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  • C. Chaubet, C. Gottfried (IVM)

#1-Mobile solutions in time of a pandemic

Mobile solutions in time of a pandemic: a resource beyond emergencies

Lockdown has become the standard on more than half of the planet due to the COVID-19 health crisis. Social, economic and health services are trying their best to cope with it, whether by adapting or circumventing existing provisions, inventing new ones, or even resorting to setups that we thought were forgotten. These systems, which are often deployed as mobile solutions, call into question not only our approach to mobility (or lack thereof) but our very relationship with proximity and otherness as well. How can we feed, care for, entertain and cultivate ourselves and others in the age of confinement and social distancing? How do we maintain community? Could these initiatives also help us in the post-crisis period?

Revisit common processes with mobile solutions: managing the influx, capturing the flows

We were already familiar with supermarket drive-ins for cars and pedestrians. Reducing waiting time and contact, in the time of lockdown they are seemingly becoming the norm for food purchases. Drive-ins are also being deployed in other sectors, for example in the medical field, where patients can now be examined directly in their cars. The vehicle is no longer just used to get to the doctor: it becomes the place where the service takes place. In Korea, toll booths are used to check car drivers, taking advantage of the flow of traffic.

In car parks and squares abandoned by motorists, testing centres and field hospitals are being set up, serving as temporary facilities that relieve the limited capacity of permanent buildings. In Italy, in order to deal with the exceptional influx, refurbished containers receive patients. The fairgrounds have given way to soldiers and white coats. The pavements themselves, once mono-functional spaces, are also being used as open-air production and delivery areas, with the agreement of the public authorities. Operators reconvert traditional means of transport to offer continuity of care to the victims of covid-19 being moved between treatment sites: buses, trains and even planes have now become medical units. In New York and Los Angeles, hospital ships (former oil tankers) have been deployed to respond to the surge of cases, and Trump has also not ruled out reconverting ocean liners...

Hospital ship Comfort, New-York (USA)

Food supply is also being disrupted. In China, in order to adapt to demand, hail-and-ride drivers are now asked to deliver groceries at home. In France, supplying take-away meals is still allowed. For restaurants who have chosen to keep their business going, the crisis not only calls for a reorganization of production and sales processes, but also for a reinvention of their relationships with local customers, either using humans, vending machines or autonomous delivery vehicles to make the transaction contactless. Rungis wholesale market is also adapting to the period of confinement, while local food markets, successively authorized then banned only to be authorized again in certain localities, must meet drastic logistical conditions to keep supplying food in what are sometimes the only accessible places to car-less people, especially in rural areas. The Sunday market, once a place for strolling and socializing, has been reduced to its simplest form: move along ... and keep your distance.

Confinement doesn't mean that people stop living. Cars are still in vogue: in the United States, for example, even the drive-ins cinemas that we thought left behind in the 1950s are back to their former glory, and some church-goers are receiving their priestly blessings from inside their vehicles (or being sprayed with holy water from the sky!) Across the world, banks, hairdressers, and even courts of law are going mobile to continue providing services to now largely recluse populations. Societies continue their rites, through reinvented but not always new forms...

Catholic Mass celebrated in front of followers sitting in their cars in a shopping mall parking lot in Moosic, Pennsylvania (USA)

Mobile activities as both agents of urban life and spatial planning solutions

As part of the Mobile Hyperplaces project, IVM-VEDECOM and its international network have since 2017 identified more than 600 mobile activities around the world that resonate with the current crisis, both in terms of diversity of devices and the variety of connections between players that enable their implementation.

In the medical field, the use of mobile services is nothing new. Mobile medicine, which has been in use since the First World War, has been continuously improved, as shown by the example of TIMM Santé, a mobile medical-imaging truck serving rural areas. Equipped with cutting-edge equipment connected to doctors based in local hospitals, it offers patients a high-performance service as close-to-home as possible. A service of this type requires significant public investment and a high degree of versatility from the on-board staff (all of whom act as driver, technician and assistant) - a versatility and adaptability that has been frequently expected from healthcare staff forced to travel to provide medical assistance during the Covid-19 crisis.

In another setting, a mobile dentist trailer in Senegal offers care to patients in remote areas. In addition to the service it provides, its presence contributes to social cohesion; facilitating interactions in and around the vehicle and thus integrating into the public space it occupies alongside surrounding buildings. By aggregating other activities, the vehicle itself becomes a destination and contributes to place-making.

Mobile dentist trailer "Dentistas sobre ruedas", Missirah (Senegal)

This "place-making" effect can also be observed in the cases of the mobile bank in the Ivory Coast or the mobile food vendors in Korea. From a fixed and regular anchor point, these systems (re)create central hubs around which communal feeling is activated, be it through the gathering of clients or as a meeting place for couriers between deliveries. The practices and uses of the area are thus continuously renewed. Whether parked, itinerant or on-demand, these services are broadly adaptable to both clientele and urban context. The field surveys carried out demonstrate the diversity of the effects of mobile activities on their environments and underline the importance of public authorities in their role regulating the co-presence of these activities with fixed businesses in already highly constrained public space. Beyond a one-off response to a need, mobile services, when organised, secure and long-term, can be a powerful agent of urban life and a economical development solution.

This adaptation of traditionally fixed services into mobile and connected activities is also now possible thanks to the development of digital tools and the miniaturization of objects; allowing the reconfiguration of vehicles whether by amateur handymen or professionals using the latest technology and extensive experience. Public authorities, companies, civil society and users: each actor is a vital link in the chain that makes it possible to create a system around the mobile device.

TIMM Santé, a mobile medical-imaging unit connected in real time to an external healthcare centre.

Mobile hyperplaces: a sustainable solution in an unstable world?

The analysis of these mobile activities highlights their relevance, both in the context of the acute crisis we are experiencing and also for the future. As mobile services, they can go anywhere and move to different sites at specific times. As part of a connected network, they bring together need and demand, service and user; are both here and elsewhere at the same time. They are flexible - they can be programmed and trialled within a short period of time and at low cost. They are reconfigurable - one can imagine them providing medical care on certain days, delivering foodstuffs or offering administrative advice at other times of the week or month, or adjusting the service as the seasons change. They are light, with no heavy infrastructure to build, and therefore highly adaptable - they can be tested and evaluated as they go, in order to define the most appropriate service, at the right time and in the right conditions.These mobile activities could make it possible to overcome certain urban, temporal and legal constraints. To do this requires the development of expertise in the implementation of these systems in calmer times. Firstly, their marginal status makes their implementation more complex: what standards and regulations should be imposed on them? Those of the stationary services, those of the mobile ones, or a combination of both? They often develop in grey areas, both spatial and regulatory, in-between fixed and mobile sectors and disrupt the sector-specific functioning of the public institution. We therefore need to explore these interspaces in order to improve cross-sector cooperation. At the same time, the massive deployment of these mobile activities in emergency situations already shows that a lack of preparation, regulation and experience - of the mobile units themselves, of the people providing the service and of the regulatory authorities - can lead to inefficiency and reduce the effectiveness of the devices, even rendering them useless, with the exception of possible communicational aims. Both project leaders and public authorities would therefore have much to benefit from establishing a common stage to define together the modalities for setting up efficient mobile activities.

This requires, in particular, a common recognition of the general interest of mobile services, which will help to win acceptance and facilitate negotiations. Today, the health crisis has allowed for reconfigurations that could not have been imagined in the past - for example, closing a Paris street to traffic to allow a laboratory to use the space for hand sanitizer production. A clear definition of this interest is needed to facilitate the sharing of roles and collaboration between actors necessary to maximize this opportunity. We must therefore hope that the solutions currently deployed will be extended beyond crisis situations and adapted to the challenges of tomorrow, as they have been to the current moment.

For more information, consult the Mobile Hyperplaces infographics.

Christine Chaubet, Cédric Gottfried (Institut pour la ville en mouvement-VEDECOM) Translated from French by Annabel Cohen and Cédric Gottfried

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