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Has COVID blown trends out of the water?

COMING TO THE END OF A YEAR LIKE NO OTHER

It’ll be no surprise to anyone if the word of the year is “Coronavirus” when it is announced next month.  While not a new word, it is arguable that “unprecedented” is a close contender to describe what 2020 has been like.

2020 had undeniably been a year unlike any in living memory. A global health crisis has unfolded: a some 40 million people have been infected, with some 1.1 million deaths, and still rising.  The health crisis, while still ongoing, is causing such economic turmoil that a severe recession is expected – the OECD, for example, is forecasting an 11.5% dip in UK GDP for 2020, rebounding by 9% in 2021, though a significant second spike in infections might worsen these figures markedly (a 14% 2020 with only 5% of that regained in 2021) and Moody’s is so uncertain of the future that its scenarios for when US GDP might regain their pre-pandemic levels range from end 2020 to early 2024!

WHO’D BE A FORECASTER AT THIS TIME OF YEAR?

Even at the best of times, making predictions and forecasts is challenging.

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”

Nils Bohr, Nobel laureate in Physics

At around this time every year inboxes are inundated by a wave of next year lookahead pieces from trends and futuring specialists, from marketing agencies, from content providers and platforms and even from manufacturers and retailers seeking to position themselves as thought leaders for their industries. Despite some instances of 20:20 hindsight, its safe to say that no-one saw COVID coming. I’m not claiming exemption here – my own effort, created around a call for the country to put divisions behind it and become the ReUnited Kingdom, likewise, included no pandemic alarm bells.

Even the World Economic Forum in their threat assessment for the coming year, made virtually no mention of a pandemic, focusing almost entirely on threats related to climate and the environment:

COVID was clearly a hugely disruptive force but in some senses, it merely represents the continuation of the growth of uncertainty. Google’s efforts to digitise the written word allow us (via their nGram viewer tool) to explore the incidence of certain key words across the entirety of the English language written corpus.  As you can see the perception of certainty has gradually given way to one of uncertainty: From around the time of WW2 our emphasis shifted and has never been regained: our world has been getting more and more uncertain every year, and COVID is merely the latest cause of uncertainty.

THE WORLD OF INEVITABLE SURPRISES

“Some things are so unexpected that no one is prepared for them. “

Leo Rosten in Rome Wasn’t Burned in a Day

It seems as though COVID took everyone by surprise, undermining strategic planning, rewiring consumer needs, and turning even the basics of business delivery into a major headache. At one level that is totally true. And at another level such events are all but inevitable.

Peter Schwartz, then head of Global Business Network in his 2004 book “Inevitable Surprises: Thinking Ahead in a Time of Turbulence” classified a global pandemic as inevitable in that one day we would suffer such an occurrence but as a surprise in that it was all but impossible to know exactly what it would look like or when and where it would strike, writing the following:

“There is another surprise coming for us, equally difficult to deal with and probably worse – because no-one is prepared for it. We are facing the inevitability of another global plague”

Peter Schwartz, in Inevitable Surprises (2004)

But Peter Schwartz was not alone. As an avid reader of trends books, I know that you can find similar assertions in books like Patrick Dixon’s 2007 Futurewise, the Economist’s 2012 Megachange, and Richard Watson & Oliver Freedman’s 2013 FutureVision. It was the when and where of COVID that was the problem, rather than the what or the if.

Heading into 2021, there are likely many similar factors: we know they are coming. To paraphrase William Gibson, “the future is already known, we just don’t know when it will be evenly distributed”. These factors include 5G, quantum computing, environmental collapse, Brexit, autonomous vehicles, creative AI, further (potentially worse) pandemics, social unrest caused by perceptions of economic uncertainty, significant political turmoil in the US if the upcoming election results in a contested result and a power struggle, and others.

BLUE PILL OR RED PILL

In 1999’s The Matrix Morpheus presents Neo with a straight choice between a blue pill representing blissful ignorance (life in the Matrix) and a red pill representing the revelation of an uncomfortable truth (living in the reality of their harsh, machine-dominated world). 

Heading into 2021 marketers have a blue pill-red pill choice of their own.

Do they focus on creating a culture of adaptability? Another contender for word of the year was surely “pivot” as, early on in lockdown, businesses sought to flex their strategies, working practices, platforms, production processes and comms to take account of the new reality. Moving forwards, perhaps the emphasis will be less on pre-planning and more on rapid response?

Or, do they go resource heavy on anticipation? Preparedness requires not only foresight but also the confidence to make investment decisions off the back of that foresight.

As ever, the answer lies in a “bit of both”. Adaptability is likely to be a key determinant of business success, not just for the coming year, but for the foreseeable future but, at the same time, corporations would be remiss not to future-gaze to the best of their abilities.

WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF WHAT IF

That future-gazing is likely to be different this year. Yes, for sure, we will see the usual deluge of lookahead pieces but if I was to make one prediction it is that most of them will consist of little more than continuations of current trends: 2021 will see a focus on personal hygiene, social distancing efforts, WFH and/or hybrid working will go semi-permanent, city centres will be far quieter than usual, public transport  and international tourism will continue to struggle for passengers, telemedicine and online learning solutions will thrive, and so on.

Instead of, or at least as well as, these efforts, we are suggesting another approach: invest in some serious scenario planning. Develop a list of “What if?” style questions – the more challenging, the better – and put themselves to your teams? What if COVID is here for good? What if Brexit doesn’t happen?  What if an environmental catastrophe in Europe cuts off the supply route for your main ingredient? What if half the country is unemployed?

Asking, and of course answering, such questions is a fantastically useful discipline its own right: not only are the answers themselves potentially useful but they also force you to go back to first principles in evaluating how future-ready your business is.

That’s the approach that we at UNLIMITED will be taking and we look forward, both to sharing the results with you, and to a time when certainty overtakes uncertainty once more.

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at UNLIMITED. Over the next coming weeks, we will be launching a full report called ‘What If?’ looking at what a 2021 world might look like. More details to follow.