To cure a sickness, one must study its cause and the pattern in which it unfolds. As we approach the age of turbulence, we must look at mediums that exhibit similar traits and explore ways to remediate the trauma cased by uncertainty, intensified cycles and ever more complicated inter-relationships. One such petridish is a typology where all of us are spending more time these days, and not by our own volition: the airport.
Airports were once heralded as the gateways into the future, portals leading us to a glamorous age of air travel. Anyone who has recently traveled by air knows well that the honeymoon is over. Beleaguered by their own large size, operational inefficiency and aging infrastructure, coupled with rising fuel costs, the airline industry is struggling to survive, yet refusing to adapt, passing costs of their failures on to passengers instead. A short sighted solution, indeed.
And yet, amid this degrading environment, we see lessons on human adaptability. Relying on impromptu community organization and individual resilience, we see humans perform amazing acts of kindness and co-operation helping each other in ways small and big. Infact, the longer the delays, the greater solidarity one observes among fellow travelers. And all this with no community planners at the helm! When we observe closely, a few underlying phenomena become apparent:
1. We are all going home!
People at airports share a singular goal across the board: to reach their destination in a safe and timely manner. There is no internal competition between passengers on different flights. Infact, the opposite is true: A delay for one flight usually has a trickle down effect on successive trips. This prevents infighting among groups and promotes co-operation. Amazing what a clearly defined and mutually beneficial goal can do for group dynamics!
2. Us vs. US Airways
Ever hear the chatter as people wait for their airplane to arrive? Most of it revolves around either the personal discomfort of passengers or the inefficiency of airline operators. There is a real, tribal sense of solidarity among travellers who belong to small groups, confronting the gargantuan airline entities, aka the culprits. But beyond the negativity, there is great empathy for fellow travellers that enables people to help each other. From sharing information about gate changes to helping with large luggage, people co-operate at a higher that normal level with complete strangers. Such empathy is especially strong towards children and elderly. Such team work is critical for breeding resilience across stakeholders.
3. Moving in a swarm
Consider the high frequency of interactions one has with strangers at airports. Our exchanges are quick, fast, random. This keeps expectations in check and frees our minds from inhibitions, prompting us to follow our true instincts. We know that we can make a difference with a quick gesture, without future expectations. All these small deeds add up. Such high frequency, small scale collaborations can yield high return on our investment and big, long term impact.
Resilience is an inherent human trait. In the face of difficulty, it kicks in overdrive, given the conditions are right. As planners, designers and community organizers, we are often charged with facilitating and co-ordinating broad public efforts. It is time we gain a better understanding of this beautiful trait of resilience, so we can create the right conditions to foster it. We are going to need it where we are going !