Make no mistake, we’re not going back to “normal”
Yes, there’s so much speculation as to what our medium- and long-term future might look like in a post-COVID19 world. If you read the newspapers and magazines (here, here and here) you will have noticed that most reports talk about a delay of 18 months until we have a working vaccine. You can probably add another six months to that number until the production and distribution have scaled up; and then of course there are still question marks around herd-immunity and how long one stays immune after having built-up antibodies. In summary: we’ll be wearing masks for at least another two years. But you might also have read about accelerating the digital transformation of our lives and that we have significantly advanced topics that have lingered for 20 years, within the span of a month. For example, online grocery shopping and remote health care. Given that we now have a good two years to ease into a new reality, I have tried to think about what all this means for us as a species and I tried to portrait this (somewhat dystopian) future as I see it evolve over the coming decades. Keep in mind, this is just a thin slice of this new reality where I see new applications and new ideas. With that in mind, I outline three axioms:
1. A Stay-at-home society will change how we conduct business
This assumes that we will not only have accepted stay-at-home but turned it into a lifestyle. Now for obvious reasons, the service industry and the retail sector will have to change the most alongside every other area where your presence had been expected and deemed normal; In other words, think of the your local baker or butcher but also think of concerts, the gym, education and other “group” activities where the whole point of the exercise had been to come together as an expression of an economics model (economies of scale and scope). Here I think we will need to clearly distinguish between “necessary presence” and “desired presence”. For example, in most cases, a visit to your primary care physician is a necessary presence and I would argue probably always a desired one as well. However, certain aspects of a physician visit may no longer be a necessary presence and likewise, most “desired” presence scenarios may be easily accessible from the cloud. With lots of wit and humor, I could declare this the finest hour for introverts but it is in fact true that we don’t really need concerts or gyms or hotels - or at least, we will have realized that stay-at-home can provide some alternatives to these “physical” attractions even though humans are not really built for a scenario where we have prolonged non-physical interaction.
But let’s assume we will have to make sacrifices and start to give up on desired presence situations. The impact on industry is evolutionary; some industries will have to undergo dramatic changes, such as the hospitality- events and fitness industry, while other industries will require adjustments. Some businesses will undoubtedly cease while others will persist and maybe even thrive. One thing will be clear: every transaction that can be performed via the cloud will greatly advance. This will start in phases but eventually, this model will become the norm as the new economy will generate more value that way. A good case to illustrate this is IKEA; famously known for its in-store experience has had to shift towards a click and collect model since in most of Europe and probably the world, their stores are currently closed. Likewise, most retailers and supermarkets have now started to focus their attention on their online offering as this is the only way they can generate revenue right now.
In case of necessary presence, there will be businesses able to maintain their existing clientele for the time being (like a dentist, physician or a hairdresser), however, over time (the long view) this might shift to unattended models supported by telerobotic. Now think of the hospitality industry and restaurants: take-away and delivery services will dominate and not be a by-product. Hotels could use their rooms to recreate presence businesses that are now operated with telerobotic; think of a one-person gym in a hotel room that supplies the most relevant equipment as well as a virtual trainer. Or think about a physician or even a surgeon performing procedures via telerobotic. And then there is the sex industry.
2. Virtual- and augmented reality, telerobotic and 3D printing will break-through (eventually)
Distribution of products and services will shift towards the E-Commerce spectrum. This has several ramifications for industry and companies alike. First and foremost: there will be a focus on digitization with its main goal to reduce on-premise functions. Today, only around 1/3 of knowledge workers in service- and professional industries can work remotely (source: WEF). This will require changes and not just a digitization of existing processes; companies will have to look hard at where they gain most benefits from going digital and transform so that most of their workforce can now work from home.
In the short-term this will be more like a knee-jerk reaction and companies should think about digital transformation in earnest in order to create truly new offerings for a stay-at-home society. In that regards, new technologies might be called upon to fill this gap. New applications in virtual reality could help with transitioning grocery shopping as we know it into the new digital age by letting the shopper walk though the aisles and virtually pick the items. But it is also essential in situations where shoppers require assistance from knowledgeable staff, for example buying a bike where the virtual assistant could show the differences between the bikes and explain the functions. Mass events such as concerts and football games could be held as virtual reality event and for the first time, you could see the band or be close enough to the ball to see the football players facial expression. Tourism might be offering virtual destinations, some that are real and some that are not. For these types of applications, we will need new tools and companies will have to figure out how to make these experience accessible. Likewise, in the area of augmented reality, trying out clothes could be done from home with the help of a sophisticated camera that can measure and size up (or rather the underlying software that does the calculation), it would also help the creative community by allowing them to see how something might look in the real world without having to travel there. Think of architects and industrial designers.
We could see dramatic advances of telerobotic for applications where presence is necessary. I suggested he physician visit or the dentist – these examples are far-fetched and would fit in nicely in a dystopian world, however, it is conceivable that this might one day be a reality. What if your dentist is working remotely and the drilling is done via a remote controlled robotic arm; here we would simply need an assistant that could be sourced locally (could even be a family member) and a place where this equipment is accessible (again, hotels could be transformed for such purpose). I suspect we would only start with the most extreme of such scenarios where the aim would be to avoid as much pandemic risk as possible.
My fourth technology candidate is 3D printing – and this one is even further out. We’ve been 3D printing all sorts of things at home but mostly useless little plastic figurines; however, there is real application at home. I have been able to print self-made objects that created value, for example so far hooks and cable holders. These are simple examples that help with organization, but it demonstrates value creation of at home printing. What if we started to print parts at home and have a guided augmented reality tour to help with repairs? Or what if we could print pieces of whole products and assemble them at home? We assemble IKEA products today, why not also for every day household items. Of course, 3D printing must become a lot more sophisticated; it would require different materials and would need to be able to also mold and cut material, create bcp boards, ICs etc. In short, it would be a very sophisticated workbench, and this would require that we leapfrog our current understanding of physics or basically this workbench would have to operate at molecular levels. To be sure, this is pure science fiction now, and something taken straight out of Star Trek. Nevertheless, the stay-at-home society would certainly create more incentives for such a workbench as physical objects become harder to come by.
3. Society will partially migrate to a virtual world
Looking at social interaction for a stay-at-home society and the technology that may enable it, we could also get inspiration from existing virtual worlds. Most online worlds (aka. MMORPGs or Massively multiplayer online role-playing game) have created their own rules and laws to establish societies; Today’s prime example is “World of Warcraft” but it applies to any MMORPG (as a somewhat ironic side note, “World of Warcraft” also had to deal with a pandemic).
However, even in the non-game context, IBM has been known to experiment holding meetings in a MMORPG with some interesting learnings in how to approach the “soft-skill” aspect when not physically present.
Furthermore, even in today’s video games, there is clearly an incentive to improve one’s social profile just like in the real world. This is done through digital goods that the player visibly “wears” or it is reflected by the status or maturity of the player. For example, “skins” and stickers in counter strike reflect a certain social status as does the seniority (in terms of skill and age) of that player. Another is digital pets in Roblox’ adopt me where you start with a cat or a dog and continue to advance game play and your social status by “hatching” more exclusive creatures such as “Shadow Dragon”. And then there is possibly Roblox’s most prominent virtual world (at least in my household): royal high where items can be bought and sold; the exclusivity of an item indirectly also determines your social status in the game. Finally, as last example: Minecraft could also be listed here where your standing is defined by how well you build and design. There are many such worlds today, but they do not currently interoperate. This is where Sci-fi comes back into the picture: What if the world of the movie Ready Player One is in fact not so far away from today?
If the change in technology and business happen over the next decade or so, then ultimately, we will start to socialize more in virtual environments. I think we will witness a day when virtual experience is not far from what we experience in the real world. Again, we lack the technology today but over the next decades, Star Trek’s holodeck might give us an idea what the future holds.
In the meantime, survival is for the fittest.