Most of the permanent changes that will characterise the AC era will be BC trends that were rapidly accelerated by the Covid-19 crisis. For example, Amazon and Walmart may not retain all the hundreds of thousands of extra employees they have hired, but it’s fair to assume that a lot more consumers will be converted to the benefits of online grocery shopping and home delivery AC.
Remote working, learning and medicine
The most obvious example of a boosted trend is that towards white-collar staff working remotely. It’s been growing for years, but Covid-19 has been the great accelerator. Some companies will go virtual AC. Most will return to the office, but more workers will be practised in alternative ways of collaborating, such as via Slack or Asana, rather than face-to-face meetings. Equally, they are likely to value the more social elements of office life as an antidote to working in isolation. Finance directors and facilities managers, meanwhile, will have other considerations in mind as they adapt to even leaner times. The need for personal desk space and business travel will be questioned, after the team has proved so productive from home. Office space requirements are likely to be trimmed, as will rents, as commercial landlords adapt to disrupted demand.
Kids have been socialising remotely on Minecraft and Fortnite for a while, and have quickly adopted remote learning on Google classroom. The evidence behind ‘screen-time shaming’ was always thin, but the range of things kids did on screens during lockdown may prompt parents to feel less anguish about it. The Corona homeschooling experiment will open the door for EdTech companies to show parents what else can be done.
The massive push Covid-19 has given telemedicine may be one of the biggest lasting consequences of the crisis. As the quaint nineties term suggests (remember Telecottaging anyone?), the concept of doctors remotely visiting patients has been around a while, but hadn’t taken off. A survey in 2019 found that only 8% of US patients have had virtual visits from their doctor. Covid-19 has swept away many health and privacy regulatory barriers, along with doctor and patient resistance, in a matter of weeks. As John Brownstein, Chief Innovation Officer at Boston Children’s Hospital made clear at a conference in March, ‘We are doing more virtual visits in a given day than we did the entire proceeding year, so things can change… I don’t see us going back to the way things were’.
Some economists point to previous recessions being catalysts for automation surges, as extreme economic dislocation forces industries to restructure and invest in labour-saving technology to reap new efficiencies. In the case of the Corona recession, an extra case might be made for machines, in that they can work cheek-by-jowl 24/7 during a pandemic. Whether this recession and recovery will follow previous patterns is far from clear, but if the level of state intervention and job support programmes continue, there may be more pressure on companies to re-employ people, rather than re-invest in capital intensive technology and lead a disruptive industry transformation.
Micromobility and public transport
While public transport and micromobility have been hit hard DC, their AC prospects are likely to diverge – and for related reasons. Densely packed public transport was quickly identified as a risk; as people cut down on their movements (and shared handlebars), micromobility took a hit too, as many operators shuttered or withdrew their services from cities around the world. However, as lockdowns lift, more citizens are likely to try out micromobility alternatives to public transport, and take advantage of extra bike lanes that have been rolled out DC. Others may follow Chinese preferences for private cars – with high-quality air filters – although cities may use the crisis to introduce further restrictions on cars.