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Looking back at 2020

By Andrew Barker

A view of a wintry landscape (riverside) with sun in the sky

What a year it has been – do I hear any disagreement with that?

When 2020 began I had little idea how the year was actually going to unfold, and how little it would have to do with the expectations and plans I had at the beginning of the year. There’s the obvious: I really wasn’t expecting Covid to take up quite so much of my time and attention, and to have quite so much of an impact on my activities, as it has done this year.

But also, when the year began, I wasn’t thinking that I was going to be taking up the role of co-chair of the SDS. And even when I agreed to take on the role, I wasn’t expecting that practically our first decision was going to be to put on hold the programme of monthly events. What a year!

As with many business sectors across the globe, the businesses represented within the SDS have felt the impact of Covid. Some projects have been cancelled, others put on hold; but at the same time, some new business opportunities have appeared. Different businesses have navigated this changing landscape in different ways: as an industry we largely seem to have survived relatively well, but what the future holds is even more difficult than usual to foretell. One thing is for sure though: we are unlikely to be returning to previous models of business-as-usual any time soon (if ever). Speaking for myself, I’m a bit fatigued by the number of ‘new normals’ that I’ve tried on for size over the past months. Notwithstanding the long-term efficacy of vaccines against Covid, the use of public or shared spaces (indoor and outdoor) is changing as physical proximity with other people, and contact with surfaces has to be re-evaluated. Changes around these factors have a significant bearing on how public or shared spaces are used and what information people need to be given while using them – all of which has consequences for the work of many SDS members.

Another factor is the budget available for such work. Many economies have been hit hard by lockdowns and other restrictions. Many of our clients are having to reassess what they can afford as cashflow stutters. It is challenging, without a doubt. But at the same time, life has to go on, businesses have to plan on the assumption that there is going to be a future in which people can go out and do things.

One encouraging aspect is the strength of opinion based on building a recovery around green values that prioritise reducing carbon footprint and improving sustainability.

In terms of the SDS, as you will know, it has been all change at the top, with Sian Kelly stepping down after several years as chair, and Colette Jeffrey and myself taking up the role. Sian handed over the society in good shape: membership and finances both in a healthy position: many thanks for your hard work Sian. The steering group has seen some changes too. Laura Alway and Wendy Wilsher both stepped down: thanks for all your hard work and stay in touch. Andrew Beattie has joined the steering group and we are looking forward to working with him.

We started 2020 with two events that were – even if we didn’t know it at the time – our last in-person events for quite some time. In January, Simon Borg from Populous Activate spoke about their work on signage for the new stadium for Tottenham Hotspur. And in February, we heard from Charlie Wilson about their business what3words that offers a new way for people to tell others about their location; and Colette Jeffrey spoke about waylosing, and the findings from her doctoral research.

And then things went a bit quiet. The in-person events that we had planned for spring were all put on hold as Covid began to have an impact around the globe. After a bit of waiting and seeing, during which we increased the frequency of our e-newsletters and started putting more substantial articles in them, we pivoted (to use one of this year’s words) our programme of events online in June, using the now-ubiquitous Zoom. We started with a talk by Sander Baumann from Amsterdam talking about his company designworkplan, and their free wayfinding toolkit for colleges and schools to implement social distancing. Colette has been doing a great job chairing our Zoom talks, and we’ve subsequently had talks about wayfinding and cognitive neuroscience, about SEGD and their new chair Cybelle Jones, sustainable design, multidisciplinary approaches to inclusive design, and new approaches and issues with wayfinding with vision impairment. One advantage of holding the events on Zoom has been that it makes them more easily accessible to people who are not within travelling distance of London – this is something that the SDS have wanted to achieve for some time, so that’s a good thing to come out of this strange year.

I think many of us would like to be able to meet in person at SDS events: for all its advantages, Zoom isn’t so good for those serendipitous incidental encounters that can be so fruitful – creative combustion as one report described it. We hope that at some point, we’ll be able to resume an in-person component to our events, presumably some sort of ‘blended’ event (another one of this year’s words) which allows for both in-person and online.

Another event that has been occupying attention within the society this year has been our strategic review. This actually started in 2019, but the bulk of the work has happened this year. I’d like to thank Mhora Samuel for conducting the review for us; and thanks also to everyone who has responded to our survey, been interviewed, or participated in one of the workshops. The review has produced a depth and breadth of insight concerning what you value in the SDS, and what you’d like more of. It’s given us as chairs and steering group a great deal to think about. One interesting aspect to arise is just how international our membership is: it’s really great to have these connections around the world. We have learned that our membership is ambitious for what the society could be: we’re currently deciding on how best to operationalise that, but it looks like 2021 might see some exciting developments for the SDS.

Here’s to 2021!