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The Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown of billions of people has unleashed the biggest societal shift since World War II, with repercussions likely to last.

There will be much economic hardship but the changes will also include vast opportunities through massive rebuilding and the fast-tracking of new technologies, likely to take place in South Africa and around the world.

These were some of the salient observations from an online Heavy Chef event on 31 March 2020 called The Inspire Sessions: The Futurists. Mike Perk, digital transformation leader and one of the MCs at the event, observed that many people and businesses were already struggling, and fear and anxiety had become commonplace.

Futurists Bronwyn Williams and Dion Chang, both of Flux Trends, along with strategist Musa Kalenga, addressed the online gathering. They spoke about Covid-19 and the future of business and manufacturing around the globe.

Dolphin Bay also interviewed Bronwyn separately for this story. In the interview, she said the Covid-19 outbreak would accelerate the already prominent remote working trend and open many individuals and organisations up to the possibilities of having “international, location-independent teams”.

Some things are best done in an office, but many businesses could gain through the benefits of “remote working” from a cost/productivity perspective.

“I believe most of the benefits of remote work accrue to the employer in the long run. Employers save on office space, connectivity costs etc. and, more importantly, remote work allows employers to track employees using remote work software.”

She believes the global manufacturing sector will see massive changes in the future. Forecasts have been made that manufactured products, including raw materials, could be produced in laboratories. Three-D printed goods and parts are already being produced, “but mass adoption is quite far away due to the relatively high costs and lack of necessity of this means of production.”

During the Heavy Chef session she said: “In times like this, when things are changing very fast and we have little control, the cone of uncertainty gets broader. In chaotic systems, we can only see a little ahead of ourselves, and small changes in the near-term lead to huge changes in the future.”

Bronwyn sees several trade-offs coming into play. The trade-off of economy versus health is often discussed. “I don’t believe this is true. There is no economy with a large percentage of sick people. We shouldn’t position this as a trade-off.” Another trade-off is the economy versus the environment – a “tricky one”. When China shut down the environment improved, but at a large cost of human suffering. “Trade-offs like this will be magnified in Africa.”

“It’s difficult, when we can’t pay the bills, but the future belongs to those who think about it.”

She added: “We need to be thinking, in the longer term, how we can create sustainable economic growth that enables people and the planet to flourish together.”

Other potential trade-offs are those between the old and the young and, finally, between surveillance and safety.

Bronwyn believes we can’t depend solely on governments. “It comes down to supporting local business, those around you. We’re all in this together.”

How long will the recession, or even depression, last? If the recession is not too deep, the lockdown could be seen as a wake-up call, a time to re-evaluate our priorities, renew our appreciation of the world around us and make more conscious consumption choices.

A slightly more likely scenario is a protracted epidemic but more shallow recession, if monetary policies actually work. This scenario would see the economy managing to continue making money for many of us, with more remote work taking place.

On the other hand, there could be a short health crisis, with a longer economic one. In the worst-case scenario, we could see a global depression where the pandemic gets worse and maybe mutates.

The lockdown is bringing the distinction between the “virtual and real world” into sharp focus. “Virtual businesses are still thriving, they can work from home and it’s business as usual, while the real world is struggling.” At the same time, we’re realising how valuable real goods are, and how virtual ones are a luxury, as the world needs concrete goods and care such as food, other essential goods and medical care. “There will be many business opportunities that arise after this. We will need people to fix things in the real world but it’s not going to be easy to rebuild.”

“There will be many business opportunities that arise after this. We will need people to fix things in the real world but it’s not going to be easy to rebuild.”

Dion said that at end of last year, one-quarter of world’s countries experienced some kind of social unrest, due to restrictions on freedoms for registering discontent and small cuts to fuel or food subsidies by governments. “The tinderbox was ready to be ignited in 2019. It was about inequalities, the haves and the have-nots. It is an important context for what will happen in the post-Coronavirus era.”

Musa added that ‘new tech’ needs to be at the service of humanity. He said after the pandemic, many companies won’t be able to force employees who have proven their productivity at home, to go back into the office.

Some experts estimate that at least one-third of the world is now in lockdown. Dion went on to say that in China, 50 million people had been in quarantine at once, the biggest quarantine in history. “We’re now seeing technologies that were waiting in the wings, moving forward,” he said.

China had erected two hospitals very quickly and ventilators were printed in 3D.

Telemedicine is happening more and other contactless services, such as driverless cars, are emerging. Neolex, a small start-up, suddenly got 200 orders for tiny autonomous robotic cars, which were used in China for disinfecting streets and hospitals. China has also started seeing the use of drone technology for surveillance in the streets during lockdown, as have Italy and France. “The fork in the road is happening with all these technologies.”

Retailers and marketing operations are starting to break away from the supply chain that has been so reliant on China. “Decoupling of the supply chain is going to happen.”

In the interview with Dolphin Bay, Bronwyn said that “eventually all repetitive physical human tasks could be automated, and most will”. People who add value to a company will survive the technological changes coming our way.

“I want to encourage you to think about the long-term now, rather than the now-now,” she told the Inspire Sessions audience. “It’s difficult when you can’t pay the bills, but the future belongs to those who think about it.

“The competitive advantage of thinking past the chaos frontier is huge.”

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