The CE experience is unfamiliar and nothing in our living memories or lessons from history has prepared us for it. Yes, there was the Spanish Flu in 1918, but that’s so long ago that there is no visceral memory.
Trying to make some sense of the future helps us deal with the constant state of uncertainty we find ourselves in today. To complicate matters, past data is not of much use in this case. So, the future is probably best understood as alternative scenarios or stories.
What would those stories be? Our search led us to a set of six macro trends. The future stories will unfold on the basis of the actual impact and intensity of these trends. While some changes may be temporary, many could become long-term trends that impact society at a structural level. Of course, with India being a vast subcontinent living in multiple centuries simultaneously, many of these will be nascent at present, with the potential to become mainstream later on.
A firewalled world
From a boundaryless world, we have moved rapidly to one that is firewalled at multiple levels. The key driver here is fear and mistrust of the outsider. The closest level of fencing starts with the home, extends to the neighbourhood/gated community and may continue to expand in ever widening circles to city, district, state and country.
Welcome to the post-global world where there could be a twist in the James Bond narrative of the Cold War. Politically, we could see an erosion of globalization and a return of protectionism. Friction between superpowers and power blocs may make a comeback. On the economic side, markets will struggle to live without export-fuelled growth and global supply chains. This could lead to a push towards “self-reliance" and smaller trading blocs and a return of the 1960’s and 1970’s pattern of global trade.
Simultaneously, the social narrative could move towards trading freedom for safety, with greater powers vested in various authorities. From central to micro-local bodies, citizens could continue to surrender a fair amount of individual initiative for the dubious comfort of community safety.
Multiple features of society stand to be impacted by this as the world shrinks into smaller circles. Public transport, large-scale events like concerts, stadium sports, election rallies, marriages, religious festivals and smaller pleasures like going to the movies may no longer be taken for granted. The circle of those whom we trust will probably whittle down to a handful, impacting our daily interactions beginning with, for example, the many daily helpers that we in India take for granted.
The post-touch world
The basic human impulse of touch is now suspect. The key driver is the fear of infection. While currently this takes the form of wearing gloves or sanitizing everything obsessively, systemic solutions for this too may emerge.
Can contactless supply chains then be far behind? Mechanization of manufacturing has already begun and is poised to integrate forward into delivery as well. Amazon had experimented with drone delivery last year. Between that and driverless cars as delivery mechanisms and an army of robots that can perform everything from surgery to embroidery, the end-to-end chain stands to become contactless.
Whether it’s reading a book or turning a car key, our world depends on our ability to touch things. Many things are handled by multiple people—from public telephones and restaurant menus to shopping trolleys, lift buttons and more. Some service businesses like spas and salons are entirely dependent today on human contact. Many of these will probably be reimagined in a post-touch paradigm. Existing solutions in the tech realm may well see an acceleration of voice-activated, sensor-controlled and phone-operated solutions.
In a society which has always had vertical distancing (along class and caste lines), the suspicion of outsiders will end up reinforcing the untouchability norms which were easing in urban settings. So horizontal distancing (separation of people within the same group) may get exacerbated with new criteria.
Health data is the new oil
The key driver here is public safety. A Schengen Visa requires a covid-free certificate for application, one pre-travel test and another when you land. Entry into a grocery store or a condominium in Gurgaon requires the mandatory health check and your Aarogya Setu app marking you as safe.
There are already many apps out and more under way that claim to show your six degrees of separation from covid. There have been announcements by a host of authorities and private facilities asking people to download an app and show it to gain entry. The scope of this could end up spanning a host of other infectious diseases, from tuberculosis to the common cold.
Health visas then may become access cards to all kinds of places, from office buildings and movie halls to nightclubs and parties. A health score could become as essential to life as one’s credit score.
Of course, this presupposes that everyone has smartphones and access to data. For those who do not, the system will possibly devise the equivalent of an Aadhaar card or an “unsmart" app—the caveat being the need to constantly update an inanimate piece of paper.
Everything From Home
Home used to be where the heart was. Now it looks like becoming the seat of heart, mind and body—for everyone, all the time. The key driver is the sudden move to work-from-home (WFH), across organizations and sectors. Companies like TCS, Twitter, Facebook, Google and Accenture have announced that a significant part of the workforce will now be working from home as the norm.
Employment contracts then will need to be reinvented. Organizations have willy-nilly had to move from a command-and-control mindset to a trust model. While some are adapting, kicking and screaming, others are discovering that a physical office is passé. It implies a mutual contract of trust wherein employees commit to putting in the work. In a power distance society, this could change accountability, since people may find it difficult to self-monitor.
Further, the line between exploitation and support could blur with individual home offices being forced to bear the costs that companies previously budgeted for. Softer aspects that contributed towards building company culture, like picnics and parties, will all be in abeyance for the noticeable future, both on grounds of safety and affordability.
What happens then to the concept of working in teams, building trust across departments etc. when people only see each other on screens? The everyday socializing aspect of the office space helps create mutually-beneficial relationships at worst, and lifelong friendships at best. For new hires, the ability to build working relationships could be severely impacted.
As WFH becomes more of a norm, the office space itself could become the social hub where people drop in occasionally to create those relationships which foster trust and collaboration.
The reconfiguration of the home then looms large. It has to allow for proper working spaces with everything that it entails—from connectivity to ergonomic chairs and desks, storage for papers, printers to islands of soundproofing where the shriek of the pressure cooker doesn’t puncture the telling strategic point you just made.
An important aspect of WFH that runs the danger of being ignored in all of this is the loss of space for homemakers. The only time many women in India get for themselves is when everyone has left for the day. Instead, they may now be running a day-long kitchen churning out food and tea on demand, their only other sources of entertainment—the TV and computer —commandeered by the husband or children by turn.
Cocooning, a trend spotted by Faith Popcorn in the 1980s, could take on a whole new urgency as homes become the ultimate safe haven for everything. Whatever can be done at home could be moved in—from gym apparatus to better entertainment facilities, an array of cooking appliances, playground or even medical equipment and so on.
People rely on a network of friends for various social and emotional needs. With the pandemic closing down on such interactions, family members may have to take on multiple roles. This could exacerbate the stress brought on by living cheek by jowl 24x7x365.
Working from home could also now mean you don’t have to wait for retirement to move to that place with better air quality and where a 5-km commute doesn’t take an hour. No wonder then, Zoom’s market cap now outstrips that of the top seven airlines in the world!
The world is staring at a massive recession. This is the next key driver. Consumer confidence was already low and demand falling before the pandemic struck to give it an even harder blow. Now there is huge uncertainty around current jobs and the value of investments has plummeted. Unemployment could rise to levels not seen since the Great Depression.
Consumers are already cutting back on expenses that don’t seem feasible or necessary right now—foreign vacation, for example. Many have just postponed spends—the new fridge, the vehicle upgrade. But some may never happen, as consumers start to rethink the consumerist approach of the BC era, scrutinizing what value—tangible and intangible—each item delivers.
At the same time, no one likes feeling poorer than they were. So the small indulgences which were always a feature of recessions will be back on the table—the lipsticks, the ice-creams, the chocolates and so on.
Organizations, unsure of their future and dealing with southward graphs, will look at cost optimization and be more short-term driven. Some will be looking for the next big idea and opportunity but on a tight budget. They will have to deal with multiple paradoxes—keeping staff costs down while keeping employees motivated; cutting expenses while investing in ideas; being flexible yet remaining purpose-driven.
One of the things the pandemic lockdown has brought out in searing intensity is the extent of differences between the lives of the poor and that of the middle class or rich in India. The already-high Gini coefficient may climb higher as unrest and anger among the poor—who are likely to get poorer—emerges as another key driver.
The middle class has been clamouring for longer lockdowns, afraid for their lives, while the poor know that hunger kills more surely than covid. The lockdowns have also shown wage workers the pitiless face of their employers or that of landlords who threw them out. From being self-respecting workers, they went on to become charitable causes.
The sharp contrast between the cushy lives of the well-to-do and the poor could lead to a huge class battle, the likes of which we have not seen before.
To conclude, all these possible macro-trends come with a caveat—their likelihood is hugely dependent on the speed with which an effective vaccine is discovered and manufactured for 1.4 billion people in India and 7 billion globally.
If we have a cure in the next six months, we may possibly see far less impact. Should it take another couple of years or even longer, we will in all probability see many shifts. They will all impact individual sectors, businesses and lives differently. This is where scenario planning comes in. You could use these trends to create your own alternative scenarios and be prepared to ride this one out with forward-planning and safeguards on your side.
Written by Future Forward, a collaboration among brand, semiotics, culture and organizational development specialists: Ameen Haque, Hamsini Shivakumar, Prabhakar Mundkur, Priyadarshini Narendra, Rasika Batra and Sanjeev Roy. Email: email@example.com