we must use the second wave, the energy mobilised by the curve, to rebuild not with ‘business as usual’ but with fixing the climate crisis as our guiding ‘north star’. In doing that strategically — or, put more simply, by doing that well — we also address chronic health, social justice, and more resilient communities and economies.

This means, once we are past the apex of this virus — as we are with this season’s bushfires more of less — we are not simply flattening the curve of the virus, but riding the curve into new or continued activities, so that we rebuild out in positive directions. It means not firing up ‘business-as-usual’. It means pointedly ignoring those suddenly quiet engines. It means accelerating out of the curve with a renewed sense of momentum for another green world.

A glimpse of another green world

The immediate restorative impact on the environment, thanks to some aspects and outcomes of our collective behaviour change in response to the virus, is actually incredible. It reveals what’s possible. It is this close, tantalisingly within reach.

And yet everything is deeply uncertain; about what sticks, and what doesn’t, and what should, and what shouldn’t. That uncertainty is common to a design process, where a comfort with an ambiguous or blank canvas is almost a desired pre-requisite, but it is not comfortable for most. As Lea Ypi puts it, “there is an unforeseeability of the future … and the less we can connect our post-emergency lives with our pre-emergency lives, and then we are staring into a completely open horizon in which anything becomes possible. That’s the real worry.”

This, again, is where Sewell’s analysis of how events change things, documenting 1789, which recognises how horrifying the insecurity in a revolution can be, but also how it enables collective creativity, and thus the emergence of “unforeseen social fields”.

“Dislocation of structures, I have suggested, produces in actors a deep sense of insecurity, a real uncertainty about how to get on with life. I think that this uncertainty is a necessary condition for the kind of collective creativity that characterizes so many great historical events. In times of structural dislocation, ordinary routines of social life are open to doubt, the sanctions of existing power relations are uncertain or suspended, and new possibilities are thinkable. In ordinary times, cultural schemas, arrays of resources, and modes of power are bound into self-reproducing streams of structured social action. But in times of dislocation, like the spring and summer of 1789, resources are up for grabs, cultural logics are elaborated more freely and applied to new circumstances, and modes of power are extended to unforeseen social field.” — William H. Sewell, Jr., ‘Historical Events as Transformations of Structures: Inventing Revolution at the Bastille’, Theory and Society, Vol. 25, №6 (Dec., 1996)

So despite the gnawing uncertainty, or perhaps because of it, now is a time to document and reflect upon what’s happening outside the window, either at the intense front line of healthcare systems and other essential services, or the enforced Slowdown for the third of the world’s population currently in some form of self-isolation, or those in the most vulnerable of places in-between, where slowdown is absolutely not an option and nor is coherent healthcare.

Despite contributing small tactical inventions at that front line, design often feels like a spare wheel at times like this. Yet one thing it can do is offer up tangible scenarios to populate that ‘open horizon’. These are not yet plans, but simply ideas. As they are ‘sketches in words’, no matter how located and informed they are, such scenarios can enable us to explore conflicting views.

“There is a tendency to see this particular instantiation of a future presented in front of them as the future, and therefore a ‘prediction’, or be completely dismissive of it as it doesn’t align with their ideological worldview. The possibility of sitting with the discomfort of uncertainty and being open to multiple views of the world is difficult.” — Anab Jain, Calling for a More-Than-Human Politics

Our own work here in Sweden will attempt to locate futures — the future of the street, or the neighbourhood, the future of food, or of learning — within what I call the ‘everyday complex’ systems of things like streets and schools and farms and shops.

Complex as they are, they are still the outcome of active choices. And if we make other choices about them, in a world of everything connecting, we can unpick and re-thread almost anything else. Projects there will use some of the techniques of fiction and cultural imagination — as this is partly what design is — but also discussion and debate, as well as the basic mechanics of prototyping alternative systems in place. Those systems might be the mundane everyday tasks like charging a vehicle, delivering a parcel, and a class cooking lunch together, or more profound interactions like enabling a community to lead, own, and manage the design of its own street. All these small acupunctures are potentially transformational, given the way systems are put together, or entangled.

Whatever happens with the virus, this broader disaster of interlinked climate crises, health crises and social justice will not pass so easily. Alongside countless essays, academic papers, and practical guides like Drawdown, I read a slew of books on the climate crisis last year: David Wallace Wells ‘The Uninhabitable Earth, Timothy Morton’s Being Ecological, Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth, and so on. All are good. All make clear what we are in for. All, in some senses, help us with what we might do, with Morton the most interesting in terms of how we might inhabit this new cultural and philosophical landscape, and Latour’s the clearest in terms of a politics, and particularly the value of a new European response.

But the two books that affected the most were both science fiction, essentially: John Lanchester’s ‘The Wall’ and Yoko Tawada’s ‘The Last Children of Tokyo’. Both describe a future, transformed by the climate crisis, in very different ways. Neither are predictions; both are wake-up calls, and more useful — in the richest sense of that small word — than Latour’s, or Morton’s, or Wells’s, as good as they are.

Although quite different in tone, they both describe post-climate apocalypse dystopia, and both in some way relate to the contemporary classic, Children of Men’: the stolid British earth tones and police state of ‘The Wall’, versus the quiet existential horror of the next generation quietly fading away, in ‘The Last Children of Tokyo’. This latter aspect is quite different to at least this strain of COVID-19, with its awful tendency to affect the elderly most of all.

Children of Men (2006)

Mark Fisher wrote about the particular kind of future in Children of Men:

“Once, dystopian films and novels were exercises in such acts of imagination — the disasters they depicted acting as narrative pretext for the emergence of different ways of living. Not so in Children of Men. The world that it projects seems more like an extrapolation or exacerbation of ours than an alternative to it. In its world, as in ours, ultra-authoritarianism and Capital are by no means incompatible: internment camps and franchise coffee bars co-exist.” — Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (2009)

With the virus, we have quarantine and franchise coffee bars co-existing, although the latter are struggling, admittedly. But we can’t allow this single timeline to continue unfolding. The doubling-down on Orbán that Orbán has already instituted in Hungary is highly problematic, a sort of intensification of ‘business-as-usual’ rather than an alternative. In my former home of Veneto, Italy, questions are beginning to be asked about ‘sorting society’ based on biological resistance to the virus. If aligned along an all-too-typical trajectory for politics in the Veneto, that could also be dangerous.

We need “different ways of living”, as opposed to the exacerbation of the world as it was poised, before the virus. And for that, we need different ways of seeing.

Six simple questions to prompt complex reflections on the emblematic and the essential

Inspired by Bruno Latour’s “little exercise” of questions to reflect upon, what follows is a set of questions for prompting observations about the ‘emblematic and essential’ aspects of the Slowdown.

To begin with, I’ve adapted Latour’s set of questions, to provide six simple prompts for identifying, observing, and developing these more urban, systemic, and infrastructural angles. (Feel free to adopt these for yourself, just as I stole from Latour! This is simply in the spirit of individual or immediate noticing, of observation, and remembering; Latour’s questions, quite rightly, also ask about on direct action, and support for the front-line and the communities around you.)

The questions require a starting point of active, detailed observation, assessing the new or differing patterns of activities happening around you, assessing activities that are significantly increasing in proportion (whether baking or surveillance), and those that are diminishing, or stopping (whether aviation or hugging). These we might describe as activities that are emblematic of the virus; that they are characteristic or symbolic of this present moment and its conditions, and thus laden with both possibility, if scaled and continued afterwards. They ask, in the language of the time, which of these emblematic activities could become essential — which also suggests we assess the non-essential. This is highly subjective of course, and more than a little normative, but these purposefully simple prompts are to encourage both detailed observation and constructive, critical thinking. So, having created lists of what seem to be emblematic activities …

  1. Which emblematic activities do you think we should continue?
  2. What possibilities emerge from these emblematic activities?
  3. Which activities have stopped that you would not restart?
  4. What possibilities emerge from stopping those activities?
  5. How would you restart essential activities that have stopped?
  6. How would you ensure these emblematic activities stick and develop?

(They sort of work in pairs, as in question 2 looks for the second-order implications of question 1, just as question 4 does for question 3. This prompts the recognition that everything is connected, and so each of these emblematic activities impacts upon multiple other activities, or scales, structures, and spaces around it. The last two are ‘how’ questions. Question 5 explores how to restart essential activities that have temporarily stopped, recognising that the proportion of the activity is a choice, not an elastic band springing back to pre-determined business-as-usual (aviation might be a good example.) Question 6 asks how we might continue what you think are positive emblematic activities, which also begins to explore the other side of that resistance to longer-term change. I’m working on a more ‘institutional’ set of these questions, for use at work.)

Leading to some glimpsed reflections in response

Of course there could be another six or sixteen or sixty questions, relating to scales of activity, to curtailing regimes and building niches, to economies, and so on. But they will do. Some version of them prompted the following observations.

I’m certainly very aware of Geoff Mulgan’s sharp comment that there have been a “flood of predictable articles on what might come next, mostly backing the authors’ hobby horses.” And I can’t promise that the outlined ‘ways of thinking’ that follow do not reflect my own hobby horses. They relate to my ongoing areas of interest, and often projects or perspectives I’m involved in, no more. Or, perhaps, after Friedman, they are the ‘ideas lying around’ inside my head. Again, I’m not writing this for a white paper, a journal, or a newspaper, but as a way of seeing, remembering, and thinking.

There are hundreds of these observations around now, and all power to them; we need this observing and discussing at scale. I’m interested in those responses, and some of mine are below too, but I’m more interested in the second- and third-order impacts implicit within them, the short- to medium- to long-term implications — the curves beyond the curve — for the reasons described previously.

Slowdown Papers

These are a series of observations, reflections and ideas, emerging from my view of the early impact of the coronavirus COVID–19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2020, but following the Australian bushfires over Christmas 2019.

1: Writing to memory

Observing, listening and writing, as a way of remembering the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, from within the midst of the slowdown.

2: The pitiless crowbar of events

How will we remember the coronavirus? While we are ‘flattening the curve’, how can we think about the curves beyond?

3: Remember the bushfires to remember the virus

The Australian bushfires and floods as harbingers of the coronavirus, and a world wearing masks and blinkers.

4: We make the virus and the virus makes us

The reversed dynamics of coronavirus and climate, and how the destruction of biodiversity that created the climate crisis probably also created the virus.

5: The curves beyond the curve

Flattening the curve on corona, squeezing the curve on climate.

6: A language in crisis

How key words, phrases and concepts are being bent out of shape by the coronavirus, shaping how we think about what follows.

7: Cultures of decision-making, in Sweden and beyond

Sweden’s ‘Middle Way’ approach to the coronavirus, democracy as a political system for people who are not sure that they are right, and the role of trust, expertise and citizenship, as compared with other Nordics, Taiwan and China.

8: An A/B test on our way of life

The lumpiness of history, how events change the world, World A versus World B, and six questions to prompt reflections about what the coronavirus might mean.

9: The restoration

The coronavirus immediate creates a restored and regenerative environment, and the Slowdown starts to create new habits.

10: Another Green World

Slow cities, flightshame, fast and slow layers, energy use maps the permanent weekend, the acceptance of essential infrastructures and Universal Basic Services, and is the coronavirus forcing us to sketch new forms of governance?

11: Post-traumatic urbanism and radical indigenism

How cities post-coronavirus can benefit from the distributed patterns of post-traumatic urbanism meeting radical indigenism, Wakanda meeting Aalto, and ‘Lo-TEK’ nature-based technologies meeting contemporary infrastructures.

12: Between the roots and the stars

Another green world lying just beneath ours; what our response to the coronavirus can learn from the night sky after Katrina, a 6000 year-old eel machine in Victoria, and a spruce tree in Sweden.


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