What happens next?

As Covid vaccines roll out, we start to think about the time when our societies will reopen. Various estimates say that it will take between half a year to two years—at least with the limited knowledge we now have. As a result, the focus is shifting away from the crisis itself to the post-crisis period. What kind of world will we return to after the pandemic? What new pressures will have arisen, what forces will be erupting, with what magnitude, and where? At Demos Helsinki, we have been developing toolkits that help you navigate uncertainty and allow you to build a stronger business, city, or organization.

Amid all of the anxiety surrounding Covid, our relationship with the future is changing. More and more people begin to see the future as uncharted territory instead of a celebratory homecoming. When the pandemic erupted, it was like the train tracks started going in uncertain directions. 2020 has thus come to symbolize the end of an era of orthodoxies, a point in time that opens up a world radically different.

Commentators have interpreted the health crisis as the beginning of a new era and a renewed social contract—either through the demise of past activities (intensive livestock production, global production chains, free movement of people, protectionism, etc.) or through creating space for new, emerging solutions (digitization, renewable energy, outdoor lifestyle). The desire to re-imagine our world has resonated with many of us. Survey after survey shows that people do not wish to “return to normal” if “normal” means “life as it used to be”.

To deal with uncertainty, speculation about the future as part of our daily discussions can be therapeutic. It allows us to find something to be excited about, something to anticipate. Our predictions add color to our otherwise grayscale, monotonous quarantine drudge.

Three doctrines emerge from the predictions—three ways to conceptualize the future: 

  1. betting on winners and losers, 
  2. engaging in discourse about the degree of the imminent recession, and
  3. determining the new model of society that is likely to arise.

The most popular view is to guess who will return to “normal” and who won’t—betting on future winners and losers. Will business trips make a comeback? What about tourism? Offices? Retail? Professional sports? Religious gatherings? Education? Universities? Will cities be attractive again? This view breaks the world down into sectors and then considers what will happen to those that qualify as important. Will they return to their “business as usual” or will they be in trouble?

Another popular way to interpret the post-pandemic era is to identify the trajectory of the future economic cycle, in other words, to predict how the looming recession and its troughs will differ from the trends of recent decades. This view already offers a slightly more alert way of seeing the world. It combines sectors and wonders what their sum is—bigger or smaller than before? For how long will the economy remain weak? To which of the previous economic depressions could it compare? The analysis springs from familiar sources: consumer sentiment, public investment, the pace of start-ups, and innovation. The shape of the recovery curve is also up for debate; will it resemble a “V”, a “W”, a “U” or will it be more complicated?

Still, the first two schools of thought are one-dimensional. The third one offers a more substantial understanding of the future. It acknowledges that, when accumulated, these shifts can impact the world in a real and profound way, causing motions that can unshackle us from the past. This perspective urges us to see the world through (new) conceptual models. And it seems we are not short on those. We could expect a “mutualist society“, a society dominated by tech giants, an increase of authoritarian control, the emergence of sustainable capitalism, the return of a forceful middle class, or a sustainable world emanating from a Green Deal. Ultimately, these views also attempt at predictions. They equate the pandemic with World Wars, after which new models of society—be it fascism, socialism, capitalism, or the welfare state—were designed and implemented.

What do these perspectives have in common? Of course, they could be criticized for being biased, limited views that focus on what we already know. They peek at the world through a keyhole and make guesses. 

Nevertheless, they all seek to justify themselves with evidence and analysis. But data offers no real answers because it lives in the past. We can’t possibly know ahead of time whether capitalism is in a bottomless crisis because we may not have reached the bottom; we don’t know if business travel will return because it has never stopped before in the same context as today.

Why do we think these ways of looking to the future offer no help? Because they are reactionary: they sit back and make guesses. The reality is always different and more diverse than data projected through past data. Sure, we know how to combine large databases and utilize artificial intelligence in ways that were once unprecedented. But under such exceptional circumstances, big-data-based super-predictions are weak: the world is multifaceted and infinitely cross-linked, and we don’t know what database to build predictions on because so many things are new. Thus, the situation creates space for the easy (but incomplete) heuristics we described above.

Yet, we now have an opportunity to be proactive. We are undeniably going through a crisis, and we know that some shifts will follow. There is no point waiting to witness the effects or going back to our previous plans. The change before us is not bluntly the death of a sector, a recession, or even a new kind of capitalism. The change depends on what we make of it.

In a situation like this, it is not helpful—or even ethical—to take a comfortable seat and start betting on the future. This is not a race; there is no real horse to bet on. Everything is at stake. While it might be hard to accept, the only possible option is to actively build a new direction for the tracks, use our imagination, and experiment. 

Demos Helsinki has been developing processes and networks for these three methods—determining and deciding directions, imagining, and experimenting—for more than fifteen years. We may have swam against the tide when the data-driven world promised to make exact predictions of the future.

That is why we work with cities, organizations, ministries, businesses, and other change agents to ensure that, as a society, we do not miss this opportunity to refocus. While still on global hiatus, we must build a new relationship with our future. 

We will be happy to help you use these tools and support you on your journey towards the unimaginable and the unknown. Our services and methods will help you to: 

  1. process and understand the future, 
  2. define the strategic position of your organization, 
  3. imagine ways to operate in a new, ever-changing environment, and
  4. experiment. 

This combination of foresight, advice, experimentation, and bold imagination is the most effective way to grow when everything else seems to be shrinking. Contact us and ask more about our solutions: Tuuli Kaskinen, tuuli.kaskinen@demoshelsinki.fi, +358 50 514 9752. 


Photography: Drew Beamer / Unsplash