Even before the outbreak of COVID-19 there was a feeling that 2020 would be a watershed year. Politically, economically, environmentally and socially, rage and polarisation stained the mood of 2019. It felt as if a tipping point would at last be reached as we headed into the new year. Winds of change for a new decade were anticipated.
We just never imagined it would be a hurricane.
2020 was envisaged as a landmark year (be careful what you wish for). Tech companies promised that this or that tech would be rolled out, ditto political policies as well as business benchmarks. However, disruptive undercurrents were also coming to a head. Flashing lights on the trend radar included the surge of climate change awareness, over-tourism, the environmental impact of disposable consumerism and fast fashion retail in particular, murmurs of deglobalisation with the prospect of regionalism, and the slow but steady shift to flexibility in the workplace.
Unexpectedly, COVID-19 not only highlighted but also fast-tracked all these issues and even spawned some new ideas. We now acknowledge that the world will be changed irrevocably; it would be foolhardy to think otherwise. So, what does a post-pandemic world look like? No one really knows, but we can get a glimpse of this new world order if we look at the trends that were already waiting in the wings, which have now been fast-tracked into our lives.
A contactless world
In terms of technology, automation and contactless technologies were already available but many had not been commercially rolled out or widely adopted. Enforced lockdown has ensured that everyone has had to embark on a steep learning curve to adapt to a contactless world.
For example, we’ve only just become accustomed to tapping our credit cards for payment, rather than punching in a pin code. Now that we’ve all become germaphobes the less contact we have with machines, public surfaces or people, the better.
With half the planet in an indefinite lockdown (there could be a second wave), contactless services like telemedicine, e-learning, remote working, virtual conferencing and cashless transactions have moved from “interesting” and “nice to have” concepts, to new necessities.
Autonomous vehicles, a seemingly futuristic concept, have been fast-tracked, but not for passengers. Driverless delivery vehicle startups, like Neolix, received orders in China for their tiny robotic vehicles, which spray disinfectant onto streets, public spaces and hospitals to mitigate the spread of the virus.
In Hong Kong, small box-like robots, which spray a hydrogen peroxide solution onto hard-to-reach nooks and crannies, are also being used to decontaminate subways and trains. Drones have also been used – like miniature crop sprayers – to spray disinfectant onto streets and public spaces.
Surveillance drones were quickly deployed in China to not only monitor people breaking their lockdown internment, but also used to bark instructions to transgressors via the drone’s loudspeakers. These surveillance drones were also deployed in Italy, Spain and the USA. Forfeiting one’s privacy in a time of crisis, for common good, seems reasonable. But what happens when government surveillance on its citizens continues in a post-pandemic world? Will we be as willing to give up our freedoms for security?
Automation and contactless technologies were already available...
Before COVID-19, issues of data ownership and privacy were gaining ground. However, in China resistance was futile. The government has, in recent years, embarked on the biggest facial recognition programme on the planet. Linked to a national social credit score, this type of surveillance and data capture became a global case study in digital social engineering. The pandemic has now enabled the government to take things to the next level.
During lockdown in China a smartphone app was introduced that allowed you to detect anyone in your proximity (and the government) who had been infected or had contact with someone who was. After lockdown, the app is now part of a new normal.
The app is required for access of movement: for public transport, to check into a hotel or to enter a city. For example, before using the subway the app is needed to scan a barcode. The scan reveals your identity card details as well as your health records and then flashes one of three colours: green allows you to proceed, red indicates that you might be infected, had a fever or other symptoms and are awaiting a diagnosis, while yellow indicates that you’ve been in contact with an infected person and have not finished the mandatory quarantine. A red or yellow light will obviously prohibit access, and the “transgression” will most certainly be factored into your social credit score.
After 9/11 the world focused on counterterrorism, and as global citizens we happily accepted the heightened security measures we had to endure when going through airport security. In a post-pandemic world, there will most certainly be a greater focus on private health data, which could then affect our freedom of movement, social credit scores and influence our medical and personal insurance premiums.
A prolonged global lockdown will inevitably give us all time to reflect. As we resuscitate economies and re-engineer businesses, the question of re-engineering our personal lives will run in tandem.
Equitable healthcare and universal basic income will no longer be viewed as a utopian dream. Conspicuous consumption and celebrity culture will be reassessed (lockdowns remind us of what we need vs our wants), and we will think twice about getting on a plane. Physical human contact is the new luxury. The value shift this pandemic is triggering could spell the end of “late stage capitalism” as we know it.
In the words of Arundhati Roy: “The pandemic is a portal. We can walk through it with our dead ideas, or we can walk lightly, ready to imagine another world”.
Are you prepared to walk lightly?
Dion Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. For more trends as business strategy, visit: www.fluxtrends.com.
Social distancing evolves into hikikomori
It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to see how our new viral phobia will quickly escalate into widespread agoraphobia – the anxiety disorder where a person perceives his/her environment to be unsafe with no easy way to escape. These will include open spaces, public transport, shopping centres, or simply being outside their home.
In Japan there was already a growing trend of hikikomori (an “acute social withdrawal") amongst reclusive adolescents or adults, who withdraw from society and seek extreme degrees of isolation and confinement.
As we master our remote technologies and embrace contactless services, hikikomori might just become a new social norm.
Altered supply chains and the “politics of generosity”
At the close of 2019 the US-China trade war had already escalated the debate around de-globalisation. Globally, political shifts towards populism, nationalism and regionalism also added to this anti-globalist revision.
Global supply chains inextricably linked to China was one of the first issues the pandemic highlighted. Many multi-national companies are now frantically trying to find ways to shorten complicated global supply chains, increase quality control and improve speed and flexibility.
While it is difficult to compete with the manufacturing prowess of China, advanced manufacturing techniques are increasingly making it possible for other countries to produce domestically instead of offshore. The reassessment of global supply chains will provide countries, who until now have been deemed smaller players, with new opportunities to step up and provide alternatives. The murmurs of regionalism, in which the world splits into separate spheres of influence, becomes that much more viable.
With the real possibility of supply chains decoupling, the “politics of generosity” are already in play. Dubbed “mask diplomacy” by TIME magazine, political leaders are keen to show their soft power during the pandemic by sharing their medical know-how and PPE supplies, with an eye on new geopolitical dynamics in a post-pandemic world.
The pandemic of hate
As the pandemic spread outside China, there was a sharp rise of sinophobia across the world. Asian people – regardless of their nationality, or even if they were citizens of that country and not foreign nationals – were being spat at, sworn at, assaulted and abused for “spreading the virus”. Trump referring to “the Chinese virus” only added fuel to the fire.
The trade war between America and China, which began in 2019, laid fertile ground for this brand of xenophobia, as did allegations that Huawei’s 5G technology was a portal to surveillance in the West, and China’s increasing presence in Africa.
These simmering undercurrents propelled anti-Asian sentiment in a world that was already growing more hostile toward political and economic refugees, which in turn gave rise to populist politics with far-right leanings in many countries.
The socio-political impact of COVID-19 will reverberate for many years to come.
Gen Z, the “zoomers”
Generation Z have jokingly referring to themselves as “zoomers” in their online chats (a nickname to contrast “baby boomers”). The pandemic has now ensured that the nickname is literal due to their proficient use of Zoom, the video conferencing platform many people have turned to in lockdown.
But the COVID-19 pandemic will be the defining global event for Generation Z, much the same way 9/11 and the 2008 global financial crisis shaped the Millennial generation’s views on global politics and economics.
Generation Z have already shown their high social justice barometer. The current crisis – which has been dubbed “the disease of the rich” because it spread with people who have the means to travel and, if infected, have healthcare – will only reaffirm their convictions around climate change, corporate greed, social inequality and global solidarity.
It will give them impetus to shout out “I told you so” to the older generations who they already blame for policies that have exacerbated the scale and depth of the environmental, political and economic turmoil the world is now facing.
As a generation that is now coming of age, they represent not only a retailer’s next customer base, but also an employer’s new workforce. Since they are the first generation of true digital natives, the courage of their convictions will converge into a potent force that will challenge the systems of an old-world order in the next decade.
More to come? Melting permafrost: a warning from the past
One of the more surprising, and concerning, unintended consequences of climate change is the evidence that permafrost – the layer of frozen soil that covers 25% of the Northern Hemisphere – is melting or thawing. Permafrost acts like a giant freezer, keeping microbes, carbon, natural (but poisonous) mercury, and soil locked in suspension.
As it thaws, long-dormant microbes are waking up, releasing equally ancient C02, and there’s double the amount of carbon stored in the permafrost than in the atmosphere.
The dormant microbes pose a huge health risk.
In 2016 an outbreak of anthrax in Siberia was eventually linked to a thawed carcass of a long-dead reindeer. The threat of new (or resuscitated) diseases after COVID-19, linked to this type of climate change phenomenon, will amplify an already heightened awareness.