With the arrival of covid vaccines—earlier than most expected—there is hope that we will soon see the pandemic slow down. This brings the question of “The New Normal” to the fore. Here’s a futurist’s perspective.
Since the first months of the pandemic, when it became clear that it acted as a powerful catalyzer on already ongoing change from digitalisation, many have been talking about The New Normal.
Yet, after one year of global effects of the disease, with governments implementing restrictions at a scale never attempted before, often without any solid facts as a basis, experts in different domains are still groping for what the post-pandemic future will look like.
The hypotheses range from everything bouncing back to a pre-pandemic situation, to a completely transformed world with people keeping distances in rarely visited offices and public spaces, always working at a distance, and essentially not travelling.
Naturally, the real future sits somewhere in-between, but more specifically where? In order to get a futurist’s perspective, we first have to sort out which changes are temporary and which are here to stay, permanently.
Let’s start with the most immediate changes:
- People don’t meet physically. Most probably temporary. Human beings are social animals and most of us long for meeting physically again. If anyone had doubts, we all know now that today’s digital meetings cannot compare to the infinite richness of physical meetings with all its winkles, glimpses, glances, sighs, nods, buzzes, delicate gestures, small talk, unexpected encounters, and more. It will take much time before digital meetings can compensate for all this.
- People have learnt how to use digital meetings. Permanent. Most people now know how to set up and participate in digital meetings, and they also have a fairly solid experience of advantages and shortcomings of digital meetings.
- People are afraid to get infected. Most probably temporary. Humans tend to forget things if they are not reminded. Did previous pandemics bring a permanent habit to wash our hands carefully, or to not giving hugs or shaking hands? Apparently not, and a few years from now, the fear of being infected will wane away. Until a new pandemic hits upon us.
- People work from home. Partly permanent. Companies and their employees have discovered that much work can be done at a distance. But they have also learnt more about the difficulties—lack of space at home, the challenge of leadership when not meeting regularly, missing out the cultural aspect of the office, and more.
- People are not travelling. Most probably temporary. Many people love to travel to see new places and to meet new people. And travelling is essential for people to learn about and understand other cultures, which in turn helps building peace. Nothing really indicates that people would refrain from such travelling if they don’t have to.
Then there are a few not so immediate changes:
- Production is becoming more local. Permanent. Robotization and automation help making local production cost efficient in the developed world, and the pandemic has highlighted the risk of depending on supply chains originating in low-cost countries.
- The need for collaboration is increasing. Permanent. The pandemic has put us in situations where a great deal of collaboration has been necessary in order to solve urgent problems. But increased human collaboration is also a result of routine tasks being automated, and much work becoming more complex and creative as a consequence. The tendency of digitalization to blur all kinds of boundaries reinforces this trend.
- Countries are closing their borders. Most probably temporary. Ever since humans invented spoken language some 50,000 or 100,000 years ago, communication technologies have steadily been improving, with internet now connecting billions of people peer-to-peer on the go, making us all increasingly connected and interdependent. In that perspective, closing borders is likely a losing strategy for any country in the long run.
- Work: People will work more from home, when it’s convenient and safe from a career perspective, and when leadership is up to date. However, offices will be used for creative meetings and for building company culture, and since more creative collaboration will be needed, over time, people will have more reason to meet at the office. Whenever people can use digital meetings to avoid wasting time and money on boring work travel, or for meeting with people that they could otherwise not have met, they will do so.
- Private: People will soon forget about the risk of being infected. They will love to get back to normal and have fun together, maybe even more than before the pandemic just to compensate for a lost social year or two. They will also love to start travelling for pleasure again, maybe taking advantage of the possibility to work at a distance in connection to a holiday trip.
- Economy and global: International trade and commerce will get back and continue to increase, but mostly regarding services and information, while physical production will become more local, affecting the trade of goods.
On top of this, the world will have learnt from this pandemic and develop strategies for protecting us from the next one. Governments will assess the effectiveness of measures such as lockdowns, probably discovering that they brought more damage than good, while supporting efforts to continue developing new medical tools such as the highly successful mRNA-based vaccines which could potentially be updated to upcoming viruses in months or even weeks.
At a certain extent, this is similar to malware-protection software on computers, which are regularly updated with new signatures for emerging viruses, trojans, and more.
Over time, we will probably also see how the ongoing trend of patient-centered testing will lead to domestic online virus test equipment, providing immediate test results, as a part of our morning routine in times of pandemics.
The crucial question here is whether this will be used in respect of privacy and democracy, or whether it will be used by governments in order to increase citizen surveillance and control. The future of democracy is maybe the most difficult question of all when it comes to The New Normal. On the other hand, this eventually comes down to you and me, on the opinions we express, and on our actions.