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The Future Arrived Early: 10 Things We Never Saw Coming That Will Shape 2021

Future Arrived Early

2020 was for many, the year that never was. Plans upended and dreams unrealised.

At the same time, 2020 was a threshold year – the year futurist ideas were fast-tracked and shifted from trends and predictions to reality – the year the future arrived early.

As this year comes to a close, there is a sense of hope and opportunity – however tenuous – that comes with the dawning of 2021. With the first round of vaccines already being rolled out, COVID-19 may, hopefully, just be a dim memory by the end of 2021. It is up to us now to figure out how we can build ourselves back up to not only survive, but thrive, in the new normal.

Through the year, the Blackbox Research team and I have interviewed countless people around the world across several major studies, tracking and analysing their thoughts, reactions, and behaviours at different points throughout the pandemic.

In our attempt to look back as well as forward, we examine some of the key insights we uncovered throughout 2020. This exercise culminates in a list of the top 10 major areas – whether it is the way we work, we shop, or simply live our lives – that will define 2021 and beyond.

1.    E-commerce exploded, but the experience falls short for new shoppers

Undeniably, e-commerce is one of the winners of this pandemic. By the end of 2020, global e-commerce sales are expected to reach US$4.2 trillion. The driving force behind this has been the final wave of late adopters – older consumers, lower income earners, people in emerging markets – forced by lockdown to use e-commerce platforms for the first time.

Despite booming sales accelerated by COVID-19, e-commerce players have taken growth for granted at the expense of consumer experience. Strong demand came in at lighting speed, and many platforms were simply not sufficiently prepared to scale-up properly.

Our studies have shown that satisfaction levels remain low for these new shoppers – over a third of ASEAN consumers share this sentiment, citing concerns over delivery costs and services, product reliability, and the authenticity of in-app reviews. E-commerce players must improve user experiences if they want to retain customers beyond the pandemic.

2.    “click-and-mortar” retail blurs traditional divides

The pandemic has not dealt brick-and-mortar stores a fatal blow. Instead, consumers are increasingly taking a multi-channel approach when it comes to shopping, integrating both off- and online for a seamless consumer experience.

It is now less about where a purchase journey begins – an Instagram post, a viral video, a banner on the street – and more about what drives a purchasing decision.

We found that this was the case across all generations, whether we are talking about Boomers or Gen Xers. Marketers now must see beyond the online/offline divide and focus on building omnichannel strategies for their brands to succeed.

3.    “Work from home” will become “work from anywhere”

The lockdown has turned working from home from an occasional perk to a key business continuity mechanism – pushing businesses to redefine their notions of workspace, collaboration, and productivity. Our data found that 9 in 10 workers are not rushing to resume office life, having fully adapted to working remotely.

There has been a lot of talk about the new Zoom economy and how future home design will give rise to workspace planning, but the rise of flexible work arrangements is also allowing employers to hire well beyond the cities in which they operate. This will likely have major implications in big cities where hiring and staff pay is more expensive.

4.    Full-time work and career progression – what do they mean anymore?

COVID-19 has and will continue to redefine workforce dynamics in the post-pandemic era. It has presented a rare opportunity for employees to demand change in the workplace, and champion for more equitable working models.

There will be many more shifts to come and they need to be considered – whether it is the fact that employees can now be based anywhere, the gig economy’s spread into white-collar professions, or even just how C-suite executives’ current priority lies in putting their best (digital) face forward, in the form of teleconferencing etiquette.

We also found that technology-driven innovation will play a major role – businesses will need to be agile in the way they leverage digital solutions to optimise workflows, including within key functions such as accounting, payroll, and recruiting.

5.    Neo-banking is now on the horizon, not beyond it

For most of the decade, we have been told that traditional banking is on its way out, but the truth is many traditional institutions survived digitalisation and retained their standing. But have they simply delayed their real demise?

The pandemic took Fintech start-ups from the fringes of finance to the mainstream – even motivating non-banking players such as Grab, Singtel, or Ant Financial to experiment with neo-banking offerings.

As Fintech becomes increasingly embedded in every aspect of e-commerce and its touchpoints, banks will soon go the way of relics, especially for younger generations.

Our recent You Know Annot (YKA) study revealed that only 23% still prefer using cash, while 75% are comfortable paying with their phones, and this figure is at 84% for millennials. Digital capabilities are vital if financial services want to remain relevant for generations to come.

6.    The financial advisor gets the app treatment

The pandemic has accelerated the rise of digital platforms for everything from financial advice to retirement planning – shaking up the advisory industry as a whole.

Our data reveals that the uncertain economic climate is making people hedge against future crises by taking more control over their finances. People are calling out for tailored, simplified, and automated financial platforms.

In the next few years, financial advisors will need to step up their game up – whether it is on social media or on digital as a whole – if they want to prosper in the new world of online advice.

7.    Health and well-being get up close and personal

Gamechanger or gimmick, we used to find the many iterations of Healthtech at its best baffling, and at its worst questionable. What our data suggests is that the pandemic has pushed us to test the waters when it comes to being comfortable with technology in healthcare.

Now, from telemedicine to wearable technology, we are spending more to take ownership of our health, at a time when we most need such support. Prior to COVID-19, only about 10% of people in Asia used an online service to consult with doctors. During the pandemic, 13% said they used such a service for the first time, and more than 1 in 2 stating they intend to continue using such services.

While it is still early days, the door is now wide open, and self-care with the aid of technology will get a big push in the future, especially as countries seek to bring down their medical cost curve. This also presents a great opportunity for Healthtech and Insurtech companies that allow users to track, monitor, and assess their own health outcomes.

8.    Global anxiety hits the roof thanks to creeping germaphobia 

The pandemic has turned many people into anxious germophobes, and even legitimised this new anxiety. Our approach to private and public spaces has transformed. This has led to record-breaking sales of cleaning and disinfecting products, as well as transforming the way we greet, mingle, and interact with one another.

Our research found that anxiety levels are at an all-time high. More than half globally reported that their mood during the pandemic was one of anxiety, followed by fear. Driving this has been hygiene-related concerns – almost half globally wants to continue to maintain public cleanliness and hygiene.

This spells an opportunity for those who can efficiently and effectively make private and public spaces safe again.

9.    Many large institutions failed the litmus test for leadership

The pandemic quickly revealed the limitations of many respected institutions. Whether the World Health Organization (WHO), national governments, or Fortune 500 companies, many were regarded as weak, indecisive, and unreliable during the crisis.

In fact, our data shows that 31% globally felt that the WHO performed below expectations, and 36% expressed the same sentiment towards the United Nations.

Our data also revealed that people valued essential workers and frontline officials who dealt with the pandemic up-close – suggesting that organisations can overcome the trust gap by walking the talk, breaking away from superficial messaging and by taking swift, tangible action.

10. The rise of the Asian resilience model for crisis management

The pandemic has inevitably divided the world between those who can manage major crises, and those who cannot. Some of us held up fine while others cracked quickly or went into a state of denial. From decisive leaders to responsive institutions, major resilience gaps were observed.

Our research has shown that this divide was one of East versus West: citizens in Asia-Pacific nations applauded their country’s handling of the crisis, while disappointment and resentment grew in Europe and the Americas. New Zealand was the only Western country that scored above the global average when it comes to crisis management.

The Asian model of pragmatic composure and disciplined preparedness has and will continue to put the region ahead of others. This model will become the benchmark for countries consolidating their comparative advantages in the new normal.

This is only the beginning, and for 2021, data and insights are crucial in navigating the unknown. Let Blackbox be your knowledge partner today.

Visit our newly revamped website to learn more about our existing and upcoming research initiatives, and to find out how we can help you leverage insights and analytics for unique and effective strategies.

Data sources:

· World in Crisis: A Global Public Opinion Survey Across 23 Countries

· Into The Light: Understanding What Has Changed For the ASEAN Consumer During COVID-19

· Weekly and Monthly Surveys