What I learned from predicting trends early in the pandemic

The pandemic seemed to catalyse new directions for good but in some cases it might be more like a pendulum

Our modern lives have inadvertently accelerated a threat to the health of our children. Getty Images
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Why do we find trend-spotting so compelling?

A trend is often out within a season, and as fleeting as a TikTok video. Yet trends are great: they indicate direction of change. For example, you mark your children’s height on a wall with a Sharpie every year they grow. Or, the more you run, the faster you get (hopefully).

In its simplest form, a trend shows a progressive relationship between two variables. And so, on the back of historical information, we expect future observations to continue along that pattern.

We see the increasing adoption of electric vehicles, the creation of artificial intelligence-lawyers as well as a growing prevalence of working from home, a rising shift toward online learning and shopping. It is then compelling to extend the trend line and make predictions about even greater numbers of electric vehicles or the rising use cases of AI; about remote working becoming more common and online learning and the way we shop online to be here to stay.

But here is the thing: while we make sense of two variables to describe a trend, many more forces are at work. We so often forget about how the past continues to influence a trend. And, over time, a trend is no more.

In the early days of Covid-induced lockdown last year, the Dubai Future Foundation started publishing an extensive series of reports on the impact of the pandemic and what the future might have held.

Working and learning from home was imposed on all; the physical office space was to be a thing of the past and we would work happily ever after on Zoom. But then new trends set in: Zoom fatigue, cabin fever and back-to-back-calls-without-stopping-for-a-biobreak or proper posture, and, darn, were we all looking forward to going back to the office.

Our routines had to adapt to the new, deeper trends, to the new structural forces that were shaping our well-being and survival.

So, what about the other trends that we, and others, anticipated during those early Covid days? Schooling and education is an interesting one: as learning shifted online or stopped altogether, there was a sense of a future ripe with distance learning becoming more widespread, even after the pandemic. As anticipated, much was invested into education technologies and some regulatory changes were made to legalise and formalise off-site learning.

What’s interesting is the trend that emerges from the combination of home-schooling and working from home: flexibility is becoming a necessity and so schools that provide blended – online and offline – learning at variable times of the days to suit students and carers. Plus, there is now a strong push towards reimagining education models to focus more on future-readiness, inquiry and humanity.

Another of our reports assessed the outlook on retail. Perhaps this was one of the more obvious trends to anticipate as the world is coming out of lockdowns in waves. At first necessity, then convenience, have led customers to take on and ultimately continue to use e-commerce solutions. This is true around the globe as the pandemic has accelerated the growth of existing e-businesses and forced all others to ramp up their online offering.

Workers install components onto S02 electric motorcycles on the assembly line at the Silence Urban Ecomobility plant in the Sant Boi de Llobregat district of Barcelona, Spain, on Wednesday, April 29, 2021. Spain plans to invest 13.2 billion euros ($15.7 billion) to boost electric vehicle use, one of a raft of measures as the government prepares to deploy European Union pandemic recovery funds to modernize the economy, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said. Photographer: Angel Garcia/Bloomberg
A completed electric motorcycle is ridden from the assembly line area at the Silence Urban Ecomobility plant in Barcelona. Bloomberg
Trend-spotting is challenging because it is so compelling to extrapolate a trend from very few observations

Now the battle for customers is fought on delivery times: dark stores – warehouses stocked with popular items – are the new trends that enable delivery companies to send shopping to your doorstep within 10 minutes. Such dark stores are an incarnation, though smaller, of another trend we had written about within the global logistics story: the need for regional manufacturing and distribution centres.

Supply chains collapsed during the first lockdowns, prompting speculation that stocking locally will be important to prevent future supply shocks. Dark stores are mini-versions of some major ports providing huge storage facilities. But demand and supply picked up again at an uneven rate as China has surged ahead on pandemic recovery. This dynamic caused cargo container shortages for goods coming from China – not from local manufacturing facilities. We did not anticipate that. And, importantly, malls have been getting a significant increase in footfall, a rebound we anticipated would take longer.

The future of cities is another important area to watch. Covid-19 or other transmissible diseases may shape city planning more than previously. Density, mobility and connectivity have always influenced cities and we have tasted periods of fewer crowds, less traffic and improved air quality. As such, our cities report made no predictions but aimed at taking the learnings from the pandemic to shape a better future for city dwellers.

Trend-spotting is challenging because it is so compelling to extrapolate a trend from very few observations. The pandemic seemed at the time to catalyse entirely new directions for good.

Instead, in some cases it was already proven to be more like a pendulum, swinging in one direction, then back. The task before us – as it always is – is to try to understand when something is a fad, a trend or a deeper change to life as we know it.

Dr Patrick Noack is the executive director of future, foresight and imagination at the Dubai Future Foundation