Pandemic Horizons

The world passed through more change in March 2020 than in the whole of the rest of the 21st century. As we struggle to grasp how much things have changed – and how much more change we’ve yet to experience – it may be good to have a think about the future — as a futurist might.

For my own work with clients, I have found it most useful to adopt a time horizon of a billion seconds – that’s thirty years, or about a generation. That’s a good, solid unit of time – and beyond that horizon it’s difficult to be definitive about any questions or concerns a client might have.

That horizon has disappeared. As my friend and collaborator Sally Dominguez observed, “When things are moving exponentially, the horizon turns into a wall.” Our forward view became incredibly compressed for a few days in March, down to as little as 30 minutes! Within a few days, our view had lengthened, but not by much – only out to about 30 hours.

“When things are moving exponentially, the horizon turns into a wall.”

That’s not much of a planning horizon, and, quite naturally it caused a lot of people to feel some panic. We expect each day to be much like the next. We depend on it, we plan for it – and when the horizon unexpectedly disappears, we lose our bearings. This is when the nations of the world began to close down – the safest of all choices, given the unknowability of the immediate future.

That ‘great unplugging’ has had and will continue to have enormous and unplanned side effects – such as the collapse of travel and tourism, the mass migration of work to distributed digital platforms, and an enormous demand for high-quality network services – but it also gave us all some needed breathing room to work out what to do next. Over the month of April the horizon has slowly crept outward, giving us a view onto the next thirty days.

That in itself is quite an achievement for Australia – and not one universally enjoyed. Other nations – such as the United States, India, even China – don’t yet have the same forward horizon. Things are still moving too quickly in much of the world for anyone to be really sure what the next few days might bring. We Australians have the opportunity to put down a few markers, can start to imagine a world at the end of May, how we might get there, and what conditions might prevail when we arrive.

May would be put to best use as a time of consolidation, accommodating to the ‘new normal’ of a world facing pandemic impacts to health, society and economy for some time to come. I’ll be advising my clients throughout May not to place bets further into the future than 30 days – while urging them to gain some experience planning within this new environment. The future may be uncertain, but that doesn’t mean we should simply abandon all pretense at preparation. Far from it. We’ll need practice.

“May would be put to best use as a time of consolidation, accommodating to the ‘new normal’ ”

If, over the month of May, we can keep the pandemic under control here in Australia ( whether that means eradication or simply low-levels of ‘breakout’ infections no one can yet say), by the end of May our horizons will have widened, and we can look toward the next thirty weeks – that is, through the remainder of 2020. We already know that we will not see any wide-scale resumption of international travel this year; that will impact international trade, tourism, airlines, airports, logistics, and much else besides.

Across those weeks we will see the beginnings of an ANZ/Oceania ‘bubble’ of open borders – for as long as the nations throughout the region maintain strong infection control strategies. That bubble will feel a bit ‘nationalistic’, as nations work to build deficiencies in their strategic manufacturing and resource capacities exposed by the Great Unplugging. A lot of the currently unemployed will find new work building these capacities – and businesses throughout the region will be on the hunt for ‘adjacencies’ – things that are near enough to what they already do, and which meet the needs of a post-pandemic market, with its radically revised priorities.

We’ll spend more time at home, and – once we can – spend more time with others. This period of self-isolation has reminded us what easy digital contacts have helped us to forget: few things are as important as the human touch. Even as we come to rely more on automation to help us rebuild, we will treasure one another more than we have recently, because of the memory of that sudden loss.

At the end of the year – something that seems very far away, at this writing – we might just be able to look out and plan ahead thirty months, through to the middle of 2023. That period of time will be about the ‘rebooting’ of the global economy, and the reintegration of a post-pandemic world. What that world looks like is still difficult to say. There’s too much change happening too quickly. The fog of COVID-19 has limited our view. My advice to clients is to stick to planning for the time horizons where we can expect the future to be somewhat stable, and, where possible, to hold off planning for a future that still seems largely uncertain. We will get to clarity again, but that will take time.