The pandemic will change the world permanently and profoundly. Even if countries can control the spread of COVID-19 in the coming months, there will be vast political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental consequences which will last many decades.
In this article, we summarise and synthesise various - often opposing - views about how the world might change. Clearly, these are speculative; no-one knows what the future will look like. But we do know that crises invariably prompt deep and unexpected shifts, so that those anticipating a return to pre-pandemic normality may be shocked to find that many of the previous systems, structures, norms and jobs have disappeared and will not return.
For this reason, adaptation and innovation are more important than ever. Tempting though it is for organisations to ‘batten down the hatches’, in anticipation of resuming business as normal in a few months, many will emerge to find that their market has evaporated, their partners or supply chains have shifted, and that their stakeholders have radically different priorities. At Nesta, we're using this analysis as a basis to explore the role of innovation in possible future scenarios in the aftermath of COVID-19. We hope it also helps others to facilitate important discussions within their organisations as we all look to adjust to the new world that emerges.
The ‘Overton Window’ has dramatically expanded. The pandemic could harm the structures of liberal democracy. Nationalism is likely to increase whilst globalisation retreats. At the same time, the crisis highlights the need for international collaboration, and might bring countries together in the fight against the virus. As the coronavirus exposes society’s fragility, and the interdependence of globalised industries, it might fundamentally change our worldviews. The power of the State, and public perceptions of its role, will shift dramatically.
The recession prompted by the pandemic will very likely be much worse than the financial crisis, but it will not be a ‘normal’ recession. Many countries are entering recession in the worst possible shape, with traditional levers already exhausted. Mass unemployment is possible. Fiscal and monetary policy solutions previously considered radical enter the mainstream political and public discussion. Firms that survive will change their focus and business practices, including major supply chain reorganisation, and a shift from streamlined efficiency towards resilience.
The crisis will prompt a reappraisal of what we - individually and collectively - value most, inevitably leading to significant social change. Quarantine will have a detrimental effect on the mental health of the population. Negative effects of the economic crisis will be concentrated among those most at risk and with lower resources. Tension may increase between social demographics which weather the crisis differently. However, the crisis may also bring a new wave of communal support, social enterprises, localism and solidarity.
Technological solutions may help combat the epidemic, cope with the quarantine, and ease its economic consequences. The crisis will lead to innovations, including permanent changes in our use of digital solutions and models of distributed governance. However, the epidemic could mark the defining moment for surveillance, censorship and personal data. The relative success (or otherwise) of a ‘science-led’ approach in the UK may further reinforce (or undermine) public faith in science and expert opinion.
Many regulations are being temporarily suspended; not all of these will return, as more attention is paid to whether lighter-touch regulation is needed to stimulate economic growth. The ‘precautionary principle’ may give way to the ‘innovation principle’. Legal systems will likely be clogged-up for some time with contractual disputes and arguments over ‘force majeure’. Local authorities and individual officials may be given greater delegated powers; at the same time, there may be reduced scope for appeal to higher authorities.
The crisis shows that co-ordinated global action is possible in a genuine emergency, and may prompt a re-evaluation of lifestyles. Global greenhouse gas emissions have plummeted due to the reduction in economic activity. Food security will be a concern for many countries, and questions will be asked about the culture of eating exotic mammals. However, if the economic crisis is prolonged and oil prices remain low, investments in clean energy will be slow to return, and the urgency of climate change may take second place to more immediate concerns about food and the economy.