Building Connections Through Community Post-COVID

These days we’re all a little bit sensitive, maybe a little bit more than ever, and we really need a sense of connection to those around us. Community is one of those words that can be misused, but during the pandemic, one of the positive things that happened was community building. Whether it was in a branded virtual community like Peloton, or a school discord server, or the conversion of outdoor spaces into more comfortable community gathering spots, when we were suddenly separated, we craved being together.


Announcer: This is “Think Retail,” a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders, and business people discuss what’s coming next.

Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda, and you are listening to “Think Retail.” These days we’re all a little bit sensitive, maybe a little bit more than ever, and we really need a sense of connection to those around us. Community is one of those words that can be misused, but during the pandemic, one of the positive things that happened was community building. Whether it was in a branded virtual community like Peloton, or a school discord server, or the conversion of outdoor spaces into more comfortable community gathering spots, when we were suddenly separated, we craved being together.

Today, we’re talking to Ziyan Hossain, futurist and managing director of OCADU about community building and the implications to branded spaces. Hello, thank you so much for joining me today.

Ziyan: Hi, Melinda. Fantastic to be here. Thanks so much for having me.

Melinda: So I wanted to start out with what community really means. How do you define it?

Ziyan: Great question. I find my definition varies depending on the context and environment that we’re in. It can mean anything from a gathering of people, a congregation at one place, but also have impacts on the outputs produced, the reason for everyone to be gathering, the relationships that they have with each other, and the types of dynamics that take place all affect the type of communities. So my answer would vary depending on what the context was.

Melinda: During the pandemic, maybe this is a better way of framing it, how did it redefine what community meant to you?

Ziyan: For me personally, the pandemic made everything a little bit more human. It helped adjust expectations around how things show up in society, adjusted expectations for the people around me. I felt it enhanced the feeling of community in many ways, even though we were segregated and isolated in our own bubbles. It really underscored the absence of being able to get together at the beginning of the pandemic, really underscored the importance of community, of being able to interact with people, whether in person, on the phone, being able to engage with new perspectives and ideas.

And yeah, to my earlier point, I found the pandemic wound up increasing the sense of community, not just in my own little bubble, but also in Toronto as a city and for the world because we were all facing one unified problem. And it was interesting seeing different groups mobilize various sectors come together that never would’ve otherwise.

Melinda: Yeah, I agree. Especially in the early stages of the pandemic, there were so many…there were things on a very small level that really brought people together, but it did feel like the world was very united. So when you think about where community spaces grew during the pandemic, is there anything that stands out to you?

Ziyan: A few different cases. I think one of the interesting things to me was how the artist communities came together, especially the music communities, and the music industry was hit particularly hard by COVID due to recent shifts in the industry models over the last few years. A lot of the focus has shifted on touring as a revenue model for artists as opposed to record sales.

And because so many artists had their main source of livelihood cut off, it was interesting to see the various ways that they were engaging with their fan base and the musician community at large. So we had the usual live streams, Instagram, and YouTube covers, but also I found that musicians made themselves very available to each other and their fans. Like, you could have Zoom chats with 15-time Grammy Award nominees. That was fantastic. It was a great opportunity for people to learn, people dropped their barriers.

It was very interesting for building up networks and community internationally because we wound up doing a lot of projects, South Africa, Barbados, things that would’ve required a trip at the very least could now just happen from the comfort of home. So community was…the fact that community grew while being fractured in many ways. And also, I think the sense of community that existed around healthcare workers and the camaraderie that existed, the recognition of the sacrifice that our frontline workers were putting in, I hope that stays with us and we don’t forget it as we move.

Melinda: That’s exactly what I was gonna ask you is how do you think it might change our relationship to these communities in the future? I also hope that some of that stuff stays and what else can we learn from it?

Ziyan: Yeah. Well, I think what we can learn from it is that people…I think we can learn a lot from it. A few lessons that stick out are just how important community is to us and how we need to have safeguards in place to keep community alive in not just a future pandemic, but any natural disaster or any type of disruption to our way of living.

But disruptions aside as well, how do we enhance community in our day-to-day lives? How do we organize our workplaces around better community models? How do we organize our neighborhoods? How does urban design reflect what we learned about community? How can we create more spaces for people to gather, especially in a place like Toronto, where you have a shockingly low number of like public benches and places for people to gather and sit outside of the parks and a few other types of locations?

Melinda: Yeah. And I know you’re doing a lot on the future of work right now. And many of us are just getting back to our offices. I mean, there’s people who’ve been going physically to work throughout the pandemic who were in jobs that required that. But for those of us who’ve been working from home for three years, we’re getting back to our work community, people we may not have seen for a few years. How is that transition impacting the way people see their work communities?

Ziyan: Oh, you opened Pandora’s box with that question. There are a variety of ways it could go. And it all depends on individual thresholds, perceptions, and preferences, but also on the respective organizational cultures. We find the variables spread very widely depending on the industry that people are working in, the reliance on being in person versus how easily they can do their job remotely. Technology has advanced quite a bit to help us over the last few years. I feel like our video conferencing has advanced in leaps and bounds.

Sometimes, some types of works don’t require people to be in person anymore, but I think that community thread is still so strong. And we want to think about what means for our organizational cultures moving forward, what it means for the way we define our processes, the way we look at outcomes and how we even define success. Because so many of our working models today are based on industrial revolution era thinking, and aren’t necessarily aligned with human needs.

And the pandemic I feel really helped us realize a lot about toxic or exploitative or extractive work environments. And we are seeing it now with the Great Resignation and we are seeing a lot of turnover and people realizing what they really want. Unfortunately, it’s not possible for everyone to make a shift to what their ideal is based on circumstance or their context, but at least we are seeing a lot more conversations take place around people’s needs and how we organize work around the needs of the people rather than the needs of the product.

Melinda: Yeah. That’s a great point. And I’ve seen that happening as well where I also think that employers, a lot of their fears about say, for example, productivity were proven to be unfounded. So now there’s a sense that, oh, we could actually be more flexible with this because it doesn’t have a negative impact where I think that they had to be forced to try it.

Ziyan: Exactly. And we’ve seen so many positive data points around the world from experiments around four-day work week, or extended time off allowing people to have flexible arrangements. And it’s really comforting to see that it’s proved so many employers’ fears wrong because I think when people are motivated, when our cups are full, we are more able to fill the cups of others easily. And these sorts of flexible arrangements help everyone, at least help certain groups of people keep their cup full more easily.

Melinda: So during the pandemic, we saw a really nice collaboration between local retail brands and their local artists community. How did you see that relationship play out during the pandemic?

Ziyan: It felt really nice to be honest, and it felt very interesting and unpredictable at times because you’d walk into a cafe and you’d suddenly see them selling artwork, T-Shirts. You’d walk into variety of retail from music stores to even cannabis that are showcasing local artists not just from any one medium, but showcasing local ceramics, pottery, painting, apparel. And seeing that sense of comradery play out was fantastic. And I felt like it benefited everyone.

Artists got to reach new markets. People entering those retail establishments got to have a new experience. It was good for starting conversations. Often saw people gathering to talk about art. It turned places into mini-galleries in some ways when the curation was done properly and effectively.

Melinda: Yeah. I really loved that aspect of it. I agree, it was refreshing and surprising. You would walk into a location that you, you know, were familiar with and there was something new and unexpected and very pleasurable because not only is it feels like we’re supporting each other and heightens that sense of community, but then I also learn about an artist in my community that I didn’t know about before, which I really, really enjoyed. And I think there’s…I hope that that continues because I think it’s a really nice collaboration.

Ziyan: Absolutely. And the atmosphere extended to the sidewalks because at one point at the peak of the pandemic Queen Street, certain pockets of it felt like a little market bizarre and people were out chatting on the sidewalks. It just felt surprisingly lively for a pandemic.

Melinda: So when the pandemic started, we talked about that sort of sense of unity when everybody was really focused on a single goal. But now where we’re at is we’ve got, you know, politicization of masking and public health measures. And it feels like we’ve become quite strained as that community sense is being a bit driven apart. And a lot of it is driven by social media. And I wonder what you think about online communities, how can we make them work, or are they fundamentally flawed? And as either organizations or brands, how can we help make online communities safer spaces?

Ziyan: Great question again. And there are so many ways we could go because online communities in many ways are reflections of real-world communities to some degree. A lot of the dynamics are reflective, a lot of the modalities may be changed by the technology platform or the feature sets that are there, or the purpose of the community.

But oftentimes, we find similar dynamics taking place albeit with more or less filtering depending on the degree of anonymity. And oftentimes it’s a shame to see a lot of toxic behaviors manifesting on certain platforms, a lot hate speech, a lot of attacks on people based on identity, gender, sexual orientation, and people have been trying to figure out how to make it better for ages. And I wish I had the answer for us right here, but part of it I feel is the way people engage in arguments, the way sometimes there can be unwillingness to hear, engage an opposing viewpoint.

And in some ways, I feel similar to real-world mechanics, the digital world also would benefit greatly from a bit of patience and being willing to engage or respect an opinion that might be different from our own. And to at least be willing to think about it critically before drawing a line in the hypothetical sand and simply dismissing it, I think there could be measures taken around teaching people how to engage productively or effectively where we can have disagreements with tact and grace that don’t devolve to personal attacks. Looking at creating more openness and acceptance, not just acceptance really, but almost a celebration of the things that make us all different because that’s what makes the world such an interesting place to be honest, for me at least.

Melinda: Sorry. No, finish your thought.

Ziyan: Yeah. It’s what makes the world so interesting for me, this diversity of perspective, of thought, of ways of doing things. And I find we can all learn so much from each other if we are willing to take some time to listen to viewpoints that might be different from our own.

Melinda: Yeah. I think for me, I notice what’s happening with my kids. I often look at them to see where things are heading and they don’t engage in really open online platforms. Like, they don’t engage with Twitter or Facebook even. They’re more likely to go into a private discord server and talk to people that they actually know in real life. Or if they’ve met people through say gaming, they will have a private server of people they are comfortable with.

And I think that is a bit of a reaction to that like incredible. And I think that ability for people to just rage online and I think especially when we talk about things like the metaverse that it’s so important that we do solve this issue because the possibilities when you then enhance the technology can be a little scary.

Ziyan: Yeah, absolutely. Because the technology we build, especially when it comes to things involving machine learning, AI, or the metaverse, these programs adopt the biases of the programmer. And until and unless we address a lot of these issues in society, they will continue to appear on our tech platforms. But at the same time, people are resilient and innovative, and I like to believe that people are generally good at heart.

Melinda: Yeah. I think that most of us probably have had a moment where we’ve done something or said something on social media that we wouldn’t have said in real life.

Ziyan: Absolutely.

Melinda: Yeah. So the pandemic has been at the forefront of our collective consciousness, but at the same time, climate change has become more present in our lives. When we think about designing spaces for community, how are designers incorporating sustainability or just considering climate change?

Ziyan: Sustainability can be considered from a variety of standpoints when it comes to design, especially when it comes to space, the materials that are used. There have been a lot of interesting new movements around regenerative design, around circular economies, upcycling, recycling products, looking at sourcing whether or not the materials were created using ethical means.

And as it relates to the environment as a whole, I think we still need to do a lot more work in society in evaluating not just human-centered design, but life-centered design, something that looks at the touchpoint of all living beings that are impacted by development, whether it be housing development, retail, or even something related to transport or air travel. So I think the modalities of interventions can vary a lot depending on whether we’re talking with products, services, or actual dwellings themselves.

But in general, we’re seeing a lot more moves to new, interesting types of materials that can be used in fabrication, ones that are less extractive or resource-intensive to create. And I think there will be an importance of considering second and third-order impact like climate migration. What happens to cities that are going to experience a major influx in people in the next 10 to 20 years? Even looking at Canada as an example, Ottawa is projected to have a major influx by 2030.

And being able to create not only adequate housing and dwelling for the people who are coming in, but also to be able to create spaces for people to gather, spaces for people to showcase and get involved in each other’s culture, cuisine, and art, and looking beyond as designers to see how we as people can work together better to prevent these problems from repeating in the future.

Melinda: Yeah. I think it’s gonna be very interesting to see as well with cities that are affected by climate change because some people will leave, but some people will stay and the environment will have to be adapted to either the increased temperature, increased dryness, or increased water depending on the location. So I’m really interested to see how that plays out as well.

So now that, you know, the world generally, we have a lockdown in China right now, but most countries are reopening and we’re reentering community spaces, malls, community centers, theaters, how do you envision a positive balance between technology and the physical environment and connecting those things?

Ziyan: Looking at a positive balance, I think would require making sure that all basic rights are maintained. So making sure that privacy is adhered to, or at least observed in the way that’s reflective of the needs of the people the technology is serving, or who are using the technology. I think looking at ways to make technology feel helpful, but not necessarily obtrusive. How can we work with ubiquitous tech, tech that creates seamless experiences rather than being focused on the technology itself?

It can be used to help create more immersive and interactive environments. The way we interface with our space is changing too because when’s the last time someone pressed an elevator button with their bare fingers since the pandemic started, right? And we might see changes in the way we deal with things that are touch-sensitive, things that are motion-activated. And I think really looking at the flows of how people are actually using their environments or navigating their surroundings and being able to design based on the needs of the people using them, as opposed to imposing a vision of what people should be doing.

And that too, I mean, is not an absolute statement because it depends on the outcome, the context, the motivation. Each of these questions today, I could spend an entire podcast talking [inaudible 00:20:01] They’re multifaceted and nuanced, I’m enjoying this discussion a lot.

Melinda: I know. One of the things you just made me think of something that I found so interesting, it’s just a really small little detail, but I remember in maybe year two of the pandemic, a parks and rec ranger was talking on the radio about how all of the pathways in the parks had kind of doubled in width because people were naturally avoiding each other as they walked past and this had this effect of making all of the paths wider.

And I don’t know why that stood out to me, but I just thought this is this natural way that people just change this one simple act of trying to stay 6 feet away from this person now has widened these paths by twice as wide as they used to be. And I don’t know why that stood out to me. I found it’s kind of like a metaphor, or I don’t know a great example of how one little thing can create a totally different environment how it can have such a big impact. And it’s like the elevator button, like not wanting to touch the elevator button, or not wanna touch the crosswalk. All those little tiny…it seems so small, but it can have a bigger effect when you add it up cumulatively.

Ziyan: Yeah. And you’re seeing so many of those second and third-order impacts’ unintended consequences. I mean, to chronically [inaudible 00:21:34], the butterfly effect, you know, seeing where something can go. And during the pandemic, I think we saw a lot of things get catalyzed. It’s like in Canada, now suddenly you can get alcohol delivered to the house whereas it had been seen as almost a non-negotiable term for years.

We changed regulations around people being able to cook and serve food at home, which changed the culinary landscape of the city. We have so many new popups turning up access to so many new interesting cuisines. Yeah. I mean, I can keep going forever. Is there anything particular that stood out for you?

Melinda: Yeah. I would say that just generally, the same thought that you’re having is that, you know, so many things that we perceived to be impossible or not doable, when you’re forced to make a decision because you have no other alternative actually these things can happen quite easily. And so that tells me a lot about, you know, status quo bias and just wanting to feel comfortable where we are and sometimes not being willing to just say, you know what, maybe we could do this. Maybe we could deliver alcohol to people’s houses. There’s so many things that suddenly became possible and people were actually very willing.

This is the other thing that I thought was interesting is that people were quite willing to change their ways of doing things to make sure they could keep doing it, instead of, I think there was this idea that people weren’t gonna go shopping. Well, people shopped like crazy. It’s part of the reason why we have the supply chain issue is because people just bought so much stuff. And it was that people were willing to wait in line. People were willing to pick it up at the store. They were willing to wait.

So I think sometimes the barriers that when we’re trying to plan something or when we’re trying to, especially from the side of say like a private corporation, like a retail brand, we impose these barriers that maybe don’t really exist.

Ziyan: Completely. And it also shows that evolution doesn’t necessarily have to be linear, right? To coin Henry Ford’s example of if you ask people what they wanted for transportation, most people would’ve said a faster horse and not a car, which was something so different. And I feel COVID is…the pandemic and the restrictions have led to a lot of novel solutions and evolutions of things that would not have happened without the pandemic, or at least not at this accelerated pace.

Melinda: That leads perfectly into my final question, which is if there were three things that the pandemic changed when it comes to community that you would like to see continue in the future, what would those three things be?

Ziyan: It’s going to be tough to pick three, but I’ll do my best to narrow it down. I think the first one is what we’ve been talking about all this while, the sense of community that has flourished in so many pockets, and learning from the positive examples of community and seeing how we can cultivate and keep that growing forward. I think a second one is this increased flexibility around work and where we can do work from. I hope that we carry that with us and recognize that we’re at a point where we have more choices as society. A lot has changed since the industrial revolution and we don’t necessarily need to be following a lot of the paradigms that existed around then.

And I think for a third one, looking at celebrating our local economies more, our local artists, our local food producers, our local retail, and building a community there by focusing locally. And I’m just gonna throw a fourth one in just for the hell of it. I think this idea around spending time having more time to reflect. The first month of the pandemic was awful in so many ways, but in some ways was incredible because for that month I felt like all expectations were removed.

And in spite of the kind of crushing weight and confusion of a global pandemic, there was also a weird sense of liberation. Like, okay, there’s no expectation of what I’m supposed to do right now. And having that time to think what I wanted, I was lucky to be able to do that and I recognized that, but it was extremely valuable.

Melinda: All those are great answers. Thank you so much. Always a great conversation. And can you tell us just a little bit before we go, I know you have an exhibit at the Ontario Science Centre. Can you just tell us about that? So if people are interested to see your work, they know something that’s happening right now, they can go and see out there in the real world.

Ziyan: Yeah, absolutely. This one’s a collaboration with [inaudible 00:26:34] artist, Jason Barrick [SP], who has phenomenal work that I recommend checking out outside of this exhibit as well. And this one focuses on indigenous ways of learning from nature that are scientifically valid and that we might learn from and be able to apply to machine learning algorithms in order to help them speak in a more interdisciplinary and systemic way than is currently being done.

Melinda: Wonderful. And that’s at Ontario Science Centre?

Ziyan: Yes. That’s at Ontario Science Centre.

Melinda: Well, thank you so much for talking with us today.

Ziyan: Yeah. Thank you, Melinda. Always a pleasure chatting.

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