Design after a Pandemic
by Stuart Walker

Some six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations published its Research Roadmap for the COVID-19 Recovery. It makes clear that the pandemic crisis has thrown new light on, and intensified the impact of, pre-existing global disparities, vulnerabilities and unsustainable practices. It argues that recovery requires significant efforts across a wide range of areas including: strengthening healthcare access, services and systems; safeguarding and expanding social programmes and basic services in areas such as food, shelter and education; protecting food supply, care services, livelihoods, and small-scale enterprises; reinforcing multilateral collaborations, investment, debt relief, and regional trade cooperation; ensuring environmental resilience; and improving social cohesion through dialogue, advocacy, empowerment, equitable service delivery, and good governance (UN Roadmap 2020, pps. 15-16). It is a long and ambitious list.

The magnitude of the impact means that the need for action on a global level offers unique opportunities to reimagine societies, with far greater emphasis on human rights and transformative changes that will help ensure a more positive and hopeful future for everyone. The scale and span of the UN’s agenda recognizes the vulnerabilities exposed by COVID-19 and the fundamental interdependencies among people, nations, systems and the natural environment.

Despite the timeliness and good intentions of the UN report, however, I was perturbed to read its subtitle, Leveraging the Power of Science for a More Equitable, Resilient and Sustainable Future and that, in their view, science offers the world the best chance for a positive way forward. This claim gave me pause. Rather misleadingly, the term ‘science’, which is generally understood as referring to the natural sciences, here seems to embrace a far wider set of areas, including engineering and the social sciences; the humanities, representing areas such as literature, history and religion, are also included, which are obviously not sciences (UN Roadmap 2020, p. 14). But there is no mention of creativity, and only a fleeting nod to the arts. The main emphasis of the report is squarely on demonstrating “the power of global science” and encouraging the implementation of a range of science-based strategies, such as scaling up data infrastructure, and implementing rapid learning systems and knowledge mobilization (UN Roadmap 2020, pps. 6, 9)

In dealing with current and future pandemics, we rely on advancements in science and rightly praise the Herculean efforts being made by research scientists in developing vaccines; no thinking person would dispute the enormous contributions of science, especially in health services. But, in framing the path to recovery as it does, there is a real danger of simply repeating the same mistakes of the past by addressing the deeper and broader questions with exactly the same kind of progress-entrenched thinking that has caused so much harm to people, other species and natural environments around the world.

Modern societies have long believed in the self-generated myth of ‘progress’, driven primarily by the contributions of science and understood as a continual, upward trajectory of improvement and betterment. The UN, in privileging the place of science over other areas of human knowledge and expertise, appears to be maintaining and reinforcing this patently false assumption. The belief in progress has been crumbling for some time. The future no longer holds much promise – it is more a place of fear than of hope (Sachs, 2010). As philosopher John Gray has said, the hollowness of today’s secular faith in progress has been made all too plain in the face of a virus that has caused vast loss of life, untold hardship, family separation, and losses of livelihood, income, education and opportunity (Gray, 2020). The pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of globalization, and of outsourcing manufacturing and reducing our own production capabilities. And it has allowed us to recognize more acutely those societal roles that matter most when it comes to keeping our communities running in difficult times, including health workers, carers for the elderly, supermarket staff, delivery drivers, refuse collectors, and foodbank volunteers.

The UN’s wide-ranging set of recovery goals cannot be achieved solely through the contributions of science, a far more holistic approach is needed. One that will also depend on the expertise of educators, philosophers, linguistics, policy-makers, and those in the creative arts, including the applied arts. It will also require the kinds of joined-up thinking that are so fundamental to traditional knowledge, which some scientists are already recognizing (Walker, 2021, p.121). Only by envisioning more creative, imaginative ways forward and adopting more integrated, balanced and context-appropriate approaches will we be able to ensure that our scientific knowledge and technological capabilities are accompanied by – and in some cases tempered by – humane, ethical and equitable forms of development.

If we are to truly build a more sustainable, inclusive and resilient future for everyone, we must pay far more attention to the perspectives and belief systems of others; to priorities and aspirations that rise above mundane pragmatism; to values that transcend self and selfishness; and to compassion, empathy, charity, benevolence and conservation. Greater consideration of these enables us to position the contributions of science within a larger vista of human significance and meaning. They help ensure our efforts are guided by values that overcome self-interest and emphasize concern for others and nature, and are respectful of the particularities of place, context and tradition.

Part of a different approach, too, will be our personal attitudes and aspirations. We have, perhaps, become too eager to do – we are constantly organizing, developing, launching, announcing, researching, ideating, innovating, and advancing. But in all this rushing, we seem to have lost the ability to simply be. The road to recovery could and should involve far less doing and much more being, seeing, listening, contemplating and appreciating. This would allow us to benefit from the latest scientific knowledge while also making our subsequent actions more considered, just, and sensitive to people’s needs and to nature.

Kierkegaard argued that the ethical is the universal, and the highest purpose of the individual is to rise above one’s particularity to pursue the ethical life and become the universal (Kirkegaard, 1843, p.62). Those who set their own wishes aside in the interests of others, he said, relinquish the finite in order to grasp the infinite (Kirkegaard, 1843, p.70).

For designers, this does not mean giving up one’s sense of creative expression simply to do the bidding of someone else. Rather, it means setting aside egotistic tendencies in design practice in order to make a more meaningful contribution – design both as offering and obligation. Perhaps this can never be entirely achieved, but surely a nobler goal is to design with this higher purpose than to be constrained by the smaller, lower horizons of self. Such a path does not advocate some sort of one-size-fits-all universal design – quite the opposite. This is ego-less design that strives to fit seamlessly and harmlessly into the world by taking into account the constraints and circumstances of the specific. The designer must observe, listen and familiarize themselves with the particularities of context.

But how can designers assure themselves that they are justified in their courses of action? They cannot surrender their responsibility to others, by handing it over to ‘society’ or the State. Humouring the wishes of others or simply complying with regulations means never having to face the ethical questions that are so critical to contemporary design. If designers waive their responsibilities, they do not allow themselves to grow – either as practitioners or individuals. Furthermore, designers cannot fall back on ‘judging the outcome’ of their work. When embarking on the process of designing, there is no outcome. Designers have to deal with the ethical dilemmas en route, in the midst of creating, where myriad decisions arise and which, collectively, determine the outcome. They cannot do this after the fact. If designers on the verge of action are only prepared to make decisions according to the outcome, they would never be able to begin (Kirkegaard, 1843, pps. 72-74).

For good or bad, all those small decisions along the way become embedded in, and indistinguishable from, the outcome itself. Designers, therefore, have to have some means of assuring themselves that they are beginning from the right starting point and they have to be vigilant each step of the way. This process requires a combination of relinquishment and trust – relinquishment of self-oriented priorities, and trust in a bigger, higher vision. This means trusting in the creative process and the decisions one makes without knowing all the information, not having all the data, not seeing the full picture and not knowing precisely what the outcome will be. Mistakes will inevitably be made – we will fall short – but doubts and anxieties of failing cannot paralyze us or stop us from reaching higher.

The UN roadmap refers to a range of large-scale issues and dilemmas that lie beyond the scope and remit of any single designer – strengthening healthcare, expanding social programmes, building multilateral collaborations, improving social cohesions and so on. Nevertheless, designers have a part to play, and whatever their particular area of contribution, they will be faced with practical questions about the details of form, function, usability, and affordability. It is useful, therefore, to focus the discussion less on grand schemes in some undefined future and much more on the nitty-gritty, day-to-day activities of the present. It is in the here and now that designers have to make decisions when developing specific design outcomes. This is where the rubber hits the road, where theory meets practice – this is where the designer operates.

These issues are especially important if we are to learn from the COVID-19 pandemic, and build a more just, caring, environmentally responsible and secure future. The pandemic, at least in the early stages of lockdown, saw dramatic reductions in air pollution; skies free of jet trails; views that were clear and bright; wild animals roaming our city streets; and a world that was noticeably quieter, where we were able to hear the birds again. We were given an opportunity to pause, to see the world anew and ourselves more clearly – stripped of the busyness, distractions and headlong rush that modern life had become – a life with no time and perhaps no inclination to look, listen or even really think (Williams, 2020, pps. 4-22).

The social separations imposed by the pandemic also allowed us to realize the importance of family, friends, neighbours and community and their part in making our lives richer, simply through their presence. And it is here that we must begin to rethink the nature of design for more sustainable, just and resilient ways of living – with a renewed commitment to the people and places where we find ourselves. Engaging at this level, the level not of grand but vague visions, abstract concepts and anonymous others, but in activities that involve face-to-face relationships, where we see others as full human beings, and where we are able to be far more aware of the concrete impacts of our decision making. This, to use the phrase of Papanek, is design for the real world – open, honest, done in good conscience and fully accountable.

In moving forward, we must guard against repeating the errors of modernity, which sought to impose all-encompassing visions of how the world should be, irrespective of the instincts, aspirations and the wishes of ordinary people (Scruton, 2016, pps. 65-85). Instead, designers can make a valuable contribution by bringing their thoughtfulness, attention to detail, aesthetic sensitivity and sense of moral rectitude to the creation of all those things we use in our everyday lives. They can pursue a form of design that is closely attached to and respectful of place, thereby helping create a world in which we feel we belong. This suggests a form of design that is undemonstrative, that draws on tried and tested ways and offers a greater sense of permanence and stability. It is a form of design that helps build capacity and expertise within the community, and contributes to useful, fulfilling employment. In the research I have been leading in recent years, we have found that many small maker enterprises are already doing this. They tend not to be motivated by money or constantly increasing the size of their business. Instead, they want to contribute to their community, to build sustainable ways of working, and create responsible, environmentally friendly outcomes. Designing with, and supporting and encouraging these types of businesses can have all kinds of knock-on benefits. They can help reduce public expenditure in areas such as waste disposal and clean up; reduce transportation needs and air pollution; create local, inclusive forms of employment; make the most of local resources and other local assets; foster all kinds of community-led solutions; and contribute to a robust, resilient and highly diversified economy. As Sachs has said, “it is only from places that variety crops up, because it is in places that people weave the present into their particular thread of history … in culture as well as in nature, diversity holds the potential for innovation and opens the way for creative, non-linear solutions” (Sachs, 2010).

Through such means we have the opportunity to build collaborative forms of multi-generational enterprises that are capable of preserving and sustaining those things we value most (Scheffler, 2013, p. 33). This means eliminating excess, over production and waste, and focussing on those aspects that allow our designs to become tangible expressions of people, place and tradition and manifestations of both cultural meaning and sufficiency.


  • UN Roadmap (2020) UN Research Roadmap for the COVID-19 Recovery: Leveraging the Power of Science for a More Equitable, Resilient and Sustainable Future, United Nations, New York, NY, November 2020, pps. 15-16, available at:, accessed 11 February 2021.
  • UN Roadmap (2020) UN Research Roadmap for the COVID-19 Recovery: Leveraging the Power of Science for a More Equitable, Resilient and Sustainable Future, United Nations, New York, NY, November 2020, p. 14, available at:, accessed 11 February 2021.
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  • Scheffler, S. (2013) Death and the Afterlife, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, p.33.