Who would have ever imagined that in our lifetimes we would be wearing masks in the streets, international travels would have stopped and work from home would become the standard? Sociologists, politicians and corporates are devoting research and resources to predicting the upcoming world, “the new normal”. Has the world been really transformed by Covid-19 or is this just an acceleration of times?
E-commerce has reached record highs in recent months, related to lockdown constraints and fear of catching Covid in supermarkets. In the first 8 months of 2020, almost $500 billions were spent in online sales, up 77% year over year. Many new consumers have – forcedly- discovered the convenience of online shopping and are not going back. Even my neighbour who was going to physical stores is now a savvy online shopper comparing prices on 3 different apps or tracing discount codes, and not returning to supermarkets. But at the end of the day, nothing new; only more people using existing capabilities more often, and the same market players grabbing market shares. The big winners are digital players (Amazon and the like) and the online arms of traditional distributors (Walmart increased e-commerce sales by 97% in last quarter) – but no new entrant or new business model. Just a 4 to 6 years acceleration of E-Commerce.
Work from home as a standard
Work from home is a new reality for many of us, but more its full time nature than the essence of it. How many of us are already connected beyond regular office hours, handling emails and meetings from outside the office? Some countries like France had already set up remote working previously (when for example, transportation strikes, or climate events prevent employees from reaching their place of work). A testament of this is how many companies (in those industries that permit it) managed to move from onsite to remote work in less than a week. For many of them, it was only about providing laptops to the few employees who did not already have them. Many leaders were surprised at the ability of their organization to switch from office to work-from-home so quickly. Many job postings now specify “remote” as a location. Again, nothing new – the capabilities were there before, it was just a matter of having our minds accept it.
Education is one of the sectors that has evolved very little over the past 150 years. Students still sit behind desks listening to teachers writing with a piece of chalk on a blackboard. I was myself shocked when I attended an executive education program at Harvard in 2015 and observed that nothing had changed from when I did my MBA 20 years prior (at the very beginning of internet). A one-size fits all model, where the course is provided to 30 students with different abilities in a standard format targeted at the average is still the norm. The brightest are bored and the slowest are lost. With the advent of technology (not only remote access, but also ArtificiaI Intelligence), lies the opportunity of more personalized and targeted learning. It already started with the MOOC (massive online open classes which gained popularity in the 2010s) that provided more interactive courses with user forums and community interactions between students and professors. The Covid crisis has caused the explosion of distant learning (yet not always positive for students without the proper infrastructure or motivation) and accelerated the move to more tailored and relevant education content and methods. Probably for the better.
Ignorance of climate change and threats to the environment
Many of us probably enjoyed the silence in the cities, the breathable air, the clear skies without planes, and realized the benefits of living in a cleaner environment. Whilst many believe that the environmental effects of Covid might be long lasting, the ignorance of climate change and environment protection continues – starting from the top with the leader of the US claiming that “It will start getting cooler”. On the contrary, we are observing increased pollution, with more usage of plastics (re-introduction of single usage utensils, gloves), masks, etc. and it is very likely that air traffic will resume and continue to expand as soon as a vaccine is widely available. Since Al Gore’s “An inconvenient truth” back to 2006, the fact and figures about climate change are on the table, but little concrete actions have materialized and denial continues. Unfortunately, nothing new.
Reduction of individual freedoms
Quoting China as an obvious example, but certainly not the only one, the leaders of this country have seized the opportunity of Covid to accelerate its moves towards limitation of individual freedoms (while facial recognition might be temporarily impaired by face masks, move tracing is now mandatory). Over 100 countries have passed emergency laws or declared states of emergency, sometimes with no visibility of the end of it. The protection of public health has expanded the restriction of civic and political rights, putting democracy in intensive care unit. Some countries were already “democracies” only by name: the true faces of their leaders have come out of the shadows with no longer concealment. Science fiction books and movies of the 20th had alerted us of the wrong usage of technologies against the people. The new normal is a bad dream come true. Not even mentioning the disproportionate power of social media providing voice to the tiniest minorities of thoughts and amplifying their words as if they were mainstream.
So, nothing new?
Media, politicians and many of us have placed great hopes in the “New Normal”, hoping for a better world. The disillusion might be even greater when we realize that there is not much new – more a reinforcement of existing capabilities and players (more domination of those); and the normal is not for the better good of society and environment. It is time for each and everyone of us to act at one’s own level to promote environment protection, equality, and build a better future for our children.