Seven shifts in our quest to make progress useful (and why it could happen in 2022)

Two years into the pandemic, the Omicron variant feels like a turning of a corner; so insanely contagious and yet significantly less deadly that perhaps the endgame is at hand. But even if COVID never goes away, a new landscape is slowly coming into view, with some surprises to offer our exhausted, apprehensive world. What seems at first like a random civilizational reboot might really have been an acceleration of the inevitable. Moreover, despite what many consider to be an era of decline and idiocracy, much of it may well be for the good, and indeed a triumph of the spirit. So here’s a survey of the disorienting landscape as we embark on 2022.

The shift in where we work

COVID probably made permanent the long-imminent shift to hybrid and remote labor. The trade-off: Offices allow in-person interactions better for training and team building, but they require pollution-causing and time-consuming travel. Moreover, people in the knowledge economy interact mostly with others far away who have no ability or need to gather in a single physical space. Today’s communication tools make forcing them together absurd.
So residential real estate will see a permanent bump up as people discover working in the kitchen is not too much fun and start requiring a home office. That’s a top reason why house prices globally are soaring. So the demand for office plummets and office stocks will suffer, while companies that deal with converting office to residential — or sales floors to warehouses — will thrive, as will enterprises that make real estate transactions less difficult.

The shift in travel

Digital collaboration tools that make offices less needed do the same to the unpleasant task of getting on a plane. Not only is there no longer a need to endure the expense, hassle and risk of travel, but the very expectation of it in many industries has melted away before the convenience of virtual meetings. Deloitte says business travel is down about 90%. The implications are staggering for Singapore hotels and Mayfair bars and elite clothiers all over the world. And it means a shift to local tourism (as Thailand has realized).Most affected may be airlines, which surveys show to be detested. Terrorists made their service a nightmare, but much of the bile was earned fairly through psychotic ideas like one armrest between two seats. The hatred stems from the realization that they engineer economy class to be needlessly horrible (an average-size man incurs risk to health over long flights) to compel the wealthy few to pay fantastical sums for a few hours of dignity in business class. Recovery efforts may push airlines to fairer schemes, like expanded premium seating at an in-between price point.

The shift in how we work

The same digital tools that make remote work possible have also increased stress in ways that are fomenting a worker rebellion. The ability to connect with co-workers without going to the office also means there’s no escape from them. Video meetings and chats are ubiquitous for many, and each delay in answering entails concern about unmet expectations. This is likely behind the so-called Great Resignation (with Americans quitting their jobs in record numbers); it is already leading firms to seek ways of mitigating “burnout” (or be seen as doing so), such as shorter workweeks and meetings; expect more demands and dissatisfactions in 2022.

The shift in media

Publishers blew it in the 1990s in reacting to the Internet by throwing everything online, feeding the “information wants to be free” pathology (which ignored the opposite other half of the famous quote: that it wants to be expensive). With the disappearance of classified and diminished demand for print, that left advertising as the primary revenue. Digital ads enable strong targeting, but with social media and search sucking away much of the available pie, and then came privacy concerns that led to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation and today’s “war on cookies,” a gradual elimination of the main tool for targeting (ironically led by Google).This will challenge ad tech companies to update their schemes while compelling publishers to move to paywalls and subscriptions to undo their original mistake. That creates an opening for companies that help the sale and bundling of content, which also relates to the end of television that is not on-demand (with the exception of live events): We are always online, seeking information and diversion as they blend into each other.

The shift in buying

E-commerce means access to a wider array of products, plus reviews and other advantages, but there are also disadvantages: You cannot feel the avocados. COVID gave e-commerce a massive boost, at one point bringing it to one-sixth of all commerce, according to Statista. Its rise over the past decade is inexorable, and this will accelerate as a series of technological innovations make it a more complete experience. So commercial real estate will join its office cousin in decline, while stores will need to boost their experience aspect or become warehouses. And they will need to focus on the not-huge subset of products that need to be experienced.

The shift in currency

There are problems with cryptocurrencies. First, people are accustomed to viewing currency as the store of value guaranteed by the state, so decentralization is frightening. Second, blockchain is unfathomable to most, violating the basic life requirement that important things be simple. Third, digital wallets are inconvenient and alien to a life lived in the cloud. Fourth, it involved ecologically damaging hyper-computing.But state-sanctioned currencies also have a history of hyperinflation and instability (as we are reminded in COVID-related inflation likely to be met by interest rate hikes that could cause global economic mayhem). So 2022 could be the year in which average savers wake up to the ability to invest in crypto without actually buying digital coins. And what of NFTs? Virtual value representations of highly specific and even theoretical things could strike roots — or prove a bridge too far. It’s all enhancing currency’s darker role as another commodity for investment, which could create dangerous bubbles and spark social unrest among the losers.

The shift to sustainability

Sustainability concerns were long categorized as idealism, making them dismissible as a fad. So 2022 may be the year when even the skeptics awaken to humanity’s shared interest to preserve the planet. It bodes well for companies across an array of endeavors, ranging from repurposing waste to conserving land to electric cars and meat substitutes to the replication of plant cells. This is the shift that combines within it the essence of the six; 2022 may be a year in which we start to seek ways to make scientific progress useful to our global civilization.

(This story appeared originally in the Jerusalem Post)

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