Last year felt endless and the monotony of staring at a computer screen – for work, entertainment, shopping and human connection – will ensure we won’t remember much of it.
Wiped from our memories are also the many issues that had reached a tipping point in 2019: geopolitical posturing, widespread civil unrest, social justice and sustainability.
These problems have either brewed along quietly and become more toxic or have been laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic. Either way, they emerge this year as game-changers. Dion Chang reflects
TECHNOLOGY: The five-year acceleration
The global Covid-19 pandemic has fast-tracked systems and technologies that were available. It has also forced hesitant businesses to take the plunge – such as the digitisation of businesses to accommodate remote working or embrace e-commerce.
It’s as if we accelerated five years forward in one year, and matching the velocity of change has become the survive or thrive factor. Ingenious, leapfrogging innovation happens when people are panicked and worried, and when the consequences of not acting quickly are disastrous. That was last year in a nutshell.
Robotics – or automation – are suddenly more common and less of a sci-fi concept. There are now even robotic dolphins that will ensure ethical water parks.
Driverless car technology and the prospect of urban air mobility now have shortened timelines.
In China, a new motorway, which is scheduled to open in June, has several lanes dedicated to autonomous cars – and it was built by robots.
Urban air mobility systems are being tested in various countries. “Flying taxi services” will launch in Spain next year, in Japan in 2023 and in South Korea by 2025. It can be said of tech trends that “objects in [the] mirror are closer than they appear”.
RETAIL AND MARKETING: Closing the ‘green gap’
Psychologists say it takes 21 days to form the new habit, which means that online grocery shopping is now a default for many. Sustainability issues are also becoming entrenched in consumers’ minds.
The Financial Times wrote during the lockdown last year: “Many companies have little choice but to begin some revamping of their business models: the pandemic has made sure that either their customers are no longer where they were or have no need of what they are selling.”
The madness and unsustainability of the fast fashion cycle was exposed, which has resulted in many companies exploring circular economies as a new business model.
Global supply chains solely reliant on China have been reassessed and there is hope that in many countries local small and medium-sized enterprises will benefit from this rerouting.
“Micro-fulfilment centres”, to appease the impatience of on-demand customers, is the new buzz phrase in commercial property, as are electric or manual bicycles for delivery.
Sustainability has shifted from a consumer issue to the responsibility of retailers and manufacturers as every link of the supply chain is now being scrutinised.
ECONOMY: Regionalism and humanising business
The 2019 trade war between the US and China gave rise to murmurs of deglobalisation, regionalism and the spectre of “tech nationalism”.
This year, a gradual retreat from global economic integration is being felt. Regionalism is becoming more entrenched with the new Asia-Pacific trade deal, the world’s largest regional free trade agreement, and talks of a Silicon Quadrilateral between Seoul, Beijing, Singapore and New Delhi as an Asian tech hub.
The pandemic spawned a contactless economy and all business owners should ask themselves how this affects them, as it is not only a challenge for consumer-related businesses, but also for corporates that now need to integrate a remote workforce into their operating system.
The work-from-home ripple effect will be game-changing as familial considerations are prioritised and the call for “humanising business” grows louder.
As Wired magazine observed, the reorganisation of businesses “may well be as much a change in ethos, values and approach, as it is a shift to online retailing, trade and business”.
Now more than ever before, business models focused solely on shareholder primacy and pursuing the bottom line above all are fast becoming outdated.
NATURAL WORLD: Zoonotics and fossil fuel pariahs
The planet seemed to be venting its fury on the human race last year with runaway bushfires, locust plagues, floods, landslides and a deadly pandemic.
The realisation that zoonosis – any infection or disease that is transmitted to humans from lower vertebrates – is becoming increasingly problematic for the human race is sinking in, especially after millions of mink were culled in Denmark as a precautionary measure as the Covid-19 coronavirus mutated. New global hotspots for the next pandemic are already being mapped and predicted.
Like technology, sustainability issues have been expedited. A report in the Lancet medical journal urges that the climate crisis be recognised as a public health risk, while 14 countries signed an agreement to pursue a “sustainable ocean economy”.
Interestingly, investment firms are feeling the heat of the climate crisis as more clients question the funding of polluting businesses, specifically fossil fuel companies. Standard Bank unveiled a new fossil fuel funding policy, while in the UK a public relations collaborative is pushing other firms to ditch fossil fuel clients. The Guardian refuses advertising from firms that extract fossil fuels.
DIPLOMACY: Vaccine nationalism and security alliances
The talk of “vaccine diplomacy”, which surfaced during the lockdown, quickly disintegrated into “vaccine nationalism” as the first certified vaccines started to be administered overseas.
Mirroring the rise of “tech nationalism”, vaccine nationalism is set to increase the already tense geopolitical dynamics.
As with the formation of regional trade alliances, political security clusters are also forming.
The “Quad Alliance” is a rebranded security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the US, ostensibly to monitor and combat China’s foreign influence. The “Five Eyes intelligence partnership” – comprising the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK – has evolved beyond intelligence cooperation to weigh in on geopolitical issues, such as Beijing’s handling of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests.
Meanwhile, the Covid-19 global vaccine alliance, known as Covax, has grown to a network of 184 countries to ensure equitable access to coronavirus diagnostics, treatments and vaccines, especially for low- and middle-income economies.
SOCIOCULTURAL: Existential crises and life in the metaverse
Humanity experienced an existential crisis of sorts while in lockdown.
The realisation that work and place of work are not mutually exclusive triggered a deeply introspective lifestyle audit. But the blurring of boundaries between our physical lives and our – now entrenched – virtual lives complicates things further.
In the corporate world, the call to humanise businesses has manifested itself in a strange form with the emergence of “corporate clergy”. This is the spiritual business consultant, tasked with bringing spiritual depth to callous corporates.
This intervention is timeous. The impact of the pandemic on mental wellbeing has been brutal, and the forced migration into the metaverse unexpectedly resulted in digital assistants and chatbots becoming preferred entities people turned to for advice. A survey found 80% of respondents are happy to have a robot as a therapist.
Musician Lil Nas X blurred the entertainment boundaries by moving his performances into the virtual gaming world of Roblox. His avatar performed four shows over two days and garnered 33 million views.
Students at the Curro Independent School Network in South Africa moved into the metaverse when playing sports was prohibited during the national lockdown. They turned to e-sports and created the Curro Clash Minecraft Esport League.
The gaming world has also emerged as a lucrative parallel universe. Not only can you buy a virtual $9 500 (R142 079) digital dress for your avatar, but you can also hire interior designers to remodel your digital penthouse.
Forget e-commerce, v-commerce is the new frontier.
Chang is the founder of Flux Trends.
. The annual flux trends release – the state we’re in – is an overview of where the world is and where it’s going, using the acronym trends, which represent six key trend pillars that will shape how we will live, work and connect in the coming year. For more trends as business strategy, visit fluxtrends.com