The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to light many of the structural flaws within our society. With the first countries in Europe slowly starting to relax lockdown restrictions, it is time to think about how we want societies to function after the crisis and time to start fixing our communities. At NordicBaltic.Tech, a partnership between PUBLIC Denmark and the Nordic Council of Ministers, we take a look at the tools that will help us safely transition out of lockdown and consider some longer term changes they may induce.
Supporting a Safe Transition Out of Lockdown
Denmark was amongst the first European countries to impose a national lockdown, and is now one of the first to start incrementally lifting measures. On 14 April Denmark re-opened daycares and primary schools. A week later some service businesses were allowed to open as well, albeit at a lower capacity. Governments across the world have been battling to balance the competing aims of saving lives and limiting the economic consequences of the pandemic. Many business owners and policy makers are keen to see life return to ‘normal’ as soon as possible. Luckily a range of solutions have started to emerge which aim to decrease the risk of contamination for the general population during this transition period.
A number of solutions focus on helping individuals manage risk as mobility and activity in cities starts to resume. Risk Free, which originated from Hack The Crisis Norway, uses public health data to help commuters find the safest routes on public transport for their journey. The tool gives commuters a range of options and indicates the risk of exposure for each journey through colour coding. Similarly, the ReStart app lets you plan your day to minimise your risk of exposure by taking account of your individual risk level (based on age and health), the demographics of your community, and localised infection data. Users get a personalised risk assessment of their planned activities, avoid high risk zones, and leave their homes with more confidence.
Other approaches to help economic activity resume before a vaccine is available focus on the use of immunity passports. Immunikey aims to provide a digital certificate of immunity, following an antibody test. The user’s test results are entered into the Immunity system by a healthcare provider. Users can then share this certificate with businesses and employers to prove that it is safe for them to resume work and other activities. This would allow venues such as cinemas, theatres, gyms and bars to re-open to customers who can prove they are not carriers of the virus. Winners of Hack The Crisis Sweden proposed a similar app called Coronafree, which issues and verifies coronavirus immunity certificates.
Unfortunately there are still many barriers to the effective use of immunity passports. The first is the reliability of antibody tests. Though commercially available at an affordable price, antibody home testing kits have thus proven to be highly unreliable. Bloomberg journalist Stephanie Baker tested four different kits with contradictory results. Second, is uncertainty about the stability of the virus itself and how mutations may affect immunity. Lastly, tests would need to be widely available which raises questions about the cost of such a measure at a national level. That being said, the Nordic and Baltic regions have strong healthcare systems and are well placed to absorb such costs and roll out a national testing programme.
Until immunity passports become effective, businesses can look towards solutions such as Cellstraint – an innovative Finish social distancing network. Cellstraint aims to reduce the interaction between otherwise disconnected social groups, rather than individuals. By mapping an individual’s social network, Cellstraint identifies Social Cells that individuals can safely socialise within, as long as these Social Cells remain isolated from one another. Businesses can use this data by separating customers according to their Social Cells, to minimise the transmission of the virus between groups in commercial spaces.
Some problem solvers have turned their attention to securing social inclusion for the elderly, who may still be unable to leave their homes for 18 months whilst the rest of us experience varying degrees of freedom. Technological literacy also varies greatly amongst the elderly, meaning that many struggle to stay in contact with their families through digital technologies. Safe Socialising, another project from Hack The Crisis Norway, designed contamination free visitor pods which can be installed in care homes to enable families to safely visit their loved ones. The visitor pods consist of a room divided in half by a glass wall through which individuals on both sides can see one another and communicate. What is particularly innovative about this solution is that the design utilises refurbished shipping containers, allowing the prefab structure to be fast tracked through the building permit system and installed in less than a day. Watch the Safe Socialising demo video here.
Blood donations across Europe dropped significantly as a result of lockdown. Furthermore, blood stocks are perishable, with a shelf life of roughly 6 weeks, meaning that the blood donated prior to the lockdown will not be available for use after lockdown is lifted. So far this has not led to major shortages of blood as many elective surgeries have been cancelled during the pandemic. However, as these surgeries resume, Europe may face blood bank shortages if there is not an increase in blood donations during the transition period. Swedish app GeBlod aims to boost blood donations whilst respecting social distancing by sending local blood shortages alerts for specific blood types and giving users the option to book a donation time slot. The app uses gamification techniques and notifies donors when their blood is used to encourage repeat donations.
Another app using gamification techniques to produce socially responsible behaviour is Norwegian app Vyral. Users earn points for washing their hands, digitally connecting with lonely citizens, and practicing social distancing. The app also has daily challenges such as shopping for the vulnerable, taking a virtual exercise class, or going for a long walk in nature. Vyral hopes to partner with local businesses to promote behaviour that will both boost local economic activity as lockdown lifts, whilst continually reminding users to keep practicing health-conscious behaviour to ensure individuals do not take their eye off that ball and infections do not rise again.
Beyond The Transition Period: Solutions with Lasting Impact
If all goes well, eventually some of the aforementioned solutions will disappear. Not all solutions developed for the Covid-19 pandemic will be useful in the post-covid world. For example, there are a range of new apps, such as Norwegian Omkrets, enabling customers to book shopping slots at supermarkets. Once a level of herd immunity has been obtained, immunity passports will ideally no longer be necessary for the continuation of economic activity. Whilst many of these new tools have proven enormously useful during the outbreak, and will retain their utility for a while as the economy slowly opens up, it is unlikely that they will be widely used once social distancing measures cease entirely.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated and highlighted many pre-existing social and economic problems, such as loneliness amongst the elderly and domestic abuse. These issues have become particularly salient during the coronavirus crisis, but predated the crisis and often received insufficient public attention. As such solutions which arose to address these issues during the crisis, will continue to improve the situation and opportunities of those affected beyond the crisis.
Due to confinement in close quarters under high levels of emotional distress and uncertainty, cases of domestic abuse have increased dramatically across Europe during the lockdown, with UN Women declaring it a shadow pandemic. A team from Hack The Crisis Sweden started working on this issue, producing an app called Bright Act. Bright Act enables victims of domestic abuse to chat with professional abuse organisations and lawyers to receive assistance and advice. Users can also build a legal case through storing documentation and evidence in the app.
The app is built with security in mind, with a hidden entrance so that victims can use it without detection. The team is working on API integrations for healthcare, emergency housing and police authorities, so that users can share documentation with these institutions as needed. Unlike many of the tech solutions built during the crisis, Bright Act will have continued utility for victims of domestic abuse around Europe. As such Bright Act has been invited to the May Matchathon by the European Innovation Council.
The Future of Work
Other crisis-era areas of innovation with lasting impact concern the future of work. One of the largest shifts in employment over the last decade has been the rise of the gig economy, with roughly 30% of jobs in the Nordic region falling into this category. Gig work predominantly occurs in the industries hardest hit by the Covid-19 crisis (retail, hospitality, events, catering, etc.) and is by its nature an insecure form of work. As such, gig workers have been disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 crisis. Employment support from governments has been slow to adapt to new forms of work, meaning that many freelancers are unable to access the support they require during this economic downturn.
With the dramatic shift in business demand caused by the crisis, The Swedish Public Employment Service identified the challenge of matching workforce skills to business demands during the pandemic and beyond. Sweden has roughly 700,000 gig workers, with gig work accounting for half of personal income for 27% of these workers. Platsbanken, the job search portal of the Swedish Public Employment Service, has yet to cater to the specific needs of the gig economy, making it difficult for these workers to access opportunities at a time when they are needed most. The winners of the Save Business category in Hack The Crisis Sweden put forward a proposal to introduce categories for gig and remote work on the Platsbanken job portal. Once adopted, this will be a significant step towards providing employment support for the gig economy in the future.
There have also been a number of initiatives to help musicians, performers and producers generate income outside of traditional streaming platforms. Existing digital event platforms have been criticised for not paying artists fairly and transparently, and are difficult for artists to monetise. Munity aims to address this problem by offering high quality broadcasting services, whilst handling payment processing for artists and content producers and providing sophisticated tools for community engagement. Similarly, Isonation is a platform that offers a pay-per-view model for artists to help them generate a stable income, rather than rely on unpredictable donations from fans. These early stage projects are hoping to take advantage of the current uptake in online entertainment to provide a fairer playing field for performers.
Estonian Share Force One is a workforce sharing platform built to help companies manage dramatic shifts in labour demands by facilitating the temporary exchange of workers between companies. Share Force One matches the skill profiles of companies and workers to help reallocate excess talent with companies that urgently need extra workers. This model of workforce sharing may well extend beyond the crisis, and could become particularly useful for seasonal business that experience increased demand for goods and services at certain times of the year. This model effectively enables businesses to circumvent the costs of recruiting new talent every time demand spikes, and simultaneously helps reduce the risks of rapid falls in demand for other companies. As the scheme progresses companies may also find that when their workers return to their parent company, they have gained new skills and insights that will be useful to the company.
Supporting Local Businesses
With the dramatic increase in online shopping over the last decade, local high streets and small businesses have often made the headlines of national newspapers due to their precarious futures. With many local shops and amenities closed, and large delivery companies stretched in their capacities to meet consumer demand, citizens have been forced to reflect on the value of these local businesses. Many initiatives have arisen to support local businesses during lockdown. In the long run, these initiatives help to accelerate local businesses into e-commerce, enable them to experiment with new business models, and may ultimately revive the appreciation of local businesses amongst consumers.
Many consumers often want to help local businesses, but are unaware how to do so. Break Even is a platform that helps to visualise the needs of local businesses, and indicates how many purchases need to be made for the business to break even for the month. This gives local residents a tangible idea of what they should buy, from whom, and when to ensure local businesses stay afloat. Watch Break Even’s demo video here. Project Wham is an app that allows people to buy little gifts for family and friends from local businesses, such as a coffee or cocktail from their favourite independent cafes and bars. The digital voucher is exchanged at a time of convenience once stores reopen. The hope is that local customers will continue to use this app as a means to support local businesses and engage communities.
Pardotuv.es, one of the projects from Hack The Crisis Lithuania, is an all-in-one solution to help small businesses transition online, with no technical skills required. The entire service is currently free of charge. This enables small businesses to continue earning revenue during lockdown, and remain competitive thereafter by accessing tools and features for better digital exposure. Many small businesses are currently underserved by giants such as Uber Eats and Amazon. A few projects have emerged to help local businesses deliver their goods to shoppers in the community. Cabbie is a platform connecting out of work taxi drivers to small businesses to provide on demand deliveries to communities, with a particular focus on delivering to the elderly. ZETBring is a zero emission transport initiative to crowdsource package delivery for small local businesses. In the short run these projects help communities endure the crisis and access vital goods. In the long run help get small businesses ready for e-commerce.
Quick Q, one of the winners of Hack The Crisis Copenhagen, is an app which digitises queuing in stores to help people maintain social distance whilst completing their necessary shopping. Customers join a digital queue which sends them a notification when it is their turn to go to the cashier. This allows customers to stand anywhere in the store whilst they wait for their turn to pay, rather than queuing in close proximity to one another.
The interesting aspect of this solution is that it offers several benefits to businesses, which may result in Quick Q becoming a permanent feature of the in-store shopping experience. In his research, MIT operations researcher Richard Larson found that the psychological experience of queuing is more important than the actual waiting time itself, with bored customers perceiving waiting time to be longer than they in fact are. Quick Q helps to overcome this problem by partially eliminating the experience of waiting in a queue – an experience which can have a negative impact on brand reputation. Additionally, as customers wait for their turn they can continue to browse the store, which may lead to an increase in sales. Quick Q is yet another great example of how solutions that were devised for the Covid-19, have utility beyond the pandemic.
The solutions highlighted in this article are but a few examples of the ways in which the crisis has urged us to think about better ways of doing things and cooperating within society. These examples give us hope that we will collectively continue to use challenging times as an opportunity to innovate.