Ophelia Ford-Welman, Pearlfisher Futures Analyst, discusses the cultural and creative opportunities for brands coming out of 2020.  

Like many others, I started the new year with the hope of a better year than the last. For me, New Year’s Eve 2019 was poignant because it marked the end of a rather terrible year, the start of my first year without my mother, but also with the knowledge that it would see the last days with my grandmother. As I stood in a foreign country at midnight, watching the fireworks erupt around me, I wished upon them for a better year. One that sadly, immediately started with flooding in the U.K., rampaging wildfires in Australia, a devastating plane disaster in Iran and, just one month in, WHO declared COVID-19 a global health emergency.

My career is in Futures, predicting how we will be living in 3, 5, 10 years time, so that we can understand how we need to design for a changing world that throws unexpected scenarios at us.  But like almost everybody else out there, I missed calling out a global pandemic and I’m not going to be naive and suggest that there isn’t going to be another one. But fortunately, a positive we can take from this year is that we have already run test models globally and now understand, and are able to plan for, other future situations like this.

At the risk of being called an optimist, and after studying what the future reverberations of 2020 might be, it has actually been a year of unforeseen opportunity. I recognise the pain, frustration, difficulty, and even hopelessness, that people have felt this year as we have been forced into extremely uncomfortable, and some heartbreaking situations. But, the reality is that although many doors closed this year, people weren’t just stuck inside with nothing to do. It actually forced us to reflect on, and change our lifestyles and many have seized the opportunity to carve a new path for themselves, and others.

This year, we have undertaken extensive thinking – for ourselves and our clients – about how we design for life in extraordinary times. And this is truly what this year has been – extraordinary. In many ways the cultural change and innovations we have seen have accelerated entire industries forward by 5 years. For a long time to come, we will not only return to the activities that have been closed off to us this year, but we will evolve them by drawing inspiration from the inventiveness that has come out of the last 12 months. A year that has opened up some previously unimaginable and extraordinary opportunities for brands:

A year of health

As a global society, governments, individuals, medical institutions and brands have pivoted to focus on our physical, mental and emotional health like never before. This has not just been limited to the health sector, and with so much information and awareness, brands have new opportunities to innovate across every industry with our wellbeing now front of mind. 

A year of hybridity

‘Hybrid’ no longer refers just to the vehicles we drive. From gyms taking on club-like qualities to become our new social scene and gaming gaining respect as a positive activity for mental and social health, to parents needing to fulfil roles as teachers, caregivers and workers all at the same time. Brands have the opportunity to unlock both physical and digital services that provide new and essential ways for us to connect with our communities, learn, express and enjoy ourselves, regardless of where we are located.

A year of the home

A new flexible working system has rapidly transformed our work-life balance, we have rediscovered and connected to our locality and, as such, travel brands are readapting their offer. Start-ups like Lick are taking a fresh approach to home décor with their curated colour portfolio and peel and stick paint samples, whilst the rise of ghost kitchens and virtual eateries have enabled previously dine-in only establishments to deliver restaurant-quality experiences to our kitchens at home. The concept of home has become ever more important, and brands will need to continue to help us reimagine and maximise our global life in our domestic spheres.

A year of inclusivity

Globally, communities came together to tackle the systemic racism and injustices that perpetuate our lives and as a result, brands and societies have started changing their very make-up and language. This inclusive attitude will need to become second nature and the brands that will be rewarded with community and new connections are the ones that use their platforms as a stage to support those that are at a disadvantage.

A year of the passion

We had time to focus on the start-ups of our dreams, indulge in new passion projects and take a chance on new careers. As such, we have truly seen the fruits of that passion. Over 85,000 online businesses launched in the UK alone during lockdown (Source: Growth Intelligence) and, in the United States, more than 3.2 million applications were made for the employer identification numbers needed to start new businesses, compared with 2.7 million at the same point in 2019 (Source: U.S. Census Bureau). Around the corner from me, Buns From Home has quickly become a local gem; born from somebody baking pastries for their neighbours in lockdown. This is just one local example but combined with the many thousands of other ideas globally, it illustrates the creativity and innovation taking hold around the world.

A year of nature’s revelation

Many of us have rediscovered the power and benefit of a relationship with nature both in and out of our homes, communities and work-places. People in cities heard birds like never before, the canals in Venice cleared up and the world physically moved less on the Richter scale as the movement of the human race dropped. David Attenborough released his witness statement with clear guidelines as to how we can live more sustainably and, whilst it may have just been a fleeting breath for nature, this year has made us all pay witnesses to what we can achieve collectively if we as individuals, brands, and governments, pull our weight.  

One of the essential things to understand in my role is that there is no single future. For a start, there is the future that, if we do nothing, we will be living in. Then there’s the future we would like to shape, the future we would like to live in. Inevitably, people always get hung up on the first. However, my job is to focus on the second and demonstrate the path we – our clients and our populations – can take to get there and how they embrace change as a positive. This year, we have demonstrated we can develop 3 vaccines for an entirely new disease in the space of 9 months, opening up new frontiers for the positive change we can achieve when we put our minds to it. We need to design the life we want to live because it’s the only way we can live it. 

So, as we come to the end of 2020, my unwavering optimism remains intact. This year hasn’t been cancelled. I would actually like to raise a glass to it. On one hand, to remember all the suffering which it has, and will inevitably continue, to cause. But also, to the inspiration for fresh growth, innovation and opportunities it has created. The people and businesses that flourish will be those that, in some way or another, can grasp these new extraordinary opportunities and create progress. Here’s to a positive new start and better things to come. To 2020, 2021 – and beyond.