Everything was planned. Thoroughly planned. We stuck with the name that we chose over a year ago – The Strategy School. We imagined ourselves collaborating with our clients and uncovering new insights that would then help them realize their business goals. We spent a lot of time reworking our logo, we spend time segmenting our market, creating our products, we went through about five painful rounds of getting our website just right. We crafted what we thought was a solid launch plan. The launch date was fixed – the 14th of April 2020. The first day of the New Year, the day of new beginnings, Vishu for Malayalis.
Everything was planned. Thoroughly planned. And then nothing made sense anymore. So much has changed in the month leading up to the launch. The most disruptive event in our lives just happened. How do you launch a brand and business consulting service in the time of coronavirus? Who will be interested in listening to the new kid in town when brands or businesses are the last things in their minds? When they don’t know if they will get milk tomorrow. When they don’t know if they will have their business when this madness passes. Well, we don’t know.
But as a bunch of people who’ve been predicting how categories will move and how people will think and how we can influence their purchase decisions almost all of their working lives, we thought we could spend this time of suspended animation thinking about what the post corona world would be like. We are not economists or statisticians so we cannot build a statistical model of the post corona world. But we do have some expertise in human behavior. So our projection of this future world is built around human behavior, current, and past. Coronavirus may not be the last crisis that humanity will face and it certainly isn’t the first. And since the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior let’s take a look at how we’ve dealt with crises in the past.
Just a small caveat before we begin. Predicting the future is tricky, more so when we’re likely at the precipice of what will be a tipping point in our lives. Therefore, we’re hedging our bets by projecting two scenarios. An optimistic take on the future and a pessimistic take. Here is the first of these scenarios.
Imagining the post corona world
Through the eyes of an optimist
Humanity has always had to deal with crises. But these crises have moved the human story forward. They act as catalysts forcing us to think and act differently. In the long run, they have made us better. Most crises in history were regional and took time building up. But their impact has invariably been global. A difficult period during the Middle Ages in Europe that was marked by famine, war and the plague was followed by the Renaissance. The French Revolution embedded liberty, equality, and fraternity into our consciousness.
It is only in the 20th century that we have had crises on a global scale. We had four of them. They came in pairs of two. And they dovetailed into each other. The First World War transformed many monarchies into electoral democracies and also helped create the first communist state in the world. This, in turn, helped erode feudalistic thinking and promoted pluralistic and people-oriented ideals, first with Europe, and then across the world. The Spanish Flu which swept the world in 1918 led to the development of national health services in many nations. The great depression gave birth to the welfare state and the Second World War bought with it the end of empires. Freeing the majority of the human population from foreign enslavement.
This is the first crisis of the 21st century. And like the ideal 21st-century citizen it is global and it is egalitarian. And because of cheap broadband, it is playing out right in front of our eyes. New York is as close to us as Mumbai. We are lapping up the Cuomo brothers’ story as much as the Marsh family song. As most of us stay indoors pondering on the virus, our minds are at work. This virus is a great teacher. It has taught us what matters most in life. It has forced us out of our comfort zones. It has helped us question our priorities. It has helped us learn the meaning of the word ‘essential’ and the word ‘service’.
We have learned to respect those who continue to work outdoors when most of us are ‘locked down’. In time maybe it will help us see beyond those imaginary lines that we keep drawing between ourselves. In the end, despite the terrible cost or maybe because of the terrible cost of this pandemic, we will move on to a better place in our minds and in this world. Future generations will look back upon this moment as the one that made us more humane, the moment when we lived up to our name – Homo sapiens – or ‘wise man’.
We have classified the defining aspects of the evolving future under seven heads. They range from the ‘personal’ to the ‘collective’ in their nature and from ‘fastest’ to ‘slowest’ in their speed of adoption. Imagine a simple ladder made of two poles and seven steps. The first of these poles looks at the nature of impact; it starts with ‘personal’ at the bottom and moves on to ‘collective’ at the top. The second pole represents the speed of adoption, with ‘fastest’ at the bottom and ‘slowest’ at the top. Now let’s take a look at the steps of this ladder.
Nature of impact: Personal
Speed of adoption: Fastest
The lockdown and the challenges and fears that go with it have ensured that we have cut down on experimentation and extravagance. We are sticking to food that we love, food that is easy to prepare and food that lasts longer. Food, that gives us a sense of comfort. Diet regimens have been compromised but what the hell, we need to hold on to something that makes us feel better. But post the lockdown we will get over our compulsive consumption of ‘comfort food’, we will get strategic about food. As we understand the detrimental effect unhealthy diets (which lead to lifestyle diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes) have on our ability to resist diseases like COVID -19 we will adopt healthier diets. There is already a movement towards eating local and eating natural. We may now see a deepening of this trend. There will also be significant research into food groups and diets that boost our immunity. Immunity boosting food habits will no longer be a niche or a fad, it will define our approach to food.
Virtual is real
Nature of adoption: Personal
Speed of adoption: Fast
Action is already moving from offline to online. ‘Work from home’ and ‘homeschooled’ no longer look impractical. Gaming sites, streaming services, delivery apps – all of them are seeing traffic like they never did. This surge is currently happening due to people who are already online residents. But the interesting part of this story will concern the non-residents, those who have stayed largely away from action online, those who have not yet made online transactions, those who access the online worlds through their mobile network. Coronavirus will see a boom in fixed broadband. Rates will drop, penetration will rise. Kerala was the first state in India to declare that the Internet is a basic human right. Governments across the country will start seeing high speed, fixed broadband as a basic human right. Get ready for a ‘har ghar mein broadband’ scheme. Although when it gets launched it will most certainly be branded a whole lot better.
Nature of adoption: Personal and collective
Speed of adoption: Not so fast
This crisis has shown us the value of frontline workers. From nurses, to migrant farmworkers, delivery boys, and sanitary workers, the contribution of those at the bottom of the hierarchy has become more visible. In time, this may translate into better benefits and working conditions for them. We may even see the pay gap between top executives and frontline workers reducing.
Another trend that has been strengthened during this lockdown is the movement towards working from home and flexi-work. In fact, we are now seeing even government officials working from home, and the health ministry recently issued guidelines for telemedicine. Imagine the benefits of this movement. Office spaces will shrink. Why do you need to spend so much on real estate when ‘work from home’ becomes an acceptable practice? The daily commute will cease to be a daily headache. Pollution levels will come down. More people with family responsibilities which make it difficult for them to work currently will be able to join the workforce.
Nature of adoption: Collective
Speed of adoption: Slower
The extreme right and the extreme left will collapse. To ensure their survival and relevance, politicians of every calling will move towards the center. We could see less emotionally charged divisiveness and more rational discussions. Politicians may find the time and energy to be a constructive force of change. Focusing on things that matter like our healthcare system and manufacturing capabilities. Making lives better and people feel secure. The alphabet soup of policies and amendments will be a thing of the past.
Nature of adoption: Collective
Speed of adoption: Slow
While the economy is set to take a beating in the short term, this may be the wake-up call that makes us pay attention to it. We may finally get down to strengthening the infrastructure that we need to develop a strong manufacturing sector and encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.
We may also see more public investment. And a shift from individual-based consumption to more collective consumption. More investment in key sectors like health and education. And a concerted effort from governments to deliver quality education and health care free of cost.
Leadership and governance
Nature of adoption: Collective
Speed of adoption: Slow
A lot of world leaders have had their own Mary Antoinette moments. “It will disappear” and “Herd immunity” will haunt their legacies forever. As always, the ‘rally around the leader’ phenomenon will work in the short run. In time though, every leader will be judged by how effectively they handled this pandemic. Not just leaders but also the very nature of governments and governance will be questioned. The picture of thousands of workers walking hundreds of kilometers will be hard to forget. And it should never be forgotten. This fact will not be lost on the leaders. They will realize that a state without empathy and compassion is completely useless. Hopefully, this realization will give birth to a state that cares for all of its citizens equally. A state that takes every individual’s pursuit of happiness and security seriously.
Nature of adoption: Collective
Speed of adoption: Slowest
Waking up to birdsong has been a pleasant experience. The skies are clearer, the air cleaner. Pictures of a cleaner Ganga and peacocks strutting down the streets of Mumbai have made us realize how destructive we have been. This period of isolation has made us focus on what is essential and concretized the importance and benefits of abstract concepts like reducing our carbon footprint. This shift in public consciousness will give governments the confidence to push through much needed ‘environmental reforms’.
It seems apt to conclude this optimistic take on the impact of coronavirus with one of the oft-repeated quotes on teachers and students; this is how it goes, “when the student is ready the master will appear”. The optimist in us leads us to believe that the lessons that humanity will learn through coronavirus will change the way we think and the way we act. We will collectively move on to a better place in our minds and in this world.