Michael Brennan|January 19, 2021

A New Year like no other, to follow a year like no other, but there is light on the horizon, and much hope invested in a better future, built on the lessons of the pandemic experience. 

A decade defined by Covid-19? 

There is little doubt that the events of 2020-21 will echo across the decade, just as the Global Financial Crisis (2008) reverberated through the 2010s. An urgent question is where the balance is struck between positive socio-economic, and environmental, development, and fiscal consolidation. Both landmark events have exposed the importance and the limitations of national government, and both have had a profound impact on inequality. 

Ironically, in the face of Brexit, the EU is likely to be one of the very few global political institutions that will emerge from the crisis in a more secure position. Other nations, particularly those led by like-minded populists, will be wondering what the implications of a post-Trump politics might be? 

Unlike 2008 the human cost of Covid-19 can be counted in an extraordinary loss of life, with 2020 seeing the UK experience the greatest spike (14%) in excess deaths since the height of the second world war. Yet the human cost goes much wider and deeper, with experts positioning the impacts of the pandemic as a collective somatic marker – meaning that they will leave an emotional imprint that will inform decisions and behaviours for some time to come. 

While that might sound inevitably negative, there is a very strong school of thought suggesting that the 2020s may echo the Roaring 1920s that followed the end of the Spanish Flu and the carnage of the first world war. In this storied decade we saw an explosion of social liberation, creativity, pleasure seeking – and jazz. And then came the 1930s. 

The paradox of Big Tech 

Lockdowns are of course a key part of the pandemic experience, responsible for the most profound behavioural and institutional changes we have seen. Central to our transformed lifestyles, work, business models, education, and everything else you can think of is the digital universe. For many individuals and businesses, it is hard to imagine how we could have made it this far without access to the internet and digital communications. 

For technologists, this explosion of usage is well timed, falling as it does just as 5G mobile capabilities and FTTP are rolled out across the UK (finally) and before the 2025 switch off of the Public Telephone Network – forcing us all onto IP communications. 

Digital adoption, ecommerce, streaming, gaming and the digital transformation of businesses and institutions has accelerated hugely, reaching new audiences while deepening existing relationships. In light of this, perhaps 2021 will finally see us shake the habit of prefacing products, services, and businesses as digital – we are all post-digital, we just want service excellence through whatever channel we choose. 

And part of that demand is for transparency and openness. We want to know what they are doing with our data and why, we want to know what conditions are like in their warehouses, we want to know how their moderators are looked after, we want to know where they draw the line on hate and lies versus profits. We want to know how and why their algorithms make the decision they do. 

As such Big Tech has major questions to answer, and is subject to unprecedented scrutiny in the US, UK, EU and elsewhere. Even as new investigations and enquiries are being launched in multiple jurisdictions tech stocks have risen to incredible highs (the Nasdaq rose 43% in 2020), with Apple reaching a $2 trillion valuation at one point and Elon Musk overtaking Jeff Bezos to become the world’s richest man, inheriting a title once held by Bill Gates of Microsoft. 

This incredible concentration of wealth and power is unsustainable and rapidly becoming emblematic of the wider problems of inequality so vividly exposed by the pandemic. Put bluntly while Musk dreams of sustaining human life on Mars, millions struggle to put food on the table today. 

The opportunity here is of course for small tech to step up, and you can’t avoid the focus on firstand zeropartdata in 2021 – ahead of the (Big Tech mandated) end of tracking cookies. We will talk much more about the implications for digital marketing in the weeks and months to come 

Tech and reconnection 

Many individuals and communities are already stepping back from Big tech. While few of us are ready to pack up Google and pick-up Duck Duck Go, many more consumers are turning from Amazon to traditional, and increasingly, local retail brands, witness the renaissance of the local bookshop. 

Lockdowns have had positive local and community impacts with local networks created to offer mutual support, as well as to fundraise for local causes, especially local food banks. Equally there has a push to encourage people to support local businesses, and indeed the converse of deserted urban centres, exemplified by the City of London, has been a resurgence in suburban and town high streets. 

Mintel recognise the burgeoning importance of identity and community, while others point to a surge in online communities, including brand communities, as positive way forward.  

As Ashley Friedman highlights Direct-to-Community commerce is now a thing to be considered alongside the Direct-to-Consumer trend. The key point here is the diversity of potential communities, from geographic to vertical business sector, to professions, lifestyle, sports, and personal identity. 

The pivot to purpose 

Responsible thinkers and organisations recognise these global challenges all too clearly, the WEF has long highlighted the risk that inequality presents to the global economy. Even Henry Ford recognised that if you want mass demand for mass market products then you need to pay the average worker a living wage. Sadly, this lesson got lost some time ago, as the post-war consensus was demolished by the neo-liberal train. 

An echo of this call for radical change is heard in the burgeoning business of purpose, with a renewed interest in corporate social responsibility and the need for a rationale beyond profit. While many more efforts are risible, if not cynical, than are admirable, there is little doubt that these brands are tapping into something real. Consumers expect and demand more from business. Finding an authentic path to purpose makes very good business sense. 

For many this purpose will be focused on the environment and sustainability, at a local level with the opportunity to transform high streets and city centres, and broadly in a shift away from consumerism and materialism, consistent with the growth of the experience economy. 

Climate emergency 

2020 was the second hottest year on record, behind 2019, with the third hottest being 2016. Even before the pandemic struck in Spring 2020 we witnessed horrific wildfires burning across Australia and the USA, creating shocking and iconic images of, for example, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, bringing the realities of climate change to affluent, first world, doorsteps. 

There is hope post-Trump of a renewed US commitment to this global emergency, and there is a clear expectation that businesses engage and drive this agenda forward. Many communities saw a glimpse of a better future in 2020, with pollution clearing and blue skies spotted above some of the polluted cities in the world. 

The pandemic also showed us the possibility of radical behaviour change of course and the challenge is to bottle this as we seek to address the climate emergency with far greater conviction. Here we should follow the lead of the younger generations whose futures are at stake. 

Increasingly the future of Big Tech and the digital economy will be intertwined with the climate emergency. Ashley Friedman calls this Digital’s Inconvenient Truth, in recognition of the various impacts of the digital economy – including the very devices that we are dependant upon. Much more will be expected of technology companies and digital service providers in this space. 

Health and Well Being  

It’s not only the climate that is hurting of course We’ve been drinking more and exercising less, we’ve been cooped up in our homes, we’ve been estranged from physical contact with friends and family, our children have been out of school for extended periods. Little wonder health and wellbeing is so high profile today. 

The focus on HWB is a huge and growing trend and will only be accelerated by the pandemic. There will be major demand for increased funding for public services, especially mental health services, but there are many ways that we can also help ourselves and each other, with brands already seeking to tap into this mindset and market. 

Building Back Better 

The public expects change and is very unlikely to accept being asked to pay the price of the pandemic in terms of tax rises and more austerity. Many governments have made many promises about the opportunity to build back better, people will expect these to be honoured, and to be engaged and involved in what better looks like, 

Over a decade ago, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan launched an ambitious initiative to create what was called Society 5.0, striving for Japan to embrace and harness new technologies and solutions to societal challenges. While there is little evidence of a major impact, the scale of the thinking is welcome, and the public will be looking to their leaders for a similar sense of purpose and ambition. 

Thinking big, while engaging and delivering locally, may be not be a new mantra, but it is revitalised for the post-Covid environment, with brands having an important role to play in this space. 

What will be fascinating to see is how public attitudes change as we emerge from the pandemic, public support for critical and especially health workers has been strong through the crisis. How will this shape-up, will we support demands for living wages, secure working contracts and more?  

Into the future 

So, there are many positive strands to emerge from the pandemic experience. Throughout 2020 we have heard of businesses who have gone the extra mile to protect and support their workers and customers. Equally we all know of businesses who have failed to step up to the challenge. The message has been that people will remember these responses long into the future. 

There is a real sense that people are not going to remain passive as the world returns to business as usual, the sense of missed opportunity from 2008 continues to linger, while the Me Too, Extinction rebellion and Black Lives Matter movements foreshadowed the events of 2020. Worth noting that even Google workers are now organising into Trade unions. 

McKinsey talk of Stakeholder Capitalism coming of age through the crisis, pointing towards a more collaborative and multi-faceted business agenda, ending the exclusive primacy of shareholder interest, and extending corporate responsibilities across social and environmental spheres. 

It will be fascinating to see how 2021 and the 2020s play out. Many will relish the idea of a Roaring 20s style explosion of hedonism and pleasure seeking, others will pursue a wellness agenda and invest their time and efforts in their local communities and spaces, others will be demanding fundamental reforms, and yes some will hope to slip back to business as before. 

Brands will have to navigate this terrain carefully and thoughtfully. Authenticity will be key to reconnecting with individuals and communities. Engaging and listening to customers and stakeholders will be key. Building direct and effective relationships will be facilitated by new models of digital interaction and new ways to collect and utilise data. 

Thanks for your time and a Happy New Year. 

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