The next three years do not look like the new normal they look like the never normal, writes Marcel Rossouw, Group Director for Fjord Johannesburg. It is not a pessimistic way of describing it but a realistic way, and it means that we need to think long and hard about planning and strategy and execution.

There will be a lot of strategic thinking wastage over the next three years, and in our view, we cannot spend enough time studying how people are thinking and how they are reacting to the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, the economy, and technology.

For the 13th year running, Fjord – design and innovation from Accenture Interactive, has forecasted trends that we believe will manifest at the intersection of business, technology and design. We have revisited the Fjord Trends 2020 under a different lens in view of the current climate and changes that businesses are facing as a result of COVID-19. We found that the pandemic has accelerated the impact of these seven trends on business, people and society.

The seven trends in the South African context

Our initial study, released at the end of 2019, draws upon the collective thinking of Fjord’s 1,200+ designers and developers in 33 studios around the world. The annual crowdsourced report is based on first-hand observations, evidenced-based research and client work, to produce a globally diverse set of trends that continues to reflect the collaborative journey between business, society, design innovation and technology.

The pandemic has accelerated our adoption and collaboration with technology. The new normal looks more like the never normal and presents exciting opportunities for business to embrace innovation using design thinking and technology.

Trend 1: The many faces of growth

A fundamental reset button has been pressed by the pandemic and placed purpose at the centre of the lens. Capitalism is facing a mid-life crisis and organisations must start reassessing corporate purpose and recalibrate how they see their role in the world around them. Although profit is critical for companies to remain sustainable, we are looking at what other things beyond profit are, the innovation between meaning and matrix, and how you might measure that.

In South Africa, we saw how Coca Cola South Africa realised they needed to shift their business priorities. They partnered with Pepco, a not-for-profit recycling company, and successfully drove in country recycling of plastic bottles up from 14% in 2005 to 65%. If you put this against the backdrop of a R250 million a year recycling industry, that also provides an income for over 64,000 people. It places our country ahead of the EU and the US in plastic bottle recycling. This provides a powerful example of the new types of value.

Trend 2: Money changers

As digital currencies come into being, our mental model of what money does and how we perceive money, changes. Covid-19 has accelerated societies into becoming cashless and has shifted how we view money. These tectonic shifts create numerous opportunities for a host of new products and players. In 2019 we saw a launch of three new digital banks in South Africa alone.

In Tanzania, mobile money users were previously required to send a long string of 40-digit codes to send money to another user. A certain company saw this as an opportunity to differentiate and developed an experience-led solution to make money transfers and the payments simpler by cutting out those codes and using just a single layer for a multi-SIM user to manage all their mobile money accounts in one place. Africa has for years led the world in understanding how money can change.

Trend 3: Walking barcodes

Our physical bodies are becoming as trackable as our digital selves. However, when it comes to facial and body recognition technology, what is the trade-off between privacy and convenience? Although there is much controversy on this, it may be here to stay as we move from the Internet of Things to the Internet of Bodies. In UK telemedicine for instance the use of facial recognition has helped to scan the way a patient is responding to how a doctor is talking to them in a virtual conversation. The system then provides real-time feedback to the doctor about whether the patient seems to understand what the doctor is saying or not. This could be critically important especially in the pandemic and will most likely persist after the pandemic is over.

Locally, around 494 million sub-Saharan Africans are without official proof of identity, which is important to enable healthcare, financial and government services. Biometric solutions can help. However, they leave no room for data mistakes, and with more than half of Africa’s 54 countries having no data protection or privacy laws, and of the 14 countries that do, 9 have no regulators to enforce them, which poses a real challenge in managing and protecting data.

Trend 4: Liquid people

Consumption habits are changing as people perceive and define their identity in ever more liquid ways. Considerable opportunity exists in providing new experiences of consuming. We are seeing an end to mindless consuming as people become more thoughtful on what they do, and for what cause.

The South African Plastic Pact was set up by the Worldwide Fund for Nature, for businesses, governments and NGOs to collaborate to address plastic waste and pollution issues across the country. The signatories to the Plastic Pact locally include Distell, Massmart, Pick n Pay, Shoprite Group, Tiger Brands, Unilever, Woolworths, to name a few. The initiative provides an opportunity for big business to show the South African consumer and their employees, that they care about making a sustainable difference. The South African consumer is keen to see how businesses are documenting and telling the stories of how they are making a difference in collaboration with their customers and employees. The word consumer may find a new meaning and ultimately be replaced in the near future by a new word that describes people who buy and use products.

Trend 5: Designing intelligence

The human experience is growing increasingly complex. The next step for AI is to move beyond automation to designing systems that blend human and artificial intelligence and enhance the interplay between both. Although AI is being used to combat the pandemic, this trend has the least evidence of change specifically because of Covid-19.

In 2019 a pan-African Bank approached us to help them with the implementation of a virtual agent strategy, to upskill and train their call centre agents into new roles. AI was implemented as supportive technology to help their call centre agents. The outcome of the project proved to add-value to the human workforce, freeing up their time to do more valuable work, and also reduced the time for requests to be resolved by up to 65%. AI is not just a technology component to slot in to improve a process, it is something that can become part of day-to-day strategy. It should not be working apart from humans, but rather with humans. As Ray Kurzweil puts it; “It is a race with the machines”.

Trend 6: Digital doubles

Make way for your digital double who works for you and knows what you want. Digital twins are evolving beyond industry and into our daily lives. We are already using avatars to a large extent and an all-digital modelling agency already exists called The Digitals which represents only synthetic human beings such as Shudu and Galaxia, the world’s first alien supermodel. We are beginning to create tools that allow us to have synthetic versions of ourselves.

Eternime is an example of this, a programme that collects all your personal data including video and voice to replicate yourself so that your descendants can interact with you in perpetuity. Increasingly we will be able to create digital doubles of ourselves to manage certain aspects of our lives as a form of predictive maintenance. Covid-19 has massively accelerated this, however this trend is the least applicable to Africa. The mining industry comes close by allowing leadership and employees to manage the mine from any location, but overall digital doubles are not speeding up here as they are in developed countries.

Trend 7: Life-centered design

The focus of desirability, viability, and feasibility is moving from “me” to “we.” Can design extend beyond its own ecosystem, shifting from a user-centric to a life-centric approach? Systemic effects are indeed beginning to matter to both organisations and people making both more conscious of the wider purpose.

A technology business called Lumkani leverages an IoT heat detector which is bundled with insurance to protect families in population-dense informal settlements from fires. They partnered with Hollard to introduce their product called Fire Cover, which is South Africa’s first insurance product that works using a radio frequency network. In the event of fire, the system disseminates a community-wide alert by sending a text message to all residents within a 60m radius of the triggered sensor. As South Africans, our sense of the collective is deeply rooted in our consciousness and this is a great example to show how businesses can create value as they react to change and redefine their purposes.

Rethink and realigning organisational values

This year seems to have already provided us with a few watershed moments and indeed it seems like we are at a crossroads. It’s tempting to misinterpret this as a gloomy picture – instead, we think this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to innovate and design business models, services and products around new definitions of value.

The pandemic has heightened the impact of a values-driven consumer and the role of business as a responsible corporate citizen. Business needs to rethink, revisit and realign their organisational values to meet the needs of the never normal. The initial Fjord Trends 2020 report is now even more applicable with the trends and the three-year forecast in acceleration mode through the pandemic.

Businesses worldwide are grappling with what it means to do business in this new state of play, and how they can be a meaningful contributor to our collective well-being. For companies with the courage to recognise this meta-trend, there are many opportunities and there will also be challenges.

However, it plays out from here, one thing is likely: those who embrace the long-term view by starting with their impact on the world and society and embracing the systemic complexity of the world will reap value from the new never normal.

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