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Adaptation and Resilience: Reflections for a Post-Pandemic Future

By
Maria Bothwell
October 13, 2020

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What a year it has been. Since January 1, our nation – and our world – have experienced one of the most tumultuous years in living memory. Uncertainty is pouring in from all directions, and planning for the future, no matter what it holds, is more important than ever.

Recently, I participated in a webinar with the American Council on Germany and Tenfourteen, two nonprofits dedicated to strengthening the United States’ relationship with Germany through various programs and activities. The webinar, called Resilience and Adaptation: Predicting the Future in Uncertain Times, covered a lot of ground in just one hour – we discussed everything from the coronavirus pandemic and the impending election to how we can help businesses prepare for the uncertain future.

I wanted to continue the conversation with you, our Vanishing Point audience, and have included key thoughts and reflections from the webinar below.

How Futurists Approach Uncertainty

“The inability to speak with precision and certainty about the future is no excuse for silence…it is more important to be imaginative and insightful than to be one hundred percent ‘right.’”

– Alvin Toffler

One concept we discussed at length was how futurists approach and understand the future. At Toffler Associates, our focus with every client is to build resiliency in preparation for uncertainties and improve their ability to make decisions today and in the future. When clients ask us questions about the future – for example, what are threats to domestic security in 2030? Or, what is the future of the digital consumer? We begin by understanding the primary drivers of change.

In a given year, we interview over 1,000 experts, including businesses, academic organizations, and government bodies, to further understand these contributing factors. We develop possible and plausible alternative future scenarios and then explore these imagined worlds through tabletop exercises (now with virtual workshops). Traditionally, organizations think about lines of business linearly and risk by cause/effect with only some interdependence. These exercises enable us to identify blind spots, additional risks and opportunities, and “no regret” strategies.

Toffler Associates’ Pandemic “Prediction”

While we did not explicitly predict COVID-19, Toffler Associates has included global pandemics in our future scenarios since 2003 because history shows us that they will happen. In fact, in January, we conducted an exercise with a national sports league that included a scenario of playing in empty stadiums, which, at the time, was believed to be stretching the bounds of what's plausible.

What makes COVID-19 extraordinary is that it impacted the entire globe, causing long-term disruptions and is concurrent with a number of other significant disruptions, leaving the U.S. dealing with:

  • Global supply chain problems
  • Economic crises greater than the 2008 recession
  • Children at home and reliance on remote education
  • Highlighted and increased disparities in equality in healthcare, education, and social justice, which is causing massive societal disruption
  • Massive wildfires and hurricanes
  • A contentious election year 

And in the U.S., we still have not had coordinated or consistent public messaging about pandemic response.

What makes the pandemic relevant to the future is that it is accelerating technology advances and adoption that would have occurred over a much longer duration.

Stages of Pandemic and Societal Change

Based on our research on past pandemics, we see four stages of response and transition:

  1. Acute response (initial 3-6 months): We are through it with a much higher unemployment rate and more advanced teleworking and remote learning infrastructure in place.
  2. The Great Wait (3-30 months): We are currently here, and it looks like it will last through the end of 2021 when a vaccine is available and distributed globally. While we wait, society will have to find a balance between public health and economic activity. The duration will create new behaviors and habits.
  3. Reunite and Revitalize (will last years): We will see economic and social recovery. With health risk mitigated and hopefully minimized, society focuses on rebuilding the economy and in-person community rebuilding.
  4. Novel Normal (ends with next global disruption): A return to stable economic times.

Other Lasting Implications of the Pandemic

Some of the long-term changes we expect to see include:

Trust erosion will be impacted as we recover from the pandemic. Trust will grow – or erode – depending on governmental response at every level. We’ll also continue to see growing friction as we balance public health and personal privacy. Contact tracing, testing, antibody status, and HIPAA protections will create similar privacy debates to those we saw in the wake of 9/11.

We’ve also found ourselves in a social responsibility moment for organizations and governments. More than ever before, public understanding of the “true character” of an institution is based on the decisions they make and the ways they respond to certain events – such as the coronavirus and social justice protests. Current and future employees, partners, and customers will seek insight into how a business responded before they make a buying or job decision.

Additionally, organizations are now under heightened pressure to increase support to their employees as well as their communities. This goes beyond traditional employee benefits and includes expanded sick leave, financial assistance, adjusted hours of operations, childcare provisions, home technology, additional training, and so on.  

We are currently will continue to see advances in infrastructure, network security, supply chain, and overall operational resiliency. We’ll see a diversification of suppliers to different companies and regions, improved tracking along the supply chain, frictionless transactions, and increased automation and autonomous capabilities to remove human risk.

From a greater community standpoint, attention will shift to K-12 education and how we can invest in the next generation. Discrepancies have escalated during the pandemic. As a society, there is a clear need to ensure every student has fair and equal access to the technology they need, including high-speed internet access, along with security, privacy, and adequate learning spaces. This will require a balance of economic investments in physical space, social interaction needs, and social services requirements for the student body.

What won’t change as a result of the pandemic?

There’s no question that our lives will never be the same, even once the pandemic “ends.” But some things will hold true, for better or for worse.

Human traits like kindness, altruism, love, aspiration, grit, and perseverance will always be around, but so will traits like jealousy, anger, greed, and contempt. Predictions that erase these qualities and emotions apply only to utopias. In a similar vein, incentives matter. History shows us that, without incentives, adopting new technologies, political philosophies, or social behaviors is difficult.

Unequal distribution of advancement will also stick around. Beyond class divisions, the pace at which changes occur, and new technologies, behaviors, and ideas are adopted is also unevenly distributed. As the pace of change increases, as we’ve seen over the last 50 years per Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock book, there will be gaps between the early adopters and those without access. This causes desynchronization across groups of people, organizations, institutions, societal needs, and policy.

2020’s “Silver Lining”

To end on a positive note, there’s an optimism about the impact this rising young adult generation will have.

Many individuals born near 9/11 (Gen Z) have been impacted by parental and societal attention to security and privacy. They lived through the 2008 recession and the related economic interdependencies with societal well-being. Now they are entering college or beginning the next phase of life with increased independence and independent thinking. They are balancing all this while observing our country’s leadership, corporate leaders, university leaders, and parents’ response to the pandemic, societal disruptions, and weather events. They are learning and forming ideas, and, as digital natives, are position to harness the benefits of technology while managing its risks. We will see greatness emerge – innovation, compassion, and powerful shifts as these future leaders demand and drive change.

Maria Bothwell

Maria Bothwell

As CEO of Toffler Associates, Maria taps into deep experience with strategy development and execution, customer experience, business performance management, acquisition integration, and organizational transformation. She is an energetic and insightful executive who brings dedication and know-how to help organizations define business strategy, lead high performing teams, grow new markets, and create measurable results.

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