We must view wealth inequality as more damaging to the world than Covid-19: Futurist Graeme Codrington

Graeme Codrington is one of the world’s noted futurists. His work with corporate houses in helping deal with technological and other disruptions as well as uncertainty is so phenomenal that he is now snowed in with requests for assistance from businesses. The 49-year-old Johannesburg-born founder director and scenario planner of TomorrowToday Global, a strategy firm, was recently in the news for his rather pessimistic views on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic that has forced the world into a lockdown. Most of his pronouncements on the future tend to go viral. He tells Open in an interview that the world is not going to be normal anytime soon. “Everything will have to change,” says the man who tracks trends and analyses data for a living.  Edited excerpts:

Will the Covid-19 pandemic change human behaviour forever? For instance, will it result in the so-called social distancing being the new norm or etiquette? Will there be some kind of self-regulation of habits?

Yes, our team at TomorrowToday is already starting to track many of the ways that we believe human behaviour will be changed significantly in the future. It might be that we never go back to greeting people with handshakes and hugs, and rather adopt a more Asian approach with bows. I think one of the significant permanent shifts will be in the work-from-home phenomenon. We are in the middle of a grand experiment in home/remote working, and I have a sneaking suspicion that it might just work. A significant number of people may never go back to their offices. This would have a huge ripple effect on the demand for office space, downward pressure on commercial rentals, and a decrease in rush-hour traffic across the world. Of course, there are more significant shifts that may change global geopolitics, as countries and companies around the world reconsider what products should be offshore and which should be in-country.

Are economists or policymakers going to start thinking about creating systems (economic, political, hospital, etc) that can withstand huge shocks like Covid-19? Also, would it become a sustained effort?

I am sure people will talk about it. They always do after a big shock, like 9/11 or the global financial crisis. But in the end, it is almost impossible to plan for big events such as this. For example, our team has had a global pandemic with world-wide quarantine on our list of mega disruptors for many years. Also on that list is an asteroid strike and solar flares causing an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) that wipes the world’s computers clean. These are possible events. But they are too big to plan for. So, instead, we need to focus on building systems that are agile and adaptable and can handle unexpected events and disruptions. This is difficult work, and most people don’t pursue it, sadly.

Renowned economist Dan Ariely says that we are all trained to bring about efficiency in our systems, not resilience — which means human beings aren’t as obsessed with the long term as it is made out to be — even after a huge setback. Do you agree?

Yes, I think Ariely is spot on with this insight. And history proves him right.

How do you expect the way we work and learn and socialise to change thanks to Covid-19? Will that be a long-term change?

I genuinely believe that we will see a lot more working from home in the future. We are also likely to have a lot less international travel, especially business travel, in the next five years. It will slowly come back again by the end of the decade, but I think people will not be travelling as much as they did last year for a long time. People will be keener to buy local, which might be regional or national, and this might have an influence on global supply chains. And there is a potential for the climate change issue to take a much bigger place in actual policy making at national level.

Will people who have saved money during the lockdown start splurging later (provided they have job security)?

Previous global crises have almost always been followed by an era of excess. The best example is the Roaring Twenties of a century ago, after WWI and the Spanish Flu. There is definitely a possibility of this. However, I would personally hope that this time of Covid-19 crisis allows us to have a global reset in our understanding of how the world works. I would especially hope that we see wealth inequality and the plight of the poor as a disease even more damaging to the world than Covid-19, and that we will commit ourselves to doing something significant about it. We need some level of return of consumer spending, but I hope it doesn’t lead to excess.

First published in Open

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