Pandemic Futures

By Devon Powers (with pretty pictures and things on Medium)

How do you remember March 13, 2020? Maybe that’s the last day you went out to a restaurant or a concert, the last day you went into the office or school, the last day you visited grandma or your parents. It could be the day you learned what “flattening the curve” or “social distancing” meant; the day you started panicking about your 401K; the day you or your partner lost your job. Or it could be that March 13 has no distinct texture or memory. March 13 may have become part of the blur of time that had since marked the phase between Before and After: that bizarre interim where the world pressed pause and the future felt anything but certain.

March 13 also be the day I first started hearing about the future post-COVID. That update was in an email from The Future Laboratory, a London-based trends and futures company, entitled “Crisis of Foresight.” (The email was also posted to their Facebook page.) “The big surprise about the global pandemic is that anyone is surprised by it,” it read, explaining that scientists had identified the threat of a pandemic years ago. “While they weren’t anticipating COVID-19 – after all, no-one can predict the future – they were using three things to make their forecast accurate: insight, based on what they know; foresight, based on what they could extrapolate from what they know; and intuition.” Unsurprisingly, the message closed with a pitch for Future Laboratory’s services. Touting their expertise in the pillars of futurism, the message explained how their reports, subscription platform, webinars, and bespoke research were the perfect solution “if you want to feel more prepared to mitigate uncertainty, gain clearer foresight and build your business.”

I began studying the Future Laboratory and companies like it four years ago. I was interested in how “the future” had become a commodity—business consultancies embraced futurism as a way to anticipate trends and sell knowledge about tomorrow to companies. After more than seventy interviews across twelve countries, I came to understand that while nobody could fully control the future, businesses saw the future as critical territory of strategy and competition that they actively worked to shape to their advantage. Conjecture about the future—from the inevitability of driverless cars to the increasing appetite for consumer data—became common wisdom so quickly that it could feel like self-fulfilling prophecies. And the trends and futures profession, despite being filled with insightful people with real expertise, also had troublesome blindspots that often foreclosed the possibility of real change.

Then COVID-19 hit.

Even though these future-facing companies failed, across the board, to anticipate the pandemic, they would not let the virus get the better of them. What has emerged over the ensuing weeks is a veritable bonanza of futurist content. Within days of receiving that Future Laboratory communique, Singularity University sponsored a three-day summit on The State and Future of Pandemics, featuring talks from doctors, technologists, and futurists. Later that month, the UK-based consultancy Fast Futures issued a call for chapters for a book called Aftershocks and Opportunities – Scenarios for a Post-Pandemic Future (and the book has already been published). Li Edelkoort, perhaps the world’s best-known trend forecaster, has issued several high-profile predictions and launched the World Hope Forum, an initiative to “rebuild the renaissance of society together.” And there have been dozens of webinars, summits, podcasts, briefings, and reports giving advice on how to weather the pandemic, thrive amid uncertainty, and get a lead on what’s coming next.

On the one hand, the post-pandemic foresight bonanza is an odd mixture of opportunism and mea culpa. Take that Future Laboratory email. Even if scientists, epidemiologists, public health officials and historians have been clear that a pandemic was long overdue, such talk didn’t appear in Future Laboratory output or that of their peers – who tend to shy away from doomsday scenarios in favor of optimism and technological solutionism. COVID exposed the gaps in how such businesses saw the world, what kinds of trends they considered predictive, and the narratives typically sold to clients. The rush to cover their tracks also exploited widespread anxiety about how to handle these unprecedented times.

On the other hand, futurists simply acted as the rest of us did as normalcy disintegrated: they continued to work. Futurism and the related fields of trends, innovation, and strategy are white-collar professions amenable to being done from home, and so work they did. These professionals also are susceptible to the desires many of us felt in the wake of shutdown orders and economic collapse: to stay the course and shore up livelihoods. And though even the savviest futurist couldn’t have predicted the exact timing of the pandemic, futurism’s relevance is as obvious now as it’s ever been. Futurism may not provide a flawless roadmap of the future, but it sharpens focus on likely outcomes, forces us to think ahead, and demands that we plan for multiple possibilities.

That’s why the surplus of pandemic futurism is both inspiring and worrisome. It’s inspiring because we cannot simply wait for this to be over before we decide what to do next. In fact, it’s the utter lack of planning on the part of businesses, governments, and institutions of all kinds that has made this pandemic such a horrific tragedy for so many. Now should be a time to run through possible scenarios and consider all credible threats. Now should also be when we envision what kind of future we want, and to figure out what changes need to happen in order to get there.

But here’s what is worrisome: when significant conversations about the future do happen, it’s usually out of public view and seldom brings those impacted by innovations—consumers, citizens—to the table. When corporate agendas rank above the common good, we lose opportunities to decide, talk back, and opt out. In this post-pandemic landscape, the tangled priorities of “get back to normal” and “accelerate the future” are conspiring to foreclose possibility, erase struggle, and ensure a future that has failed to address the problems of the past. This is happening while so many of us are still trying hard to make sense of the onslaught of dizzying and often terrifying change. While we continue to navigate with our pandemic present, many companies already have a plan for what we want in the future. They understand our dilemmas and crisis as an opportunity to sell transformation – and themselves.

I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me

The clearest place to see post-pandemic futures at work has been in discussions about contact tracing and surveillance. There has been abundant praise of the systems put in place in South Korea, where information typically reserved for law enforcement, like cell phone location data or credit card transactions, is now used for public health. In the United States, developers have been testing contact tracing and exposure alert apps, as well as those that help individuals monitor their symptoms. Large tech firms like Google and Apple have partnered to develop solutions, too, while municipalities like New York City are preparing to launch wide-scale contact tracing technologies among their residents. As much as such technologies present a way to approximate pre-pandemic conditions, they also raise serious concerns, from privacy to inaccuracy to how the government might abuse the data. These are especially important to think about amid the protests against racism and police brutality currently roiling the US, and other resistance movements likely to crop up as the economic downturn continues.

Even so, the equation between the pandemic and surveillance has not deterred discussions among the futures and innovation firms about how other sectors might extend their data collection. For example, I sat in on a webinar that included a presentation from R/GA, an advertising, marketing, and innovation consultancy which offers in “transformation at speed.” They are continuing to advise companies to create “ecosystems” of services and technologies that result in both customer loyalty and troves of consumer data. Similar insights flow from companies like sparks & honey, which was highlighting digital disruption and data mining prior to the pandemic and has continued to do so. And with online shopping, contactless delivery, and curbside pick-up on the rise across many sectors, it’s easy for a company to justify a renewed data push. Sometimes the push goes a step further, helping to construct a post-pandemic world in which our return to physical retail spaces, restaurants, and bars has turned them into  touchpoints for temperature checks and other health monitoring services.

From Wellness to Health

“Health” has become a new buzzword for many companies, who until recently were more invested in wellness. “Wellness” became a booming industry in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the word became a catchall for goods, services, and activities aimed to increase health in consumer-friendly ways. The term now covers a wide range of businesses, from supplements to fitness, beauty spas to wellness tourism like yoga retreats. In 2018, The Global Wellness Institute valued the “wellness industry” at 4.2 trillion dollars.

No wonder, then, that wellness has attracted a great deal of futurist interest. Not only is health and wellness a growth center, with a constant influx of apps and products, but wellness itself was identified as a trend that all businesses should embrace. Wunderman Thompson’s predictions for 2020, released in late 2019, described consumers as “wellness-obsessed” and envisioned the rise of “wellness hospitality” at hotels and “bespoke beauty,” where DNA could be used to deliver personalized products and services.

Pre-pandemic, futurist notions of wellness were more about the appearance of health rather than its reality. Now common ideas, like sanitization, PPE or R0, may be vital but are certainly not sexy (excluding, for a moment, the explosion of fashion masks). By catering almost exclusively to high-end, able-bodied and young consumers for whom health is an assumption, futurist visions of wellness overlook many basic notions of living well. Now that COVID is here, some trend and futures companies are beginning to think about health, but often in ways that perpetuate luxury. For example, at the May 6 summit called Reimagine the Future, sponsored by the strategy company OutThinker, futurists Faith Popcorn and Kim Bates looked at the future of health, among other things. Amid a future replete with robot nurses and medical-grade hospital rooms at home, they imagined wealthy consumers increasing their ability to fortify their bunkers and extend their privileges.

Yet at a moment when a global pandemic is disproportionately killing black and immigrant communities, focusing on the fantastical futures enabled by opulence extends systemic inequality rather than addresses it. Besides, the “healthful” technologies being touted are often not widespread, not scalable, not practical, and not as useful as simpler, cheaper, and more democratic technologies, like masks or vaccinations.

Shop ‘Til We Drop

To be in business requires, on some level, doing the business of the future. Take, for example, a store that sells clothing: it must anticipate shoppers’ desires, bet on fashions, and enlist a complicated chain of decisionmakers, from textile manufacturers to merchandisers to designers. Stores also increasingly must think about how we shop: how we learn about brands, where and how we browse, and how physical retail and online retail spaces can work in tandem to shape our shopping experience.

As the pandemic forced people around the globe to retreat to their homes, shrinking not just our income but also our motivation to acquire, consultancies were already at work speculating on the future of retail. The premise that we will shop again, and with a vengeance, has never really been in question. At the events I’ve attended, I’ve heard a lot about “reset,” “renewal” and “pausing,” but by and large confidence and hope that things will get back to the way they were.

Yet we know that acquisitiveness is environmentally unsustainable—even if done online. 2020 has taught many of us new shopping practices, like forgoing impulse buying and making more things at home. These, too, point toward a future for retail, but a more precarious one. In a recent video interview, Li Edelkoort was direct on this point, arguing that: “The impact of the outbreak will force us into slowing down the pace, refusing to take planes, working from our homes, entertaining only amongst close friends or family, learning to become self-sufficient and mindful. Suddenly the fashion shows look bizarre and out of place, the travel ads that enter our computer space seem invasive and ridiculous, the thought of future projects is vague and inconclusive: will it even matter? Every new day we question each system we have known since birth and are obliged to consider their possible demise.” What would it mean for retailers to accept that the slowdown is not temporary, but a way forward?

A Different Future

Pandemic futurism has tended to see this crisis in one of two ways: as either a hiccup on the way back to normalcy, or a chance to accelerate the world they had always wanted to occupy. Yet despite the tired mantra of “disruption,” these approaches need not change anything in any real sense. Even if the players change, the game remains the same. Disruption might alter how and whether we fulfill certain needs, but it doesn’t change relations of power.

Even the most futuristic, agile, and change-oriented companies have a strong investment in inertia, for a few reasons. First, they want to continue to exist. Whether you’re Nike or McDonald’s, if you are in the business of making glitter or dog Halloween costumes, your vision of the future usually includes the perpetuation of your own firm. These days change is welcome but only until it becomes an existential threat. And there are few companies that have weathered a fundamental change to their entire business. A truly openminded approach to the future would entertain that maybe one’s company shouldn’t continue. But that is not what companies want to believe, so it’s not what futurists peddle.

A second reason for inertia is that we live in a world that perpetuates the status quo. COVID underlined this acutely—how many weeks do we hear about the rise and fall of the stock market, the shrinking of the GDP, or the ballooning debt? Of course, these are real concerns. And companies are susceptible to these same pressures—they have bills, payrolls, real estate investments, stock holders. But all of these things keep us tethered to the way things have always been and make changing course extremely risky. That is part of what makes new ways of doing business like data mining appealing even if they perpetuate problems. This is true of futurist companies as well as the firms they advise.

Finally, because companies compete for the future, they have good reason to position themselves as an answer to the problems the future presents. Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen this on display even among companies that engage in dying or ancient businesses. The future is promotional, a way of attracting business. And futurists do this too, projecting a handle on the unknown even as anxiety about the unknown is what keeps them in business.

But there is another way.

It isn’t an accident that the George Floyd protests erupted near the tail end of stay at home orders in the US. Economic and racial inequality, unemployment, and social distancing are a recipe for unrest, as they compounded longstanding injustices and inflamed old tensions. The first way to change our notion of the post-pandemic future is to understand that these things are not accessories beyond the scope of future visons rather than fundamental to them. It is not enough to issue a statement explaining the importance of Black Live Matter while continuing to engage in practices that contribute to black lives not mattering.

This moment has also underscored how useful and inspiring futurism can be, but not if it’s reserved for private companies working behind closed doors. Futurist methods work for a simple reason: we have to be able to imagine how something might be before we can do it. Futures and trends can also use this moment to examine its own practices—the futures that are seen as moneymaking and the ones that aren’t—and diversify both its thinking and its ranks.  

We’re still in the throngs of what is an extremely difficult moment for humanity and for the planet. But really, all that happened is that COVID pulled back the curtain on the hardships and challenges, but also the dreams and opportunities, that were always there. We can choose to draw a new veil over those things or keep them out in the open and attempt to make things better. The pandemic future, and the post-pandemic future, are happening now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s