Curiosities for the near times ahead
The most fascinating historical periods have always been filled with chaos and disarray. They surely make captivating stories when revisited in hindsight, but for those living their lives through those uncertain times reality was probably not that thrilling. An old circulated saying -that has also been commonly described as a curse- says “may you live in interesting times”, as if we were condemned to accept and acknowledge the greatness and irony of our own present tragedies. A statement that it sounds as optimistic as it is sarcastic.
And here we are today, living our own interesting times on a global scale.
We are still in the midst of it, and not out of the woods at all. The Covid crisis has us all waiting, sitting at the edge of our chairs, watching the plot unfold in front of us. When is it over? How do we plan in the meantime? What new behaviours and changes will remain? What is awaiting on the other side of all of this?
For the first time in history, every human on this planet has been, in some degree, touched by the same immediate threat- From New York bankers, to Japanese restaurant owners, to Brazilian designers and Indian scientists. We are all in some way equally affected by the impact of this tiny collection of replicable RNA that has infected the world not just with a mysterious illness but also with a constant heavy fog of uncertainty, fear and anxiety about the future.
As a Futures practitioner, I am often asked to help paint an exact picture of how the future will look. After all, this is what most would usually understand as the core of my work.
Many would think that when working in this field, it is all about making irrefutable predictions and prophecies about what will happen tomorrow, and sounding very assertive and confident while doing it. Otherwise it is just crystal ball-like hot air right?.
The data driven society we live in forces us to be in a constant quest for order, self-assurance and certainty, as if it was the only way of existing in this world, and we forget that the real value of inquiry and foresight lies in the nuances, in the chaotic spaces of ambiguity where things are nor right nor wrong, or completely defined yet. The grey area. The thresholds. The liminal space.
In anthropology, Liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete. During a rite’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which completing the rite establishes.
I find that equally important as assertiveness and certainty, is the openness to something that we don’t know yet. Being able to acknowledge our own ignorance and accept that there are things beyond our control, and that once in a while we must surrender to those forces and let them pass in front of us and continue their natural course, like a typhoon that comes, shakes things out, and eventually leaves space for the sun to return once again.
When our world is collectively submerged in this liminal space, it might be a good idea to enjoy that state as it is, greet the unknown questions facing us, and embrace our fears and hopes for tomorrow. Because the world and ourselves are no longer what we used to be, but we haven’t become something new quite yet. And that is a beautiful and exiting place to be in.
In that spirit, and inspired in the acceleration of certain observable tendencies due to the pandemic, I wanted to make the exercise of sharing some of the open questions that are emerging in projects and conversations with friends and colleagues across different domains and areas of work and life. They are not meant to be projections for the future, but rather interesting loose ends to spark speculative thinking in different areas.
Who holds the authority of truth and veracity in our current information world?
What will it mean that truth becomes relative in different parts of the internet?
How will we deal with collective challenges (such as climate change) when facts become irrelevant?
What new kind of lies will we have to become accustomed to live with?
Drivers: Dead of the institutions, Fake News, Need for reassurance, Information overload.
One of the side effects of an intense year of lockdowns, curfews and isolation around the world has been the prolonged amounts of time we started spending online.
The internet has become the lifeline that connects us to our loved ones, allows us to do our work, but also educates and entertains ourselves. Our parallel virtual reality is the place we go to to find the answers that we need, anything from learning how to make sourdough to self diagnose our illnesses and learn about super massive blackholes in a 5 minutes video, information and knowledge are always there, available for you at all given times.
But when a mysterious disease creates chaos, confusion and an extended state of crisis, finding certainty and assurance has become a vital need.
The decentralisation and massive amounts of information to handle has become overwhelming for the average person to navigate. Add to that mix the growing general distrust and skepticism towards institutions and authorities, which meant that the monopoly of truth has been broken, and as a result we see the emergence of distinct parallel realities, each one of them isolated from one another, and with their own set of facts and beliefs.
The authority of who has the truth is no longer in the hands of a few experts, and while it can be funny to once in a while laugh at flat earthers and those following the broad menu of conspiracy theories out there, it can really become problematic and dangerous for our societies and our democracies when reality is no longer objective nor collective.
What will it mean to be “at work” in a post pandemic world?
How will the new nature of work redefine our identity, especially within the knowledge economy?
What will be the collateral impact to other industries of a new more flexible working paradigm?
Drivers: Remote Work , Need for Socialising, Knowledge Economy, The importance of good physical frames.
Work is probably one of the areas with the most visible changes due to the pandemic. Remote work has become king in the knowledge economy, and many predict that this new reality will change the office concept forever, together with its larger impact on city design, transportation and other related areas.
Personally, I don’t think that the office will totally die, but rather it will change shape and become just another space to do work, among many others. Flexibility of location, time and activities might be more important than just turning work exclusively remote.
During the last year, it became evident that work is more than just mere productivity, there’s an element of theatre that makes work a crucial part of our identity and social interactions. We all play roles that inspire us to grow and develop ourselves in a social setting. When you remove that, and everything that remains is spreadsheets on a screen and interrupted conversations on Zoom, it makes you reassess where your energy is being used at best.
3. Retail & Shopping
How will cityscapes change as brick and mortar stores move to ubiquitous digital storefronts?
What new (or old) services will move into the vacant physical spaces left by retail in our cities?
What unique experiences will we seek when going to a physical place?
Drivers: Online Shopping, Experience Design, Digital Storefronts, Need for tangible and social experiences, Repurposing the city.
As the tendency towards more online shopping has been accelerated by the pandemic, our traditional shopping behaviours might be also shifting for good and never return to the way they used to be. This could mean that the need for stores in commercial areas of our cities might change, opening the possibility for new exciting commercial uses to appear.
Big brands have been experimenting with unique experience concept stores for many years. High street places where you don’t necessarily go to buy an item, but rather to “experience” a brand, an idea or a concept. Perhaps, we could start seeing more physical stores offering consumers experiences beyond shopping, or new “experiential” services taking over the spaces left by the retail that has moved to the online world.
4. Mental Health & Wellbeing
How will our relationship to mental health change as the taboo around it disappears?
How will a new focus on wellbeing change our routines and habits?
What new categories will emerge from the new focus on mental health and wellbeing?
Drivers: Wellbeing, Stress & Anxiety Epidemic, Addiction to technology, Breaking Taboos.
If something has dramatically changed due to Covid, has been the taboo around mental health. The uncertainty created by a year of lockdowns, economical crisis, fear of the virus and other global threats has created massive stress and anxiety among us and has put a tremendous toll on our mental and physical wellbeing.
Making these issues not just isolated events for a small part of the population, but rather a societal challenge moving forward.
As we become collectively more aware of the importance of keeping our bodies healthy and strong with better and more functional foods, supplements and exercise, it also becomes important to take care of our minds.
Mental health and wellbeing has been demystified and flooded the mainstream consciousness, and is no longer a concern for a niche group, but rather a crucial element to ensure a better future for our societies.
When will we see a return to the high levels of travel seen pre-pandemic?
How will business travel look like when remote work has been adopted widely?
What will be the impact in those economies relying on tourism as a key source of income?
What will it mean for globalization? Will traveling become a privilege again?
Drivers: Glocalization, End of Fast Cheap Travel, Repurposing Local Economies, Search For Novel Experiences.
One of the industries most affected by the halt of movement has been the travel industry. Airlines, Hotels, Entertainment and Service sectors have been brought to their knees and a speedy recovery is not even on sight.
This massive change has already reshaped whole economies depending on tourism, and will continue doing so as we get out of this crisis. But the recovery will probably not be equally distributed among different countries, and different realities will coexist at least for the foreseeable future. People will always like to travel, and see new things. The question is “where” that will be possible to do first, and “how” the experience of traveling will vary in different parts of the world. The easiness of movement across our hyperconnected globalised planet doesn’t exist anymore, and it looks like travel might become once again a privilege for those who can afford it.
These reflections are just the tip of the iceberg, and are alive and in constant development. As this time in history continues to unfold in front of our eyes, we are also learning how to cope, alter, and adapt to this new reality. Like every other crisis, this will also pass, but in the meantime we must stay vigilant, curious and eager to design the future as we speak.
Feel free to reach out and share your own open questions and loose ends. They will be an interesting testament of our current zeitgeist into the future.
Let’s make it an ongoing practice.