Why Geospatial Expertise Is Even More Essential for the Post-COVID World?

Stéphane Roche 

Full professor of geospatial sciences

August 4, 2021

Why Geospatial Expertise Is Even More Essential for the Post-COVID World?

The Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has profoundly disrupted the relationships of individuals and organizations in the geographic space in general, and in their living environments, workplaces and on-trade premises in particular. From a life centered on mobility, to a life constrained by immobility; from close relationships to imposed physical distancing measures; we have had to relearn how to live within our spatialities. At the same time, the interactions between physical and digital spaces have been restructured: more interfaces, more networks, more data as facilitators for discussion, learning, consumption, work, sharing, etc.

These newly-imposed conditions are unlikely to disappear completely with the end of the pandemic. Certain habits, certain reflexes, but also certain readjustments in the operation of institutions and companies will almost certainly survive COVID-19. Just think of the hybridization of work in terms of digital consumer services or the physical reorganization and de-densification of public spaces.

What does this mean in terms of individual and collective behavior? Waldo Tobler’s First Law of Geography states that “Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things[1].” What about this law in a post-COVID context? In terms of geography, will distances always have the same meaning?

Humans as “Spatial Animals”

Human beings are spatial animals. The vast majority of daily decisions, as simple as they may be, most often implicitly and unconsciously involve basic spatial skills. Michel Lussault[2] theorizes five in particular:

  1. Positioning: this refers to the ability to find the most relevant location to develop an activity, to settle in, etc. This skill is essential when it comes to optimizing the establishment of a new infrastructure, a new service; but also when purchasing a house or a cabin, for example.
  2. Metrics: this relates to the ability to evaluate, to measure distances.
  3. Route-finding: this is typically the ability to determine the appropriate and optimal route for, say, a delivery person from the product pick-up point to the delivery point. This skill obviously involves the ability to integrate different elements into a context (urban structure, traffic, traffic rules, for example).
  4. Scalar: this is certainly the most complex skill to understand explicitly, but also the most important. It refers to the ability to put into perspective a phenomenon or a dynamic on different geographical scales in order to understand its complexity.
  5. Bridging: this skill helps you develop the strategies necessary to overcome any obstacles on a given route.

Put simply, these skills constitute the base on which we build our spatial thinking, the very thing that enables us to understand the world, that allows a company to understand its market, the dynamics of its customers, and finally, to decide on the best location strategy for its services, for example. In particular, thinking spatially involves two complementary mechanisms[3]:

  • spatial cognition: how we think and conceive of the world around us, what depictions we create from it;
  • spatial reasoning: how we draw conclusions from these depictions, to finally make a decision.

According to Jacques Lévy[4], these skills constitute our spatial capital when combined with the ability to think about problems spatially, as well as all the resources that we accumulate (data, knowledge, experiences, sense of place, etc.) and which enable us to take advantage of society’s use of the spatial dimension according to our own strategy and our own objectives. Each individual, each organization, each company has its own spatial capital, which enables it to act as an agent of change and to participate in the dynamics and development of spatial organization modes in human societies.

The Pandemic: A Digital interspatiality System

By disrupting our ways of thinking about space, proximity, distance, and our patterns of interaction, what the pandemic will have highlighted in particular is the profound transformation of human spatialities. There is a dual concept of spatiality in geography, depending on whether it is considered from a phenomenological perspective or from a logical perspective. Phenomenologically-speaking, this is the means of introducing humans to relationships with the world in which they live, their methods of interaction with and in the world. Logically-speaking, he describes the extension of things in the world, their spatial influence for example. More important still is the concept of interspatiality[5], which describes the modalities of intersection between spaces. There are three categories, classified according to the nature and modalities of intersection:

  1. the interface that brings two spaces in contact (this is the case of limits or borders, for example);
  2. interlocking, which is characterized by the inclusion of spaces within one other (interlocking of scales, the municipality included in the regional county municipality (MRC), included in the region, for example) and;
  3. co-spatiality, which articulates superimposed spatial layers (via communication nodes, for example).

This transformation of spatiality and with it, of interspatiality modalities, has taken place not only in its physical dimensions (distancing measures, barrier procedures, Plexiglas screens, for example), but also in its digital dimensions. Forced into a sedentary lifestyle, human activities have been restructured according to a system that favors digital interspatiality, particularly interfacing. The intersection between spaces now operates not only through physical adjacency, but by the digital interfacing (the screen imposing itself as the intersection) of our physical workspace with all the digital spaces with which we interact.

The Pandemic: From Spatial Capital to Urban Digital Capital

For many companies and organizations in economic sectors such as banking, insurance, local services or even retail, spatial capital is today a key lever for digital innovation and transformation. But in the pandemic context, it seems obvious that spatial capital can no longer be considered without taking its digital dimension into account. Emmanuel Eveno thus proposes that we consider another form of capital, which he calls urban digital capital[6]. He proposes it as an explanation of the capacities of individuals, and by extension of organizations, to control their social and political integration into the city, a city where the use of digital technologies is essential as a condition for accessing public space and administrative services (we can see it right now in Quebec, where preferred registration for vaccination is online). The digitization of these services, and with them an ever increasing part of the dynamics on which contemporary urbanities are based, is redrawing social hierarchies according to the capacity to use these digital services. According to Emmanuel Eveno, “digital capital is mobilized by individuals to establish or consolidate their position within the world of work, within social groups, within their relational world. It is also an increasingly necessary resource to access and make the most of urban services and public services in general”. As you can well imagine, while spatialities are more and more digitally mediated, spatial and digital skills tend to be more and more intimately intertwined.

The Essential Character of Geospatial Competence in a Post-COVID Society

In a post-COVID world, it is more than likely that we will see spatial capital and digital capital evolve into a hybrid form. More often than not, for an individual or organization, mobilizing spatial skills means considering spatial actions and decisions within the complexity of interactions between the material dimensions and the digital dimensions of space. Finding the best path, deciding on the appropriate location, avoiding an obstacle, considering a project on different scales, segmenting a phenomenon according to the type of spatial correlations or the spatial impact of its components; today and probably even more so tomorrow, all these actions require mobilization alongside spatial capital, its digital capital (understanding data, accessing and using web browsing technologies and tools, etc.). Spatial literacy can no longer be considered without digital literacy and vice versa.

The digital interspatiality system imposed by the pandemic will not disappear completely. According to most experts, the accelerated adjustments that have been imposed on us in terms of work, travel, consumption, communications, education, and leisure should stabilize as part of a hybrid system. The digital transformation experienced by the majority of companies requires a transformation of spatialities (relationships to space, but also the influence of business operations). Steven Carr recently wrote about it in Directions Magazine: “… COVID-19 … is different. It is a game changer. COVID-19 is a forcing function.” It highlights the shift that is taking place in terms of the needs for analysis and spatial reasoning, while a significant part of the spatial dimension of business is dematerialized. Space and distances are not abolished, but the relationships of scale and communication nodes have been transformed. More than ever, in a post-COVID world, geospatial competence is a necessary lever to equip people with digital spatial skills and to support the rise of the urban digital capital of companies and organizations.



[1] Waldo Tobler, “A computer movie simulating urban growth in the Detroit region”, Economic Geography, 46(2): 234-240, 1970.

[2] Lussault Michel, L’Homme spatial: La construction sociale de l’espace humain, Seuil: Paris, 2007, 400 pages.

[3] Goodchild Mickael F., Janelle Don G., Grossner Karl, Critical spatial thinking Handbook of Research Methods and Applications in Spatially Integrated Social Science. 26-42. 2014, DOI: 10.4337/9780857932976.00008

[4] Lévy Jacques, Capital spatial, in “Dictionnaire de la géographie et de l’espace des sociétés”, author: Jacques Lévy and Michel Lussault, Belin: Paris, 124-126, 2003.

[5] Lévy Jacques and Michel Lussault, Dictionnaire de la géographie et de l’espace des sociétés, Paris: Belin, 2nd ed., 2013.

[6] Eveno Emmanuel, Le capital numérique urbain, Bitácora Urbano Territorial, 30 (III): 15-26, 2020.


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