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Pernille Berg, fil.dr., Science Manager at BLOXHUB in conversation with Professor Ole B. Jensen, Aalborg University, Centre for Mobilities & Urban Studies

During the planning of Science Talks 2020 it initially seemed relevant and obvious to schedule Science Talks addressing the new normal when it came to urban development and the built environment, namely circular economy. The first series of Science Talks during 2020 addresses the various aspects of the circular economy, from the why, what and how. Because the new normal of tomorrow’s urbanization should ensure a sustainable and livable future for us all.
The pandemic crisis certainly put quite a different slant on the new normal and a sustainable future. While many hopefully expressed optimism concerning the new normal, emphasizing that we would learn from the pandemic crisis and change our behavior, there were also some indications that old habits die hard.

It became quite clear that if anything, the pandemic crisis has reminded us all of the dire necessity of scientific knowledge and research that can assist us in understanding the ways in which the current pandemic crisis has affected urban life. Furthermore, it is also scientific knowledge and research which can assist us in understanding and creating the new normal we dream of. Therefore, I invited Professor Ole B. Jensen from Aalborg University, Centre for Mobilities & Urban Studies to be the very first Science Talks speaker after the summer holidays and talk about ‘Corona City’. It will also be the first Science Talks where participants can join us both physically and virtually at BLOXHUB.

As part of the Science Talks, I talked to Ole B. Jensen and asked him about his observations during 2020.

Q: Before COVID-19 affected us all globally to the extent that it has and still is, you were researching mobility patterns. You have documented the impact of the pandemic when it comes to mobilities. From the decline in public transportation, to the changing mobility patterns in airports and indeed how we interact when we pass each other in the streets, supermarkets etc. Apart from the huge decline in passengers in public transportation what surprised you the most during the initial months when it comes to mobility?

A: “The whole Covid-19 event has been so profoundly surprising that I suppose we all have been shaken, touched, and stirred in our basic understanding of how society works. If I should single out a few surprises next to the obvious drop in activities that are immediately readable in statistics as well as in photos from cities all over the world, it would be our ability to cope and improvise as the first thing. I think many of us in the Western world already are well aware of the ‘digital agenda’ and the promises it carries. Much of this has been perceived as empty words and fluffy discourse. However, you don’t find many people normally engaged in some sort of ‘office work’ that has not experienced virtual mobility and interaction on a whole new level during the lock-down. Having said this, the second dimension which I would highlight (and which is less of a surprise) is the social dimension to these digital solutions. The groups prospering from Zoom, Skype, and Teams meetings are clearly not the groups that have to stand in the frontline of service and infrastructure. And many of these groups are the ones with less education, smaller salaries, and hence less options to ‘wait it out in the summer cottage’. The build-in inequalities of social systems and infrastructures has become vivid in the aftermath of the Covid-19. So, a thing that becomes very clear is the societal capacity to deal with disruption. With Covid-19 this has stood clear in favor of some composition of ‘welfare regimes’. The societies coping the best are the ones that are ‘welfare states’ in one way or the other. A final thing that is noticeable, and perhaps also less of a surprise than simply just a stunning fact, is the interdependency and hence also vulnerability of infrastructures and networks. Like 10 years ago when the Icelandic volcano sealed off airspace between Europe and the US, the Covid-19 event has laid bare a huge amount of vulnerable and risky systems. It is a rebound to [Bruno] Latour’s message, that humankind might be less in control than we fancy!”

Q: We have also talked about the changes in public behavior over the past few months and you mentioned we should talk about physical distance rather than social distance. What do you mean by that?

A: “This is a discussion on Social Media that grew within human geography networks in particular. The point is simply that the distance we are speaking of is actually physical and not social. We normally don’t measure social distance. However, it is obviously true that the physical distance requirement has social repercussions. But we are in fact separating physically in the first place. That there are social distances within our cultures and ways of engaging is exactly one of the most interesting things that the Covid-19 event has triggered in public space – and a point that I will talk about to great length in my BLOXHUB Science Talk.”

Q: During the last decade urban life has developed rapidly, and the cities have experienced a vibrant life in the public spheres which came to an abrupt halt only to reemerge to a certain degree over the summer. Based on your research on public life and mobility how do you explain the recent public debate re. summer parties and the noise level?

A: “If we are to make a ‘Covid-interpretation’ it obviously must be linked to the closing of bars, clubs, and discos. Hence, the audience that normally would ‘hide out’ and party behind closed walls have been ‘forced’ as it were out in the public – out in the open so to say. I think there is some merit to that explanation. However, there is also a more general trend towards increased outdoor activity in public and urban spaces. Even though, we do have the climate a bit against us compared to e.g. the Mediterranean countries, we are witnessing a surge in active public space life. Some commenters have criticized this tendency to turn public spaces into party zones, basket courts, and skating ranges. My point here is simply, that on top of the closing of the institutionalized and ‘housed-in’ activities there is a trend towards more outdoor activity already. The causality is complex for there is also the interesting phenomenon of technology supporting this trend. One dimension is the fact that social media and digital networks enable swift coordination of parties across town. Moreover, the upsurge of technological devices such as the much debated ‘sound box’ (a portable music playing device that is LOUD!) add to the cacophony of public space. Taken together all these trends becomes bits and pieces of a public realm marked by increasing activity and noise. The summer might not have been great in Denmark all the way through, but during the lock-down period in May summer nights were not bad for partying either.”

Q: So many have talked and debated about the new normal, which normal have you observed during the last few months?

A: “Uh, I think this idea of a ‘new normal’ is very complicated. As a researcher one starts firstly to look for a definition? Secondly, for a time limit? So, what is the new normal and how long will it last? I remember reading a Copenhagen-based newspaper a few days after the lock-down. The reporter declared that ‘the world would never be the same after this!’ That might be true, but on the other hand there seems to be quite a normalizing tendency in sociality. It’s a bit like a pendulum. I don’t think the face masks, the public distancing, and many of the very visible interventions will last ‘forever’ (there you go, how long will a new normal exist?) Some things will fall back into the routinized practice frames we know from before, and yet others may indeed not return. This is of course an interesting moment politically. Is Covid-19 a ‘window of opportunity’ to change the world towards different future trajectories? Some clearly think so, and this simply points towards another interesting dimension that Covid-19 lays bare; the future is contested, and always up for political tension. In political terms it will become interesting (said the sociologist) to see who manages to connect Covid-19 to a ‘politics of necessity and change’, and who will use it as a state of exception that we should leave as soon as possible only to return to the ways things were before.”

And on that note the new normal is left as ephemeral as it was before the conversation with Ole B. Jensen and left me intrigued at just how much 2020 has given us in terms of existential surprises as well as a dire need for research into these surprises enabling us to navigate in the futures of tomorrow.