2021: The Unstable Currency Of Uncertainty

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As we continue to grapple with the uncertainty of 2020, the idea of what 2021 has in store may be too exhausting to contemplate. Bleak as it may seem, there are bright spots on the horizon. 

Writing about what you think will happen in the year to come is usually one of the most interesting parts of the job. It’s an opportunity to put your thinking cap on and channel some of the currents that have emerged over the last couple of years. To draw threads between those visible movements and the innovations that you think will move from white paper or prototype to cement themselves as trends or emerging concepts over the months to come.

The Age of Catastrophe

There have been comments that 2020 heralds the start of a new age of catastrophe, but in truth we’ve been creating the conditions for a global pandemic to spread uncontrollably for decades. Destruction of the environment and the encroachment of humans on wild animal habitats. Cheap air travel providing pathways for diseases to spread. Unsustainable and unsanitary meat and food processing. Global supply chains that increase interdependence. A wave of mass human migration fuelled by a tide of war, famine and climate shocks. 

Many of the countries that have been successful at containing or limiting the spread of COVID-19 are the same ones that experienced the threat of SARS and other potential pandemics early in the 21st Century. They already possessed many of the systems, the preparedness and the public understanding that were required to rapidly isolate breakouts of the virus and interrupt and then halt its community spread. 

As we enter 2021 with the promise of vaccines to limit prevention and enhanced therapeutics to ensure better health outcomes for those infected, the sense of uncertainty that has enveloped 2020 shows no signs of shifting. Despite the rollout of vaccination programmes in the United Kingdom and the United States, December has seen a devastating upsurge in coronavirus cases in those countries.

The New Normal

When it finally settles, we have no idea what the new normal will look like. We don’t know if jobs will return, or the extent to which our public and social roles will resume. However we deal with this pandemic, however we manage to avoid or mitigate the effects of future disease and climate shocks, however clever our technology becomes, it’s unlikely that the uncertainty that envelops us will recede. 

As much as we would like to ascribe it to the pandemic, uncertainty’s creep is neither novel nor unpredicted. Younger Millennials and the ensuing generations have grown up with it. Among younger Millennials and the generations that follow them, uncertainty is a constant presence that is hard-baked into their lives. You see it in the young workers who jockey for title bumps rather than salary increases, equipped with the knowledge that securing the next job is more important than retaining the current one.

From the casual consumption and instant gratification pursued by a generation that doesn’t believe it will ever be able to afford to buy a home, let alone, in a world of rapidly increasing life expectancy, have any realistic timeframe for retirement. It’s visible in the falling birth rates of developed countries, whose young populations are choosing to stay single and increasingly celibate. Or the signs of social isolation indicated by the rise of trends like mukbang, where viewers watch videos of social media stars eating; a virtual presence providing companionship for those eating alone. 

The uneven distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations will determine the underlying timescale for many countries’ attempts to recover and reopen, benefitting those countries with the buying power to monopolise early production runs and even restrict their shipment outside national borders. Jobs displaced by technology and automation in 2020 are unlikely to return, as business pivots to models that are less dependent on the fragility of people. The spread of the gig economy in developed nations may even spawn a new breed of professional and casual daily wage workers, and with it the concomitant uncertainties of food security, housing, health and education provision. 

Innovation and Experimentation

As dark as it appears, the future isn’t necessarily bleak. Despite the lockdowns and fear, 2020 has also been a year of activism. From Black Lives Matter to the unfolding climate disaster, the generations brought up without the social and economic stability enjoyed by the Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers have taken to the streets demanding that their voices and opinions be heeded.

We’ve seen towns and cities overhaul and reinvent their bureaucracies in the face of the challenges of the pandemic, creating local ecosystems geared towards walking and cycling and streamlining and speeding planning decisions and implementation. And with it has come a renewed appetite for innovation and experimentation, such as Lisbon’s attempts to increase its stock of public housing and address issues of affordability that are pushing its citizens, like those of many major population centres, further from the city centre. Using a combination of financial incentives, including upfront cash payments, as well as regulatory limits to attract private landlords, Lisbon is hoping to add some of the city’s burgeoning short-term and AIrbnb-style lets to its public housing stock. 

With major antitrust cases pending for some of big technology companies, it’s possible that a combination of political and public will could nudge them in a new direction, one where we see them as net contributors to society rather than proponents of surveillance capitalism. 

2021: The Ghosts of Kitchens Future

What will we definitely see more of in 2021? As Maya and I discussed in a recent podcast, we should see the trend for plant-based meat alternatives becoming increasingly mainstream. The first commercial laboratory-grown cultivated meats are also starting to emerge, offering a viable alternative for those who can’t be persuaded turn away from animal proteins.

Businesses will probably move to a more normal footing next year, but many of the changes we’ve seen in 2020 are likely to become permanent as companies focus on remote-working for staff as a way to increase flexibility and cut down on their overheads. We may see the emergence of cluster-based working, grouped around coworking spaces, as well as the continuation of the mixed-blessing that is working from home. We should also see the spread of the coworking model to other economic sectors, such as commercial food preparation. Ghost kitchens, which provide communal commercial food preparation facilities, have become a serious bet for venture capitalists

A lifeline for food entrepreneurs at a time when delivery services rather than sit-down dining are determining the survival of many eateries, ghost kitchens also serve as incubator labs for food startups to test and experiment, providing mentoring, networking and development opportunities for the new businesses they gestate. With their relatively low-cost model, they are an ideal addition to underprivileged communities where food-based entrepreneurial activity is common. 

2021 will probably have more shocks in store. But it will also have its bright spots and its successes. Uncertainty may be a new and permanent currency in our lives, but that doesn’t mean we are powerless to shape the forms it takes or the influence it exerts over us. 

The Futurist is a regular column by Matt Armitage.

Matt Armitage is a future obsessed writer, broadcaster and consultant. He hosts the radio show and podcast Mattsplained, and is the founder of business and social design consultancy Kulturpop.

He is the Editor of The Citymaker and co-hosts The Citymaker and Reflexive City podcasts.