What We’ll Know (And What We Won’t) By Sept… whether the world stops shaking or not

Mar 23 2020

With Spring plans completely incinerated by this global pandemic, many of us are looking ahead to Fall, hoping by then the continuous roiling under our feet will have subsided. We look to China and Italy to see how things are taking shape, because we humans long for clarity and hope, even in an environment that continues to change by the day. So the question is, what will we know by September … and what won’t we (yet)?

For years we corporate strategists and futurists have been begging organizations and government leaders to become more adaptive, to try new approaches, to shift behaviors to address climate change as well as growing societal and economic inequities. From most we heard back some combination of: “It’s too hard. Too expensive. Too disruptive. Too impersonal. Too insecure”. Often inertia won the day. So, one of the most stunning and lingering things about this shocking moment is that suddenly everyone is being thrust into this new era, together. Ready or not:

Remote work (and voting) isn’t an experiment; it’s survival. Digital delivery isn’t cannibalistic; it’s now the expectation. Virtual meetings, telemedicine and digital classrooms aren’t cold; they offer us entirely new ways to connect… around the entire globe. As such, we are learning quickly: What works and what doesn’t. The role that organizational culture and design have on the success of these new efforts. On who has the infrastructure for this digital lifestyle and who doesn’t — from broadband connection, to smart phones, to a quiet tabletop at home. Which tools are still missing. And how this is impacting our personal relationships and sense of self.

These new activities and economic realities are forcing us to see and finally reckon with the glaring inequities that exist in technology access, medical care, stable jobs and emotional and financial safety nets, putting a compassionate spotlight on formerly radical ideas of UBI [Universal Basic Income] and other financial scaffolding measures for those suddenly thrust out of work. It also is opening the keyhole to the next wave of peer-2-peer mutual aid initiatives, as well as helping us much better prepare for the technology-accelerated job displacement still looming ahead.

Similarly, as planes are grounded, roads are quiet, factories take a rest and stores limit access, the planet is taking a huge cleansing breath. This gives us an extraordinarily clear view of the impact our consumptive behaviors have on the planet’s health. Will this allow our environments to heal a bit? A lot? Completely? Will it extend our 2029 tipping point climate crisis warning? Will this finally change some of our behaviors and make us think twice about booking a flight or wasting food? One thing is clear: we're in a watershed moment where things will never be the same again. 

These four massive "pandemic shifts" in awareness and behavior are reshaping our understanding of business, society, technology and ourselves. There is no way to unlearn these things:

• The sudden, collective launch into digital reliance for work, well-being and social continuity

• A tangible awareness of and compassion for current economic and societal inequities

• A clear view of our consumptive behavior on planetary health

• A deeper understanding of our selves, our capacities and our support networks

Taken together, they raise all kinds of new questions about what we’ll do next.  For starters, will we still fight to get into traditional four year colleges when we can now see the value of building our own degrees with remote classes all over the world? Will we rush back to our cubicles and 8–6pm schedules, or will we more confidently design more flexible, hybrid work lives (and what then will that do to commercial real estate demand)? Will we pay more attention to where our food is sourced from and start planting our own gardens? Will a UBI, universal broadband access and universal medical care become legislative norms? Will we long to travel far and wide, or feel more secure closer to home? Will we ever feel safe/respectful hugging acquaintances and co-workers again? Will we still invest in huge IRL [in real life] public events versus virtual gatherings? Will there be a new baby boom, or will Gen Z feel the lifetime impact of economic lag (or both)? Honestly, will we ever feel secure with just two rolls of toilet paper in the house ever again…?

Most poignantly, how will we look at the value of life (and our lives in particular) as we all are now so clearly calculating the risk of death?

As I think about what we’ll know and what we won’t six months from now, here are some thoughts:

What we’ll know:

• the extent of the digital divide and economic fragility of many vulnerable populations

• the vast gaps in access to quality healthcare, education resources and healthy food

• the impact of human consumption on planetary health and how quickly this can be reversed

• the strength of our mental/emotional health…and our relationships

• how connected/interdependent we clearly all are, across the globe

• how to seek and accept help/wisdom/compassion from others

• how to work remotely, set up virtual conferences/events and use 3D printing to solve critical supply chain gaps, plus employ AI /ML to find new solutions

• the value of good, reliable data and trustworthy communications channels

• how quickly our teams/organizations/industries are able to respond/adapt

• how outdated many current regulations are… and how quickly we can change that

• the importance of having a cushion/safety net… that includes some of the world’s largest companies

• the value of curiosity and relationship building, for those who already knew something about digital solutions are the ones able to act fastest

• how resourceful and playful we can be

• how much we actually waste!

• alternatives for using toilet paper…and the value of bidets

• how simultaneously demanding and rewarding it is to be a “WFH” [work from home] parent/caregiver

• how much our elders mean to us

• the value of meditation and deeper self-awareness

• the needs of our neighbors and who has our backs

• the complexity of our supply chains

• the number of lives that statistically would have been lost under normal circumstances due to things like auto fatalities or bad air quality [this is a side project we’re working on]

• the short-term impact of UBI

• what the hell “force majeure” really means?!

• what to do with frozen okra

What we won’t know (yet):

• the impact of remote work on our mental/emotional wellbeing

• the long lasting impact on this generation of college graduates: will they seek security or go full on “carpe diem?”

• whether society from now on will trust institutions more or less

• whether we’ll prefer our new remote/virtual/digital habits or find them frustrating/unreliable/impersonal

• our appetite to take risks

• the long-term economic impact of this period of educational inequality between those students who had quality remote alternatives vs those who didn’t

• the long-term impact of UBI

• whether there will be a sustained return to home cooking and family meals

• the impact on savings rates and job loyalty

• the future of education delivery/access/open access.. the value of a standard diploma?

• the impact of global competitiveness and leadership…is this China’s moment to rise?

With so many new approaches, solutions and heroic stories emerging as we speak, there is a lot we won’t know yet about how this jarring global wake-up call and radical shift in behaviors will impact our levels of confidence, our deep values, and our actions moving ahead.

I can, however, confidently predict a few things:

- We will enjoy a HUGE burst of innovation and creativity in every field as we look at the current gaps in delivery—from remote work/schooling to what’s on Netflix—and have a better understanding of the new tools and technologies at our disposal…(I have a few suggestions already!)

- We will be much more open to new ideas and radical shifts in the ways we do things — from dark/robot grocery stores that deliver by drone, to the solutions of a decentralized web and scalable peer-2-peer networks, to voting electronically. 

- I believe we will have a baby boom… and that many relationships will change status as we confront the quality of our lives and the strength of the support around us. 

- We will all become some level of “prepper”, and many will seek refuge away from urban centers to build sustainable, regenerative communities in more remote areas. 

- And though many are afraid, I pray levels of suicide and loneliness actually drop as we now are paying more loving attention to those who have felt invisible and standing so close to the edge.

As we look past the fear and inevitable loss and compassionately embrace the humanity in each other, we will be in such a strong place to actively, intentionally and bravely build a safer, more thriving future for all: As individuals, as organizations, as industries and as a much more connected society. New solutions and more caring investments will leapfrog us into the new, more human-centered economy. We’ll have a greater reverence for life and much deeper understanding of and faith in our own resilience. We will be wiser, kinder, more adaptive and much better connected. All very good things.

With love, support and a whole lot of hope.

xo Nancy