In 2019 we (lead authors Bettina Tratz-Ryan and Frank Buytendijk) published Digitopia 2035, a set of scenarios describing the digital society. The research design we chose was based on crowdsourced storytelling. We asked people around the world to imagine a short story about life in the year 2035.
From there, three interconnected main themes or scenarios emerged. We didn’t call them “megatrends”, but “megasentiments”, as we believe the stories not only provided a lense on the future, but also did capture the zeitgeist of today.
2019 feels like ages ago. With the corona-pandemic still sweeping across the world, everything has changed. We work from home, don’t travel anymore, need to save every penny (or cope with unimaginable growth), re-examine privacy and redefine the relationships between people, business and government.
Here we revisit the three themes of Digitopia 2035, and see how the COVID19 crisis has affected them. It is too early to make firm predictions, it can still go anywhere for the longer term, but we can make some observations.
The first theme, or megasentiment, we labeled “smaller circles”. It described the desire of people towards a more human-scale life. A reaction towards excessive globalization, if you will. We recommended the reader to redefine “scalability”. It doesn’t have to consist of a single global operation. Economies of scale could also be achieved by scaling millions of small operations, each in a similar fashion, but with a local focus.
This scenario currently seems to be pulled forward, a reality in many ways. Global supply chains are being questioned, and many believe we could benefit from a more local-for-local economy. We don’t travel anymore, we work from home, we are only beginning to socialize with others again, but large events are still an exception or are not happening at all. “Smaller circles” post-crisis means we are more careful about the people we surround ourselves with, and in which environment.
Smaller circles are emerging out of opportunity, convenience and ambience, but also out of fear and protection. In large parts of the world we are trying to do whatever is needed to end the pandemic. It seems the drivers for smaller circles are polarized. There is more opportunity, and more fear.
Will it sustain? That remains to be seen, but there seems to be a more concrete desire for it than before the corona crisis. Overall, “smaller circles” has become a much more realistic and short-term scenario.
A Question of Convenience
The second scenario we called “a question of convenience”. Many of the stories in Digitopia did describe or did assume that the role of technology is to create an easier and more convenient life. Technology will take over many menial tasks and will make many routine discussions. But the stories also made it clear that convenience comes hand-in-hand with control. The more convenience technology brings, the more technology takes control over our lives, through the power of algorithms. We asked in this scenario whether convenience really is the right goal of digital technology. Shouldn’t it be more about making new things possible? Propel humanity forward ever more?
The COVID19 crisis does not materially impact this scenario, but changes some of the dynamic. Control is not a consequence of convenience anymore, but has become a goal in itself. In this scenario, we made the comparison with the 18th concept of the panopticon, the perfect prison structure that would allow 24/7 surveillance. We commented how the latest version of the panopticon was self-surveillance, systems we impose on ourselves to help us display more disciplined behaviors, like walking enough on a day. This may now be overshadowed by societal monitoring systems to protect public health or quarantine guidelines. Convenience doesn’t bring control, control brings convenience, as we have a system telling us where it is safe to go and where not.
What will happen with technology innovation? Will it change course, away from convenience, and away from making new things possible, and towards societal control? This is certainly a plausible scenario. Another scenario is that because of predicted economic slowdown, there will be less investment in technology innovation. At the same time, crisis has always been an engine of innovation as well. The Digitopia “Question of Convenience” remains to be seen.
The undercurrent that emerged from the Digitopia stories was the desire towards a more sustainable society, as a new larger narrative succeeding globalization. The sustainable society doesn’t only refer to climate change, but also sustainable food production, energy use and a more sustainable economy.
Will we look back later and realize the COVID19 crisis was the trigger towards the sustainable society? Many experts have argued this. The World Economic Forum speaks of the “Great Reset”, with business starting to operate in more sustainable ways.
Governments start to pose sustainability requirements for helping out businesses. Airlines need to become greener and only businesses that pay fair taxes qualify for government aid. Businesses may see that their societal contributing during the crisis is being remembered.
At the same time, the opposite can be argued as well. Although the visionaries see investments in sustainability as good for the economy and an engine for new growth, many treat sustainability as a cost, and may be less inclined to invest coming out of the crisis at the moment. Economic recovery may come first for many.
The discussion has certainly intensified. Therefore, we see the sustainable society as a scenario to have progressed towards becoming more realistic.
COVID19 and the Future
It is hard to predict the outcome of the COVID19 crisis. The COVID19 crisis has intensified the trends that were already there, often in polarized and contradicting ways. For every trend, a countertrend can be witnessed as well. Confusing as that may be, it is essentially not a bad thing. It gives organizations more opportunity towards strategic differentiation. Instead of a single path forward, there are now many paths forward. And the systemic shock that COVID19 caused, prompted a conversation on how we have to rethink the ways from the past and develop our future: We have a choice how to rebuild our business, our economy and our society in a sustainable way. Why not make it a good one.