Three shifts for the next ten years

We all know that we’re at a moment of great complexity. Much is uncertain, and no one has a crystal ball. Unwarranted certainty is the first enemy of any attempt to think about the future.

The truth is that what follows isn’t really about future gazing. Instead, it’s about being observant about shifts that are happening now, and thinking about their implications. These shifts are most useful if you look at them as opportunities: to innovate, build, and grow. Don’t just know them; do something with them.

Local networks are reimagined for the 2020s 

The last few months have prompted a reassessment of much about the systems we live inside. One key emerging theme is clear: the power of local networks in a globalised world. Now, space has opened for a new spate of tools and platforms that enable people to connect with and get the most from other people, resources and networks immediately around them. In the 2010s billions joined vast, all-conquering global networks such as Facebook. In the 2020s, rising numbers will think local networks, too.

As with all these shifts, this one has deep roots. But its growth has been accelerated by the crisis. Thirty years of globalisation brought with it immense material and cultural benefits. But as the British scientist and futurist Martin Rees points out, a highly globalised world also creates new vulnerabilities – including to the rapid spread of infectious disease – that we’re only beginning to understand. Now, the pandemic has brought home our reliance on global supply chains, centralized institutions, offshore manufacturing, and frequent international travel. During lockdown some of those networks and institutions faltered, or became inaccessible.

Meanwhile, and crucially, neighbours banded together to help each other out. A million hyper-local WhatsApp groups blossomed, in which people checked up on neighbours, shared advice, and offered to do shopping for older residents. It’s a telling sign of the times that it took a global crisis to get neighbours to connect with one another in these ways.

There’s nothing new about the importance of local connection: that’s as old as human nature. What’s new is that millions have just had a powerful reminder of it; a reminder that in difficult times, it’s often the people and resources closest to you that are most able to help. That reminder will push new behaviours in the years ahead. First-generation local networks such as Nextdoor stand to benefit. But there are still vast opportunities for innovators, founders, designers and more to build new tools and platforms that serve these needs. Think tools that help connect people to those close to them to share hyper-local news, tips and expertise. Platforms that connect people to local government in new ways, or allow them to organise and impact their local community themselves. Think hyper-local supply chains, resources and resilience. And simple human connection and emotional support.

Virtual worlds become domains of meaningful experience

We all know that people are playing more video games during lockdown. And that much face-to-face interaction has become virtual (Zoom meetings!). But look closer and there’s an even more powerful shift happening right now. That is, the emergence of video games and virtual worlds as domains of meaningful experience for millions around the world.

That’s a powerful shift. Traditionally, people came to the internet for information. More recently, you could add entertainment. Now, we’re moving from an Internet of Infotainment to an Internet of Experiences. This is about people turning to the online space to have experiences that are meaningful in their own right, just like those they have in the real world. These virtual experiences can be social, cultural, creative and more. And just as in the real world Experience Economy, the pursuit of them is often driven by a desire for status. They’re the kind of experiences that make people want to tell their friends: ‘Check me out; I did this!’

A version of this shift was happening before the pandemic; TrendWatching wrote about the emergence of a Virtual Experience Economy back in 2017. But it’s been accelerated by lockdown, which has deprived people of the real-world Experience Economy. You can see this in the way millions have turned to the Nintendo game Animal Crossing: New Horizons as a respite from lockdown pressures, and as a way to hang out with friends inside virtual space. Or in the recent and hugely successful concert by Travis Scott inside video game Fortnite; 12 million entered the game to watch live. For those millions, that concert was an authentic cultural experience.

In the years ahead, we can expect simulated worlds to become even more important domains of experience and meaning. Especially as VR and AR technologies evolve, enabling us to build truly immersive virtual worlds that can deliver something far closer to real-world experience. For many people these worlds will become as important, meaningful, and real as the real world itself, as they pursue social connection, achievement, purpose and status inside them.

What’s more, the race is already on to own this shift. Just look at Facebook’s Horizon, a virtual world built on the Oculus VR platform. Innovators, designers, strategists, marketers and more can all usefully ask themselves: what does the pursuit of meaningful experiences inside virtual worlds mean for me and my organization? How can we reach, connect with and serve the inhabitants of these worlds?

Work recentres around human connection 

The pandemic and associated lockdowns have vaporised much economic activity worldwide. The US Department of Labor says over 38 million people have become unemployed in the last nine weeks. In Europe, an estimated 40 million are currently furloughed; many of those jobs are surely gone permanently. It all amounts to a deep-running and painful economic reset. One crucial implication? An acceleration of a powerful shift towards new forms of work.

To understand that, we need to understand the key underlying megatrend here. That megatrend is automation, one of the most powerful forces reshaping the world around us in the 21st-century. In the decades ahead automation will be an irresistible force sweeping across the economy. Given enough time, whatever can be automated will be. According to one estimate, automation technologies will eat 800 million jobs by 2030. The hard reset forced on many businesses by the pandemic is likely to accelerate this.

In a world where we can have economies of stupendous productivity with little human input, what remains for us to do? The answer is simply to be with one another. And two powerful forms of that? Entertaining one another, and caring for each other. In an automated future, entertainment and care will be at the heart of how we think about work.

This shift towards entertainment is already highly visible in the emergence of a first generation of Instagram influencers and YouTube creators able to make a living (sometimes a fortune) out of the entertainment they give to others. YouTube star PewDiePie made $70 million in 2019. Of course, he’s an extreme outlier. But we’ll see the emergence of a true long tail for entertainment, where millions of young people are able to build small audiences – think a few thousand – around niche interests, and monetize those audiences to make a decent living.

Like entertainment, care is an irreducible human activity that cannot be automated away. To care for someone means one-on-one attention, listening, touch; essentially a set of actions that say I’m a human being and I’m here for you. No robot can replicate that statement in any meaningful way. Ageing populations across the affluent world will mean huge amounts of care work waiting to be done. And think we’ll see the emergence of new forms of care work, too; ways to simply be with another person, to listen to them, to make them feel seen, that come to be defined as ‘work’.

There are huge implications for all of us in all this, individually and collectively. If you’re a founder, innovator, marketer, strategist or much else besides, start asking now: what does this shift mean for us?

Please note: This article was first published in the newsletter 'New World Same Humans' by David Mattin. You can subscribe to it here.

Photo by KaLisa Veer on Unsplash