A glimpse into our post-pandemic future

The post-pandemic era will be shaped by climate change, the digital revolution, and sustainability combined. Old definitions no longer apply.

Last week, our NEXT Conference took its first steps into the post-pandemic future with a Limited Edition event. Let’s keep in mind that, at the time of writing, the pandemic is far from over. But we now have a better idea of what the future will look like. There are several megatrends (if we may borrow the term from the late John Naisbitt) at work, and we singled out a few of them for this year’s edition of NEXT.

  • Sustainability, in different meanings of the word, is probably the dominant issue for this decade.
  • The metaverse, as the next iteration of the internet and digital technology, is taking shape.
  • We’re living in the personalised century, but we don’t yet understand what it means.
  • How can we reclaim our digital sovereignty, before we get lost in the metaverse?
  • We need to adapt our organisations, because how we work and live has changed dramatically through the pandemic.
  • In commerce, everything is unbundling. That makes it hard to understand.
  • Migration is probably best seen as a huge opportunity, rather than a challenge.

And as always, these trends are interconnected. For example, migration is necessary to sustain the economies of most Western countries whose birth rates are below replacement levels. This has been the case in Germany for 50 years now. Surprisingly, this insight has not yet arrived in the German mainstream. Climate change is now adding another push factor to the existing pull factors.

Thorny opportunities

Some areas of the Earth with plenty of inhabitants will become less habitable, while other, sparsely populated areas will get more habitable. From this perspective, which Parag Khanna articulated, migration turns into a global win/win solution – if we can steer it in the right directions. This illustrates a common thread of 2021’s NEXT edition: while there are huge challenges, there are also bold possible solutions.

These are thorny opportunities, though. Because everything is interconnected, the resulting complexity can be overwhelming. To stick with our example: we find mounting pressure towards sustainability in all areas of society and business, but there’s a lot of work to do and plenty of conflicts to resolve. There are conflicts about resources, but also about opportunities. To put it bluntly: sustainability is another word for survival. Of societies, of businesses, and of individuals.

Business as usual is fading away fast. But sustainability is about far more than just climate change or scarce resources. It’s a huge design challenge, to move from more consumption to better consumption, as Mark Curtis put it. There’s a lot of value we can create in this process, and it can still lead to growth, if we get it right. We can view this as a significant allocation problem, and part of the debate is whether markets or governments are best suited to solve it.

Post-pandemic capitalism

This is, of course, a reprise of the 20th century’s central antagonism between capitalism and socialism. And the resolution to that tension is that both need to do what they do best: allocating capital is the business of markets, while governments have to set rules and regulations, which in turn influence the allocation of capital and resources. This is also true for the digital sphere and its latest iteration, the metaverse.

Francesca Bria challenged us to reclaim our digital sovereignty, both as individuals and societies, particularly in Europe. Neither Big Tech (the US model) nor Big State (the Chinese version) is compatible with the European notion of sovereignty. We have to find a new way. And that’s also the perhaps most pressing question with regard to the metaverse. Is one big tech company going to own it, or will it turn into an oligopoly? Or will it flesh out essentially as an open infrastructure, like the early web, or blockchain?

These are open questions. Meanwhile, the internet rushes through each and every industry, unbundling everything. There’s nothing we can take for granted, neither the distinction between B2B and B2C (think DTC) nor industry boundaries. Everything is fluid, especially in marketing. For marketeers, it has become essential to cut through the clutter and establish focus. At the same time, the CMO role is quickly disintegrating, while the chief growth officer, chief innovation officer, chief brand officer, chief creative officer, or chief digital officer take over.

A new era

The old definitions don’t apply anymore, as Benedict Evans asserts for business and commerce. And the same is true for life and work, as Eliza Filby is keen to explain. Which adds even more complexity. We are in the midst of a centenary war for talent, which is fought not only between companies, but also between countries and entire global regions. The global digital sphere, the tech-industrial complex, is well-positioned for this war. But it still needs to adapt, as the upheaval amongst the big tech workforce about a mandatory return to the office has made clear.

The pandemic ushered in a new phase, or maybe even a new era, but we’ll still see many fights about the characteristics of the post-pandemic era, which climate change, the digital revolution, and sustainability combined will shape. And let’s not forget global tensions between the US and China, and the aftermath of the pandemic, which will be present for years or even decades to come. Global supply chains are already under pressure and face disruption.

The agenda for the Twenties is packed to the brim.