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On social distancing, the challenge is to design physical distance with social proximity

written by Ilaria Marelli
CATEGORIE Opinions

Rather than social distancing, we should start to talk about physical distancing coupled with social proximity. This fundamental difference will help us design new experiences for people when it comes to big events. When virtual and physical worlds will have to finally merge.

The new password is “social distancing”. But what we should aim for is physical distancing combined with social proximity. This is a fundamental node above all for non-essential activities. Those, that is, in which people decide to take part in pursuit of personal pleasure, a desire for belonging and participation.

Obviously digital supports us albeit partially. But we must develop “real-virtual” hybrid proposals that allow us to physically return to the non-functional but useful and necessary spaces to feel good. Those of culture, commerce and even fairgrounds, which are made of desire to see, touch, understand, share.

A post-Covid fair

As a designer, I obviously ask myself how all this can be accomplished, in what ways and also with what emotional appeal. Because the transition will surely take place in 2 steps.

social distancing

In a first phase – short and transitory – we can be satisfied with a “medicalized” simulacrum of social life that allows us to leave home. In this perspective, the stickers on the ground to indicate the minimum distances, the masks and the partitions will be accepted as a way to return to a similar normal quickly and economically.

But thinking about a medium-term perspective – a hypothesis that today unfortunately seems likely – we will not take long to desire something that at least partially preserves the emotions and beauty of past experiences. This is why it is worth making reflections in this sense.

The first step: building trust

The first element to plan now is trust in a time when fear, distrust, necessity, and a lot of confusion reign. There is a need to create transparent processes and communicate them better. Tell who we are, what we offer, what our supply chain is and also when and how often we sanitize environments and products.

For an international trade fair organization, this process of “trusting” is very complex. From an operational point of view it implies a management of spaces, logistics and not least of contractualisation, very different from how it was conceived in the past. But the crux is that to date there are two variables at stake that are beyond the control of the fair system itself. The most important obviously concerns the evolution of this pandemic. In the absence of clear data, a vaccine or a cure, it will be very difficult to organize large mass events. The second variable in a slightly more serene context than the current one but still with risk coefficients, will also be the confidence that we will be able to place in the means of transport. We cannot think of organizing a great international event if we are still afraid of taking a plane, a taxi, a train.

A transition scenario

So what? Although we all hope to find out tomorrow that a spoonful of Nutella makes us immune, some considerations can also be made in this transition scenario.

social distancing

Real and virtual integration

Let’s start with the integration of digital / physical experience. years in the trade fair sector we talk about how digital is going alongside and integrating with physical formats. But if in recent years it has often been difficult to develop truly integrated hybrid solutions for resistance to change by both the organizing bodies and consumers themselves, this can truly become an opportunity to experiment with innovative formats.

The experience of quarantine has taught everyone to manage jobs, calls, meetings, purchases, learning much more online than we did before. And much more than we imagined to know and be able to do, although fortunately these tools were already all available.

And surely this forced great social experiment will make us come out as consumers with a different perception of what we want and can do digitally, saving time and travel, and what we want to do physically, because it is able to bring us real enrichment.

New formats

From the offer point of view, companies are now experiencing new solutions, perhaps naively given the urgency of the moment. But these “tests” have the seeds of building a different relationship between the company, the sales force and users. We think of the direct instagram, the online consultancy services for the design, the webinars of learning but also of entertainment. And, more generally, to the success of storytelling less “glossy” but closer to the concrete needs, and among these also the concrete fears of retailers, architects, users.

An event like deadline

A trade fair event is basically a deadline for presenting new products. It is easy to understand how in this perspective you can imagine an event that is divided into a “physical” part dedicated to a qualified audience with a schedule of appointments in operation business, accompanied by a series of extended experiences both at a temporal level. Both in terms of content, that are digitally managed and that allow us to experience the news, and also to pre-select what we are really interested in as a physical experience.

The fair comes to you

At the format level, instead, itinerant “road show” solutions may be interesting. If I think, for example, of a format like Architect @ Work, which is an international stage fair – it is clear that it is more manageable in an advanced stage 2. In fact, in the various stages the fair gathers a substantially local audience which in the medium term will in any case have reassured itself in moving around its territory.

This is the opposite situation to that created after the 2008 crisis when local fairs were canceled in favor of investments in major events. Now an opposite era could begin: more contained solutions such as shows, more pragmatic but closer to the customer.

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