The US senator Bernie Sanders once said, “Difficult times bring out the best in people”. So, he’s as much a failure as a presidential candidate as a commentator on the contemporary crisis.

He cannot have been thinking about Australia. Which is worse? – having the country run by an economy obsessed party for business or a population of toilet paper obsessed selfishness. Depression appears now, not in 6 months.

But we must be positive, and design is our trump card. Design is inherently problem solving for the future. Design ideas are needed now more than ever, and every design idea must primarily address only two things: inequality and sustainability.

With that in mind I have gathered some 12 ideas in three areas: addressing the crisis, making a future and investing for the future.


Stop Social distancing.

Just stop using that expression. We need more spatial distancing and less social distancing. Rather as we are further apart, we need to socially support each other, using social media for good (its original purpose before the troll takeover). Social distancing is an oxymoron in these times; stay physically apart but emotionally close.

More alcohol.

You’re thinking a tasty drink, I’m thinking sanitisers. Hand and surface sprays are 60% to 90% alcohol, and we don’t have enough. This in a country that makes and loves a drink. Homemade sanitiser has flourished as sales of methylated spirits and isopropyl have soared, along with Aloe Vera (hint: three-parts meth, one-part AV, shake well and put in a spray bottle – if you can buy one).

We should make a lot more sanitizer than we can in DIY. In France LVMH converted their perfumeries to making sanitisers, and here Aussie icon Shane Warne has followed suit, converting his gin distillery into a sanitiser factory, see here. More widely reported in India than here. Howzat?

The Swan Song.

Who do you turn to for truth? In the COVID-19 crisis it is ABC veteran health report commentator Dr. Norman Swan. Calm, informed and absolutely clear he’s the best presenter we could wish for, check out his Coronacast. This following on from the ABC’s outstanding broadcasts during the 19-20 bushfire crisis.

That’s my preferred Swan Song, whereas the far right of the LNP would love to sell off the ABC, their swan song for the ABC. Now is the time to spend more on the ABC, not less. We desperately need an antidote to the Murdoch far fight fake news RWNJ’s (look it up). The answer is on your TV, laptop and phone.

The ABC should be funded immediately to employ more journalists, more reporters, more photographers, and to buy AAP to keep independent local news alive. Australia needs to be better informed than it has ever been.

A Ministry of Truth.

How to pay for these initiatives? Here’s an idea: raise a tax on social media fake news, the misleading, damaging and possibly fatal rubbish that fills the internet. How to stop it? A loss of income is the only thing that social media will respond to, but they have avoided all attempts to tax them, particularly in Australia.

We need a Ministry of Truth, without the Orwellian downsides. Every time the ministry, actually every member of the public, thinks fake news has been posted the social media is notified. The clock starts ticking. If it is not immediately taken down until it can be fact-checked to prove it is true, or at least not harmful, then a tax fine is levied for every minute it stays polluting the airwaves.

It assumes that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram et al are publishers, which they are, and that the fines raised are due and payable in Australia and cannot be shopped offshore. The only way they will understand their responsibility is if they have to pay for their troll support or be deleted from the web.


More node nerds.

The NBN cost twice what it should have, with about half the performance. And now that so many are working from home, or binge watching, the full disaster is being found out. We urgently need a thousand technicians to help to rectify the situation by connecting fibre to every house and apartment.

If that means nationalising it (they are talking about the government buying Virgin which is far less valuable) then so be it. It's hard to believe that somebody as supposedly technologically sophisticated as Malcolm Turnbull could really believe that his cut-down approach was a better solution. The extreme right wing of his party would have conniptions if it ended up being government owned, at a knock-down price. How sweet an irony.

Getting ventilated.

Let's make hospital ventilators. As many as will ever be needed as they are essential in treating acute pneumonia that arrives with COVID-19. We are told there are patent and IP issues, but ever there was a time to ignore those niceties, damn the torpedoes and full steam ahead it is now.

If Australian authorities are so slack to allow serial knock off merchants to flog furniture that is clearly copy-righted, or unsustainable one star or two-star fridges that are banned in every other OECD country, we can have no qualms about paying for the patents long after we have made the life-saving equipment.

Prefabulous homes.

Australia needs lots of emergency housing. Their necessity in towns ravaged by bushfires is now plainly obvious. Temporary buildings could also be corralled to form an isolation ‘village’, or a temporary hospital. We need units now to make temporary hospitals, and we will need to re-deploy them when the next tsunami strikes or the next tropical cyclone.

We already have a caravan, prefab and mobile building industry, albeit concentrated in site sheds and the lower end of the market. With a push we could pivot to a high-quality recyclable and stackable ‘apartment style’ home that could be useful in emergencies as climate change strikes deep after COVID-19 has gone. But we need them now, so pens and hammers out please.

If we make it, they will come.

We’ve lost a lot of manufacturing in the last 30 years, but not the ability to make stuff. We still have a highly skilled and trained workforce, but we will lose it quickly if we continue to close down industries. So now is the time to reverse the trend and start making lots of things for the new world order.

What to make? Let’s start with masks gowns and everything our over-stretched hospitals (or emergency hospitals made from pre-fabs) could possibly need. We could also start making ingenious devices to address COVID-19, such as acrylic shields that fit behind the a taxi or Uber driver's seat, in the same way as in the old New York taxis , not to protect the driver from violence, but against disease.


Burn Units.

Not to be confused with the extraordinary ‘Burns Unit’ at Fiona Stanley Hospital in WA. This proposal is to set up units throughout regional Australia to hazard reduce the bush by the use of indigenous methods of burning.

Funded by the federal and state governments, the units would be led by indigenous elders who would teach traditional methods for managing the land to reduce the bushfire risk in the next big bushfire season. COVID-19 is not our only disaster to avoid.

Low Costa gardens.

Now many people have more time at home we should encourage them to grow vegetables and fruit. They can have better food, become more self-sufficient, and be better connected to seasonal cycles. All they need is some encouragement and a government subsidy or grant.

So, let’s start a program to supply DIY assembled garden beds, with fresh soil and fertilizer and seeds for several plantings (COVID-19 could go on for a year). We would see potatoes, carrots, lettuces, mint, passionfruit being grown in every suburban house and on every rooftop now so common in apartment buildings.

It’s would be promoted by the ABCs wunderkind Costa Georgiadis, at a lesser costa than the ‘Block-head’ spruiking for apprentices. ‘Gardening Australia’ would start a whole new wave of community gardens and allotments, all part of the reinvigorated and funded ABC.

Condo Clutter Corps.

To while away the extra time at home and in apartments why not encourage people to edit their life and cull their clutter, just as Marie Kondo suggests. What to do with the collected extras? Repair, reuse and recycle of course. There would be an army-style ‘corps’ formed to collect the discards safely, sanitise them repair and recycle them.

And with government subsidies the goods would be given away to those in need – a small means to redistribute wealth at the behest governments that learn a little social intervention.

More pepper and salt.

Finally, and importantly, a biggie. The state governments (with federal backing) should take advantage of plummeting house prices to increase the stock of social housing. This is the biggest inequality in Australia, and no better time than a crisis to address it.

Let’s redistribute houses from those that have 10 to those that have none. It hasn’t been actively pursued since the days of Tom Uren’s DURD, but we need to do it now more than ever.

The idea would be to spot-buy houses and apartments, particularly from investors, as they come onto the market at this distressed time, and then re-assign them as social housing. This could be a short-term housing solution, putting to good use the 11 percent of houses that currently lie empty; they could be held as a long-term asset or gifted / sold off to a community housing provider (CHP).

By acquiring them seemingly at random the social housing would be ‘pepper and salt’ through the suburbs, in contrast to the ‘ghettos’ of, often experimental, housing in the past. The housing would not betray its form of finance. It’s a form of equalisation; it is important not to stigmatize the residents in the social housing.

Lastly, let’s say COVID-19 goes on for a long time, and rental stress becomes a huge issue. The government introduces rent control to avoid exploitation and eviction. Investors see their assets value decline, and are keen to sell – and the government steps in. Yes, it’s socialism in its worst (best) form, but for me it is one way for the government to learn the difference between and economy and society.

Maybe our readership has other design ideas to combat COVID-19, I would be pleased to hear from them on the email below and publish them next week. Let’s find creative ways of dealing with COVID-19 to stretch our design imagination.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Comments can be posted here or addressed to [email protected]