When we plan out the future, it’s usually grounded in the commercial ‘now’ blended with a mix of forecast future demand and some ideas about technology and people.

Until recently, we’ve worked on the assumption that the world shaped by the post-war Baby Boomers and Generation Xers is being inherited and driven by Millenials, Generation Z and Generation Alpha. Bye-bye analog, hello digital and phygital.

And then Covid-19 reared its ugly, star-shaped head.

There are two views about the impact of crises on the way we live. One is that we’ll revert to normal because human behaviour and consumption is driven by innate desires and shaped by existing systems.

The other is that there will be a permanent shift in behaviour – particularly if we think that the ‘normal’ we’ve been used to hasn’t worked that well.

In 2020, there’s no doubt that years of change have been compressed into a few months. As Benedict Evans observed, we’ve seen 10 years of ecommerce adoption in the UK over a matter of weeks.

Sustainable futures

Pedalling hard: but where is Generation Lockdown heading?

Credit markets are still operating at only 70-80% of capacity. Information about people’s past financial behaviour no longer looks like a good guide to their future repayment ability. So Open Banking adoption will become more prevalent. This will speed-up financial decisions in a world where cash is not coins but clicks.

There will be a prize, too, for the tech solution best able to identify relevant, accurate news and data in a sea of opinion and misinformation.

One of the key reasons why back-to-normal seems less likely is that we’re currently a single social group: Generation Lockdown. An experience of this magnitude colours the perspectives of everyone.

So it seems like we’ll be dealing with an accelerated shift. This will be disruptive and carries with it all sorts of implications about the way we plan and build for the future – and how we bring people with us.

We can see already that those implications centre on trends which were already emerging, trends which make sense to the generations emerging with them because they respond to the problems these generations want solving and the desires they have.

Even before Covid hit, major drivers of change were visible: a new wave of digital industrialisation via Industry 4.0,; accelerated action on decarbonising our lifestyles; systems and processes which remove friction; and tensions related to an economy which is one of the most regionally unequal in Europe.

What does a future which addresses these concerns look like?

The shift to remote working has raised fundamental questions about business structure and culture, transport and the built environment, even the pre-eminence of cities.

Yet the impacts on the world around us go far beyond that into attitudes and expectations. The emerging generations have a whole shopping list of wants and desires around:

  • Sustainability: Higher standards of environmental, financial and social sustainability. More investment in quality/long-term, less uncertainty/unfairness. The poster child for sustainability is Espoo in Finland
  • Nature: Integrating with nature because it’s better for physical and mental wellbeing. No longer the buildings and the roads, but the green ways, water ways and parks mixed into the world we live and work in. Check out Biophilic Cities.
  • Community: Check out 20 minute neighbourhoods, too: the concept of people being able to access nearly everything they need within a 20 minute walk from home. This also tunes into…
  • Wellbeing: Desires for places, products and lifestyles which promote mental and physical wellbeing. This will need to be reflected in the nature, feel and functionality of environments.
  • Lifelong learning: We live in a fluid world where industrial jobs-for-life are ancient history and new technologies are reshaping how we live, move and make. Accessing skills, training and personal development throughout life will become critical to economy, productivity, social engagement.
  • Safety: Post-Covid, desires for safety and security will be paramount. They will impact on the way we design environments and their functionality (touch, hygiene, air, distance). This tunes into the long-established human hierarchy of needs, first developed by Abraham Maslow.
  • Agility: consumers will prioritise flexible working and better work-life balance. Head office becomes the cultural hub for meetings and collaboration. You may normally work at home or in a satellite location in a neighbourhood which mixes work and childcare.
  • Smart Living: Smart, connected and virtual technologies will see accelerated development and adoption, impacting on living, working, moving and leisure.
  • Connectivity: With the remote world and the arrival of 5G, expectations and demand for robust high-speed bandwidth will increase. So, too, will demand for coherent, clean multi-modal transport networks which link people to opportunity wherever they live.

When will this new normal begin to crystallise? Initially, it hinges on a viable vaccine for Covid-19 being delivered globally. Bill and Melinda Gates, whose foundation is pouring huge sums into this race, have suggested this process might get underway early next year.

There will be a tension in this new world. Decisions about it will be influenced by generations who may not benefit from it: the pre-digital Boomers and the Xers. It still has to make sense to them, and this is a critical point that anyone involved in Rebuilding Britain has to be sensitive to: your brave new world is also my building site.

Businesses and organisations who have roles to play in rebuilding Britain for this new future need to demonstrate two things: that they have the skills, cultures and products relevant to this changing world, and that they know how to construct narratives which navigate some of the tensions it will throw up.

Generation Lockdown will expect better. There is plenty of evidence that knowing how to get your proposal through the system looks exclusive and elitist to some – the polar opposite of trends political decision makers are currently navigating. So why would they nod through something people are grumbling about?

As we said in our last blog, the UK’s tendency to duck or delay big decisions remains one of the biggest hurdles to progress. It will take more than Project Speed to overcome that: in a world defined by accelerating change, everyone involved in the built environment will have to find better ways of telling stories, engaging communities and persuading decision-makers. The future will come at us fast.