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The onset of Covid-19 demonstrates how swiftly the world – and our physical interactions with it – can change. Gone for the foreseeable future, and perhaps longer: packing subway trains, squeezing onto full elevators, attending concerts, and more.

According to the National Institute of Health, Covid-19 may live on surfaces such as stainless steel and plastic up to 72 hours. The caution inherent in such information gives many people pause over what, when, and how we choose to touch.

As a result, gloves, masks and protective equipment are now part of our everyday lives, along with the social distancing and caution to avoid crowds.

But do experts feel this practice is sustainable?

While we see people designing and creating their own reusable masks, seeing the revival of bandanas and the rise of brands producing washable and fashionable masks, the plastic gloves might be a different story. One World Economic Forum study estimates that “in the UK alone, if every person used a single-use face mask a day for a year, it would create an additional 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging.”

The implication is clear. Continuing to use disposable shields, gloves and barriers to protect against viral threats like Covid-19 will contribute to the world’s alternative pandemic: pollution.  Before Covid-19, the use of plastics spurred collective efforts for personal, commercial, and legislative changes. Gone or going away? Straws and plastic bags. Making greater inroads by the day? Recycling and reusable goods.

However, it turns out that banning single-use plastic straws may be child’s play compared to addressing the environmental impact of disposable personal protective equipment (PPE).

To protect both people and the world we inhabit, we must find effective yet waste-wise safety measures while charting a way forward in a reduced-touch world.

That way forward might be achievable by redesigning existing environments and experiences, using cutting-edge technology that enables people to interact with things without touch or the excess use of personal protective equipment.

That technology is already here. The developers behind "SIGNS" (LAB13 by MRM) sought to democratize voice, allowing people with hearing disabilities to use their hands to communicate with smart voice assistants. Such technology can be leveraged to replace physical interaction. 

Design’s position at the intersection of human needs, trends, and business opportunities allows for its use in tackling challenges that impact individuals, communities, ecosystems, and brands alike. To advance the transformational mindset created by the pandemic, we’re excited to release The Zero-Touch Society white paper. It further examines how the world is changing as a result of COVID-19, social distancing, and reduced moments of touch, and explores the behavioral truths and key provocations that follow.

The following are provocations for brands to change by design:

  1. How might brands identify their intellectual property that could imply and enable experiences in a zero-touch society?
  2. How can companies reflect on the relevance of their capabilities and re-think their competitive advantage in new, unexpected ways?
  3. How might we anticipate and enact change by design to stay relevant and create useful solutions for people’s needs and desires?
  4. How might we adopt operating models and joining/establishing ecosystems to provide brands with a distinct advantages?
  5. How might we consider fast and cheap production methods like 3D-printing, technologies like AI, Voice and AR/VR as well as sensors to design product add-ons, and new products and services that allow for a touchless interaction?
  6. How might we leverage creativity and technology to design sustainable solutions and experiences for people’s future?

The zero-touch Society is adopting a more digital and touchless environment at lightning speed – 10 times faster than in the past 10 years. Brands that survive the pandemic will be those that rely on sustainable business models tailored to this next normal, while keeping everyone as safe as possible. Of course, we won’t live in an entirely touchless world and the time of social distancing and face masks will be reduced over time, but this is a great time and chance for brands, companies and humans to redesign a better, more connected and digital world.

The answer key for tomorrow 

The continued protection of ourselves, our loved ones, and our neighbors is of paramount importance during and after the current pandemic. However, identifying solutions that allow a return to normalcy while simultaneously avoiding environmental harm is the challenge we must all rise to meet.

Take a deeper dive into potential solutions for the reimagined spaces of our lives – including products and solutions already available through LAB13 – in The Zero-Touch Society white paper by LAB13 by MRM at https://zero-touch-society.mrm.com.

Dominik Heinrich, senior vice president, global executive director, product innovation and LAB13, MRM