At Future Point of View, we are tasked with looking into the future and predicting trends that will transform industry and society. We think we’re pretty good at what we do, however, there are unusual moments that not even we can account for, these are called “black swan” events.
A black swan is normally an event that comes as a shock and has a profound effect on the world. Black swans have come in the form of terrorist attacks, such as the one committed on September 11th, 2001. These events have come in the form of wars, such as the First World War. They also now come as a global pandemic.
Thanks to COVID-19 we are all residing in a much different world than we did a month ago. We are now living in uncertainty and lockdown. We could not have guessed that International travel has been curtailed or halted altogether.
Healthy people have been asked to separate themselves into their own homes. Businesses have been shuttered and services have been cut. Major sporting events, such as March Madness, have been canceled. People have raided grocery stores for supplies. Workers have been told to go home. So too have students, as schools have been shut down for the foreseeable future. Even houses of worship have been told to close their doors to their congregation. And no one knows how long this will last.
Yes, COVID-19 is a black swan event, and the world will never be the same because of it. While COVID-19 may have been unpredictable, its lasting effects are not. Here are five ways this pandemic will change our world.
We will be more willing to sacrifice economic security to save lives.
We have already begun to see businesses close indefinitely. Because of this, workers are being laid off or furloughed. The travel industry has already taken a huge hit and will continue to do so. Retail, entertainment, food & beverage, oil & gas, gaming, lodging, exercise, and so many others. This pandemic will have a deep impact on the world economy. We will rebound but this is going to hurt financially at many levels.
This is a unique time in modern world history, where we have decided to trade our economic security for physical security. Sure, we’ve seen austerity measures in times of economic downturn or war. Yet never have we stilled perfectly innocuous and abundant services in order to directly save human lives. We are, by mandate, separating a willing business from a willing customer in order to stop the spread of disease. We are curtailing freedom and commercial benefit in the belief that it will ultimately lead to the public good. This will continue in the future.
While the economy will eventually recover, and things will return to some sort of normalcy, one lasting impact of COVID-19 will be our expanding willingness to sacrifice our mental health and economic well-being in order to increase our physical security in the event of an outbreak.
We will forever have the words “social distancing” in our lexicon.
Social distancing is a strange concept. In it, healthy people are asked to, essentially, separate themselves for the social good. It was a rather alien concept until recently. In the past, those who distanced themselves from physical interaction were considered to be having some sort of mental difficulty (such as depression or anxiety) or physical difficulty (such as person with a disorder that limits movement or someone who has begun displaying signs of a communicable disease).
Today, we are now ordering apparently healthy people who want to be engaged in social activity to avoid such things. We are mandating people to stay away from bars and restaurants. We have canceled recreational sports leagues and school functions. Long after we’ve seen the leveling of this pandemic, social distancing will continue.
Modern tools, such as collaborative work applications and teleconference tools will alter our view of what an office environment looks like. While some organizations, following this pandemic, may return to a traditional office environment, many more will decide that a remote work environment makes more sense from a practical and economic sense.
This means we will have increased reliance on these tools while the traditional office will empty. Office buildings will be impacted the way we have seen the modern mall impacted in the last decade. These giant spaces will become uninhabited, leaving empty steel cells.
In the past decade, we have seen a dramatic rise in online services replacing physical services. eCommerce is replacing physical shopping. Entertainment streaming has transformed the way movies are released and forced cinema owners to rethink how they attract patrons. Online dating applications have transformed the way we begin relationships.
This pandemic will only intensify our desire to use online tools to replace things we once physically did, such as travel to the grocery store, shop at malls, and surveil the corner bar for a suitable mate. Conferences, trade shows, and religious congregations will meet less frequently in conference centers and houses of worship and more frequently virtually. Even in education, we may see a fundamental shift away from the traditional classroom and toward virtual learning.
We will rely more heavily on virtual gatherings. This will change what it means to be intimate, what it means to socialize, and what it means to congregate. In many ways, it will be a transformative shift in the fundamental desire for humans to seek out each other with physical interaction.
We, as a species, were heading in this direction anyway, just slowly. COVID-19 will hasten this transformation.
We will be more proactive when it comes to such an event.
A component of the “black swan theory” laid out by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book The Black Swan is that a black swan event is followed by rationalization. The attacks on 9/11 were rationalized as something we should have seen coming. Following that terrible day, we said the warning signs were there and that we missed them. So too, with COVID-19.
We are beginning to rationalize this as an event that we should have been more prepared for. We are starting to “Monday morning quarterback.” We now criticize nations, administrations, even neighbors for their reaction to this pandemic. Some see this reaction to this pandemic as panic, others believe we are not doing enough to halt its spread. When the dust settles, there will be more finger-pointing, as has already begun. There will also be lessons learned.
Whether our global reaction to this pandemic is ultimately seen as excessively reactionary or “too little too late”, we will learn from this black swan event. These lessons will increase our desire to spend more resources and money preparing for a similar event in the future. In the future, we will pour increasing resources and technology into halting the spread of an epidemic before it becomes a pandemic.
We will use data and data visualization to halt the spread of disease.
Technology has aided us greatly in helping to identify and curtail the spread of COVID-19. Yet, our ability to identify and curtail the spread of a pandemic like COVID-19 is only in its infancy. A swelling amount of available data and dramatically improved data visualization tools will only aid us in thwarting similar outbreaks in the future.
The rise in personal sensors, such as wearables and implantables, will guide us in recognizing sickness more rapidly, as more health data will be available on every single person. Clusters of people who are showing similar alarming symptoms will be more quickly identified and quarantined.
Machine intelligence will allow us to parse infinite amounts of data and understand the outbreak of disease and its potential spread more swiftly. Technology will help us to improve the way we react to events like COVID-19, hopefully curtailing such events before they have such a dramatic impact on the global stage.
This will happen again.
Viruses will jump from animals to humans and will mutate. It happened with the Swine Flu and the Bird Flu in the last decade. We can travel to any corner of the world at a reasonable cost. A fundamental aspect of a functioning society is its ability to allow citizens to travel across borders, whether freely or with some necessary security measures in place.
For our global society to function today, we must have a global supply chain. We must allow for the ability to voyage across nations and continents. This freedom of movement comes with it the inherent danger of increased speed in the spread of disease, whether that be food-born or airborne, across the globe.
As a global society, we cannot function by closing off borders and walling ourselves off to potential threats. Therefore, things like COVID-19 will continue to happen. What will change is our reaction to such a threat.
Black Swan events are unpredictable, carry enormous impact, and are filled with post-rationalization and explanation. They change the world in both ways that are both profoundly good and profoundly difficult.
COVID-19 is a black swan event. It will change the world in profoundly good ways, such as our ability to react to a similar event in the future. And it will change the world in profoundly difficult ways, such as how we understand what it means to intermingle as humans.
In any case, it will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and interact with each other.