What Will the Post-COVID “New Normal” Look Like?

(The following was written by Rodger Dean Duncan and appeared on Forbes.com.)

Steve Jobs, the genius behind much of Apple’s ramp-up to become one of the most profitable companies on the planet, said innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity, not as a threat.

Another really smart guy named Steve has plenty to say on the subject. He’s Steve Brown, author of The Innovation Ultimatum: How Six Strategic Technologies Will Reshape Every Business in the 2020s.

This Steve is the former futurist (an interesting combination of words) at Intel Corporation. Today he runs Possibility and Purpose, a consulting business that helps leaders imagine and build for the future.

In a previous column he talked about the innovation hyperdrive that’s frequently spawned by challenging circumstances. Here he discusses what he expects in the next “new normal.”

Rodger Dean Duncan: All the disruption associated with COVID-19 is causing people to challenge their basic assumptions about careers, the workplace, their use of technology, and many related issues. When the health crisis passes, what do you expect the “new normal” to look like?

Steve Brown:  As a recent piece of graffiti in Hong Kong proclaims: “We can’t return to normal, because the normal we had was precisely the problem.” COVID-19 has been called “the great pause,” a time for reflection and introspection.

With clear skies over Los Angeles for the first time in 30 years, existential threats felt by many for the first time in generations, and enforced quiet time at home, people everywhere are reassessing their values and what’s truly important to them.

Stripped of the comfortable illusion of being in control, consumers will move to reassert control over their lives in ways big and small. Pantries will be kept stocked. Savings rates will increase. Consumers will ask more questions about where products come from, how safe food is to eat, and what it took to produce and ship goods to their homes. Business travel will drop, perhaps permanently, and digitization efforts will rapidly accelerate, as the increased use of telehealth, online education, and home grocery shopping have ably illustrated.

Duncan: What can we learn from the current crisis to help us prepare for the next major disruption in our lives?

Brown: We need to build a far more resilient world. Bill Gates has warned us to expect pandemic perhaps every generation. Our ability to cope with and respond to challenges like COVID-19 is woefully inadequate.

We must strengthen global institutions and build a pandemic-ready healthcare system and pandemic-ready industries that can adapt rapidly and continue to operate under stress. For example, manufacturers should embrace the hyper-flexible Industry 4.0 approach, both to compete globally and so they can retool rapidly to deliver emergency equipment at scale when needed.

Duncan: Are you optimistic about the future?

Brown: My answer is an emphatic “Yes!” Before COVID-19 turned the world upside down, we were already on track for an incredible decade of innovation and business transformation—more in the next decade than the last 40-50 years. The pressure cooker effect of pandemic will accelerate this pace.

Six technologies—artificial intelligence, blockchain, sensors, autonomous machines, augmented reality, and 5G and satellite constellation networks will combine to create incredible new products and services, revolutionize business operations, elevate human work, and serve customers in new ways. We are a resilient, adaptable, and innovative species.

Our future remains bright. And, working together, we will make it so.