The world after COVID-19: A framework for considering the future.

TLDR: We already see signs for how our world might change, we just can’t be sure which changes will stick. There’s a wide range of possible futures ahead.

Over the past two weeks I’ve been collecting a range of perspectives on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, to get a sense of what the world might look like after.

Here’s where I’m at.

Why is this so disruptive?

Systemic failures as a result of the pandemic are impacting daily life and order. The speed and severity of these breakdowns is leading to rapid testing of what were previously ‘radical’ ideas. This creates an opening for meaningfully different futures to emerge.

How disruptive will this be?

The disruptions have been jarring. Almost no one could imagine the world as it is now only a month ago, nor can do they have a solid idea of what the future will look like next month let alone next year. So if we can’t yet see the future, let’s start with thinking about “how bad will this get”?

While we can’t be sure, it does look like our answer will depend on the following variables.

  • Duration of the pandemic
  • Depth of economic impact
  • Stability of the financial system
  • Quality of international cooperation
  • Level of civil unrest

How are we responding?

Next, we can look at how we are responding. In crisis, these are almost like existential missions, or a systemic immune response. These responses paint a picture of what our priorities will be during the crisis and as we emerge on the other side. How consuming and enduring these priorities will be depends on the previous question.

  • Solve the current pandemic
  • Prevent future pandemics
  • Create stronger safety nets and failsafes

Why could the future be different?

Once we have turned the corner on the current crisis, what is it that creates the opportunity for a meaningfully different future? From where we stand, it looks like there are three factors at play that could affect the rules, behaviours and beliefs that governed how our world worked before. While each are shifting already as we respond to the crisis, it isn’t clear if, how, or how far they will shift, or how permanent those shifts will be once we are through it.

  • Regulatory reset
  • Governance, leadership and responsibility reset
  • Individual reset of values, behaviours, and beliefs

How will the future be different?

From the changes that we are seeing so far, it looks like the shifts happening as a result of the crisis will follow along these paths.

  • From physical to digital
  • From efficient to resilient
  • From individual to collective
  • From market driven, to goal driven

While it seems a pretty safe bet that an accelerated physical to digital transition will stay with us, it is quite possible that the other three transitions don’t stick, or even, retrench. For example, if there is largely uncontrolled and unmitigated economic disruption, or significantly unequal disruption among nations, inequality could spike while also leaving everyone worse off, driving a further retrenchment towards nationalism and individualism.

The Bottom Line

Personally, I’m now leaning more optimistic in terms of our capacity to deal with this crisis and recover more quickly than our more dire predictions suggest. I expect that there will be significant and permanent shifts that come from this, but also expect a strong retrenchment that limits the advances we might think we can make based on where we are.

More than anything though, I’m seeing a broader range of possible futures than I did a week ago. While I’m no more certain which version will play out, I’m finding it a bit easier to process what’s happening and move forward. I hope this offers some of that to others as well.