How to prepare your business for a post-pandemic future

Sifted asked three futurists what the world would look like after the Covid-19 pandemic. Here are their thoughts on staying relevant to customers.

With businesses still stumbling and reeling from the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic — and wondering what the economy will look like after it, Sifted asked three futurists for their thoughts on how the virus will change the world.

The virus is obviously leapfrogging everyone into a more digitized world, from digital doctors to remote learning and working. But there will be other subtle but profound changes too, to society and to business.

And futurists also feel humbled. Most have been predicting a pandemic for some time, but the message didn’t get through.

“Futurists now need to reconsider how to communicate more effectively,” says David Wood, chair of London Futurists, a non-profit meet-up organisation for the profession

Tamar Kasriel — the retail futurist

Tamar Kasriel is a futurist with over twenty years of experience advising organisations on how to understand and deal with social and consumer change, especially in relation to technology. With a particular specialism in retail and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), past clients include Bacardi, De Beers, Unilever, Costa and Tesco.

  • Was a pandemic in the future scenarios you constructed before? Does one actually happening rewrite a futurist’s playbook?

For the last couple of decades, doing future planning for, say, the supermarkets and fast-moving consumer goods companies, pandemics came up as a ‘wild card’ — a very high impact but very low probability event which would completely skew the direction of the business. As such, the pandemic wild card forced consideration around the robustness of the supply chain but then planning moved on to the high-impact and high-probability drivers of the business. This will all change from here. Whenever a wild card becomes possible the future planning playbook has to be rewritten.

  • The Covid-19 crisis is pushing us to quickly adopt digital technologies, remote working and e-commerce. But what non-obvious changes might we see?

There were already some existential questions being asked about the point and purpose of individual businesses and business in general, and the shocks society is going through now will only make those questions louder and more urgent.

  • How should businesses be thinking about the future when it is still so unclear how we come out of the pandemic?

With so much uncertainty around so many fundamental issues, scenario planning (where you try and distil the many uncertainties any business faces into two or three which are both most likely and would have the biggest impact on your business) feels like the most sensible option. One of the many powerful outcomes of scenario planning is that frequently the same strategy emerges as being the right one from very different scenarios.

Maneesh Juneja — the digital health futurist

Maneesh Juneja is a digital health futurist who explores the convergence of emerging technologies to see how they can make the world a healthier and happier place. He looks at these technologies in the context of socio-cultural, political and economic trends, helping organisations around the world to think differently about the future.

  • Was a pandemic in the future scenarios you constructed before? Does one actually happening rewrite a futurist’s playbook?

From a personal perspective, I left the security of my job in 2012 and have been working independently since then. So I anticipated an event that would impact the global economy so badly, I might not have any work for one or even two years. Hence, I saved in the good years since 2012, so that right now, I have no anxiety or stress about a loss of income. A lot of friends laughed at my strategy, thinking I was spending too much time thinking about the future.

Since leaving my job, I have really been thinking about automation, artificial intelligence and other ongoing developments that may cause people to lose jobs. So I have been telling my clients/audiences that they should focus their strategy on a culture of agility and a mindset of relevance, in terms of if you can always find a way to stay relevant to your customer’s needs, you will not just survive but profit. With regard to agility, it would be the ability to pivot rather rapidly to do something very different, in the way that Tesla and car manufacturers are looking to repurpose their factories to make ventilators not cars, given the decline in car sales. That can apply personally too, as in, how would I pivot during this crisis to be able earn money during this time, would I join a grocery store who are recruiting temporary staff like crazy?

  • What do you think will be the main changes we will see to business and society as a result of the pandemic (and economic downturn)?

Agility, cash reserves, not taking on excessive debt, the role of government in bailing out groups such as airlines, resilience. The governments have told people to stay at home, but many people have never worked from home, never spent so much time indoors or with a spouse, or gone for so long without seeing friends. You have a huge section of society that has no support on how to cope with the lockdown, and how to stay resilient, either mentally, emotionally or spiritually.

This crisis will also accelerate the gig economy, freelancers and startups as so many firms will not want to have huge numbers of employees (and fixed costs) after this crisis, not wanting to have huge layoffs during the next pandemic.

If we are able to work remotely for most of 2020, what will happen to large conferences and travel budgets and expensive face-to-face meetings? Will they even be deemed necessary? Will it be the default to meet via Zoom and to fly to meet someone only if it’s a business emergency?

People will adapt, and if many more people during 2020 adapt to having food delivered to their home, streaming movies or sports into their homes, playing board games with the family, there are winners and losers from a business perspective. A proportion of people may get so comfortable with being at home that large crowded spaces like sporting stadia, airports and restaurants may begin to feel bizarre, to the point of making people uncomfortable.

The impact of this pandemic will reshape how we live, work and play, possibly accelerating some of the changes this century that we starting to emerge. If your business model is based upon people leaving their homes and being in a crowded public place, it’s easy to say, well just adapt to this new future and provide a service that people can consume in their own homes. How can an airline provide travel if fewer people want to fly on a plane in future? Or do they get into the virtual travel business, using virtual reality technologies to bring people together, whether for work or leisure?

There are also social implications. What will it take to trust others again? What will it take for us to feel like going to the office is safe again? Will it be a government announcement, or will we want further reassurance? Will we want to see proof of immunity to this virus before we meet a client? Will it be a stamp on our hand that confirms we are able to move around society, or will it be linked to our smartphones to confirm we have had the (yet to be available) coronavirus vaccine? What does this mean for freedom of movement around the world if some places won’t let you in the door without the right papers? Will society need to curtail our freedom and our rights in order to contain and prevent coronavirus pandemics? Amazon has announced that temperature checks will be instituted across its European operations network as a result of this pandemic.

Will we be afraid for many years if someone sneezes next to us on the train, just like people were afraid of Muslims on planes after 9/11? The cornerstone of business relationships is trust. Consider the handshake, which for some people is a way of determining whether to trust someone. How do we build trust in a post-handshake world where most of your business meetings take place in front of a webcam?

With this talk of antibody tests and certificates that show we have immunity and allow us to return to work and go out as normal, what if only the rich can get these tests and participate in society and the poorest do not get access, and so you have this post-pandemic inequality? What if criminals fake these immunity certificates and suddenly the next wave of the pandemic appears because we allowed people who were infected to mix in society because their immunity certificate appeared valid?

  • The Covid-19 crisis is pushing us to quickly adopt digital technologies, remote working and e-commerce. But what non-obvious changes might we see?

From a health perspective, this pandemic has been the catalyst to use digital in healthcare much more. Doctors, governments and so many people had a barrage of objections year after year but now use of online virtual doctor visits or the use of apps to track Covid-19 symptoms has gone up and in some countries barriers to telemedicine have suddenly been lifted to allow doctors to use tech to see patients remotely.

This has huge implications on how healthcare is delivered once this crisis is over. Will we still need so many hospitals and doctors offices if people can be seen and monitored remotely so much? When it comes to decision making and sharing of data, if suddenly the National Health Service can behave like a startup, in terms of the speed of decision making, such as building a new Covid-19 app or converting a conference centre in London to a 4,000-bed hospital, why can’t it behave like that after the pandemic is over?

Combating a pandemic, and also detecting future pandemics, requires data, often through surveillance. Some countries have launched contact-tracing apps that help people understand if they have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus so they can then self isolate. Many would consider these to be intrusive as they require collecting and sharing of personal data from your phone, but others say this intrusion is worth it if it saves lives.

A team in Europe is launching a way of allowing this but whilst preserving privacy, known as Pan European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing. New powers are being granted to governments to combat this pandemic. In Australia, one state has the power to install surveillance in your home (or get you to wear devices) to ensure that if you’re supposed to be self isolating, they can monitor that you don’t come into contact with anyone. What happened to trusting people to do the right thing? We need to be vigilant that these temporary new powers don’t become permanent curbs on our freedom.

  • How should businesses be thinking about the future when it is still so unclear how we come out of the pandemic?

Part of the problem is that the last time Europe faced a large pandemic of this scale was over 100 years ago. Reports of pandemics in previous years made us think pandemics only impact places in Africa or Asia, so we are not used to this. If anything, this crisis highlights the need for more futures thinking, not less. Whether it’s an individual household, a startup or a multinational headquartered in Europe, we need to be embedding futures thinking in our lives so that we can consider possible futures, but also futures we never even considered before.

Businesses are powered by people, so businesses should be talking about how to invest in their people, how to ensure that people are given tools to help them cope with the next pandemic, to ensure the organisation can cope (i.e. we will aim to make less profit each year so that we can have more money set aside for a global downturn to pay our staff even if a pandemic happens in 2025, for example).

Books will be written about responses to this pandemic. Many responses, whether from government or business were too late. The best responses were ones that involved co-operation, coordination and collaboration. Whether it was teams of people finding creative solutions to shortages of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, or teams of people working to create data dashboards to support decision-makers. In some neighbourhoods, communities have come together to ensure that nobody gets left behind during this pandemic. They didn’t need an app or an algorithm to respond to the need in front of them.

We were hearing so much in the last few years about algorithms outperforming human doctors at reading medical images, but what this crisis has revealed is that its human ingenuity, human creativity and human courage that has helped us deal with the pandemic so far. I don’t think businesses can ever be pandemic proof, but there will be lessons from Covid-19 that we can learn from so that the next time this happens, we will do a better job.

David Wood — the radical futurist

David Wood is a futurist focused on radical transformations of human society, author of nine books on the subject and the chair of London Futurists, a non-profit meet-up organisation with 8,000 members. He has a background in the telecoms industry, including cofounding Symbian in the late 1990s.

  • Was a pandemic in the future scenarios you constructed before? Does one actually happening rewrite a futurist’s playbook?

      Futurists have often highlighted the risks of pandemics. For example, the Global Catastrophic Risks Conference in Oxford in 2008, which I vividly remember attending, contained a talk Social, Scientific and Medical Lessons from the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918. The 2013 book Divided Nations by Ian Goldin (whose launch event I reviewed at the time) devoted significant space to the international problems posed by pandemics. And the Millennium Project has included as a top-level issue in every State of the Future report since 1997 phrasing such as the following (from the 1997 edition): “The threat of new and re-emerging diseases and immune micro-organisms is growing…”

However, futurists cannot take any pride in these forecasts. The point of forecasts of major risks is to trigger changes in course in order that the risks are avoided. Clearly, the message has not been heard. Society did not take sufficient steps of preparation.

Accordingly, futurists now need to reconsider how to communicate more effectively. To that extent, the crisis is causing us a re-think.

The key point is that, bad though the Covid-19 crisis is, there are other scenarios for the next few decades in which much worse crises are credibly predicted. Again, our challenge is to find the best way to attract serious attention to these scenarios, before catastrophic tipping points occur.

  • What do you think will be the main changes we will see to business and society as a result of the pandemic (and economic downturn)?

There will be many knock-on economic effects, in which failures in some industry sectors lead on to failures in neighbouring sectors.

Governments will need to step up, not only in the role of “lender of last resort”, but as “supplier of last resort”, potentially taking over the running of airlines as well as railways.

Huge numbers of people who formerly believed that anyone with gusto and talent could obtain a well-paid job, will have the wind knocked out of their sails. They’ll become greater enthusiasts for a universal welfare system, including elements of a universal basic income. In parallel, it will become much more widely understood that there are bad side-effects of systems that incentivise profits and efficiency over broader aspects of human wellbeing.

It will be similar to how the travails of the Second World War led a majority of the electorate to favour initiatives such as the National Health Service in the UK, which previously had seemed like a utopian fantasy.

Other changes in attitude are possible too. There may be a revulsion against the callous way in which some pro-market enthusiasts implied it didn’t really matter if many older people die from allowing the virus to spread; instead, there may be a reaffirmation in the rights to life for older people as much as for younger people.

There may also be a new interest in taking wise preparations for other potential “existential risks” that could arise in the not-too-distant future. Accordingly, the excellent new book The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity by Toby Ord is particularly timely.

  • The Covid-19 crisis is pushing us to quickly adopt digital technologies, remote working and e-commerce. But what non-obvious changes might we see?

Companies will feel much greater pressure to accelerate the adoption of automation, to enable production without relying on fragile humans who are reluctant to be in close proximity to each other. We’ll see faster progress towards drones for delivery, online retail, remote medical consultations. Companies and organisations will realise they have less need for expensive real-estate.

Physical cash will decline in use. Remote education will flourish — the schools and universities that can adapt will survive; the others will perish.

AI may prove its worth in accelerating treatments for Covid-19. Examples to watch include Insilico Medicine and DeepMind. Companies focusing on enabling decentralised networks of AI modules are also cooperating as never before: see New AI Technology Partnership To Fight COVID-19which involves SingularityNET, Ocean Protocol and Nth Opinion “joining efforts to utilise the latest technologies to outpace the spread of the virus” and sponsoring a “COVIDathon hackathon to develop and launch open-source code using AI and/or blockchain to combat COVID-19”.

  • How should businesses be thinking about the future when it is still so unclear how we come out of the pandemic?

The pandemic provides a crash course in the nature of exponential change. Small trends can tip over into large trends. Slow change can burst into fast change — and then into even faster change. Businesses need to prioritise deepening their tracking and management of potential exponential trends that could turn their circumstances upside down. And they need to realise that disruption can come in waves; we should beware of just focusing on the next wave of any disruption (such as a pandemic) when a subsequent wave could be even larger.

However, there are limits to what can be accomplished by developing better powers of foresight. The nature of complex interdependent systems means that planning uncertainty quickly multiplies. For this reason, companies urgently need to improve their agility — their ability to learn quickly and to change course quickly. Time-honoured methods that tended to deliver large projects reliably, by carefully controlling all variation, need to be supplemented by methods featuring iterative experimentation and smart failures.

Finally, businesses should recognise that they will face a huge social backlash, sooner rather than later, if they are perceived to be exploiting the crisis by price gouging or by forcing their employees to work in dangerous conditions. The crisis teaches all of us that there are more important things than quarterly profit figures. The companies that fail to learn that lesson will find that they lose their profits as well as their souls.

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