2021: Our outlook for the year ahead

There is a great need for individuals, organisations and societies to focus on building an enhanced level of resilience in 2021.

It's a tradition here at Cherryflava HQ to annually spend a considerable amount of time doing some futures research on the year that lies ahead.

BTW - We package this information and share it with our clients during the strategy workshops that we facilitate, and as a keynote presentation for companies looking for perspectives on the key forces of change for the year ahead. A follow up to this is our more comprehensive 10 Year Forecast which highlights the important areas that business needs to consider as a key part of their longer-term decision-making program.

Seeing that we are at the very beginning of January 2021 - now is the obviously opportune time to share some of the important themes that we'll be keeping on our radar for the year and tracking any changes in them, as and when they might occur.

These are then some of important forces of change we feel are useful to carefully consider as context shapers during business strategy workshops, and the all-important action planning for the year, that is going on in almost every commercially-orientated organisation.

Just a full disclaimer here - these are NOT predictions. We don't peddle in predications, because as any reasonable person will know, predictions are premised on the assumption of certainty. There is certainly no concrete knowledge about the future, so it is not possible to predict what will happen.

It is however useful to think creatively as to how certain phenomena, that carry a higher degree of impact, may unfold into the future and plan accordingly, which is what the intention is here.

2021: The context

Image credit: Hector Retamal/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images; courtesy of The New York Times

During tough times people want to blame somebody, or something, for causing the pain that they are experiencing.

They want to point at the culprit, interrogate its motives and eliminate it.

In 2020 it was easy to point a finger at the guilty.

Covid-19, Trump, Brexit, the EFF, the racist parents at Brackenfell High School, the fake news media, bloody climate change, Big Tech companies, population growth, urbanisation, 5G, Bill Gates, Russian hackers, Mercury Retrograde...the list goes on and on.

All were apparently singularly and collectively to blame for the utter misery, fear and hopelessness that people felt.

Conspiracy theorists had a whale of a time creatively constructing charge sheets of new suspects, and the world lapped up fresh servings of the damning evidence.

But as satisfying as it is to make fun of Trump supporters and condemn the behaviour of EFF supporters - one really has to ask:

  • 'Under what conditions does the supporting of a Donald Trump makes sense?'
  • 'What conditions give people the justification to act so violently?'
  • 'What system (or systems) is making people feel to disempowered that resorting to these radical measures seems like a good idea?'

One can only hazard a guess that the systems that we rely on to effectively serve the needs of the people of the world to achieve prosperity, happiness and the maximisation of their true potential - don't appear to be working very well anymore.

We are living in an era of time (as author Alvin Toffler suggested in 1970) of Future Shock.

The pace of technological progress has overwhelmed our collective and individual psychological ability to deal with it.

Image credit: Hilary Swift; courtesy of The New York Times

The resulting changes in our society have severely weakened our institutions of governance, meant to serve the interests of the many.

A disastrous breakdown in trust has fuelled the welcoming of weaponised propaganda from unknown sources and the poor regulation of our economic systems, which now serve the interests of only a few, well-connected individuals.

There is no one person / or small group of people that is / are to blame for this.

You can't point a finger at some kind of 'grand puppet master' and shout "There's the guy right there."

Where we are right now is as a result of the evolution of our world unfolding in the way in which we allowed.

The choices that our fathers and forefathers made in the past, the ideas that they chose to support, the stories that history chose to believe - these are the mechanisms that created the world of today.

But we have been too slow to evolve the world fast enough in the presence of exponentially advancing technology.

Capitalism, as we now define it, is not working well for society; democracy, as we now define it, is not working well for society; governments and the policies that they deliver, as they are currently structured, are not working effectively enough for society.

Changing these things won't happen easily or quickly, but not changing them will result in increasing levels of unrest, unease and planetary blight.

Image credit: Al Bello/Getty Images; courtesy of The New York Times

So the overall forecast for 2021 is of a global reality that continues to struggle with itself.

Superficial interventions will be made to try and rescue the situation from all corners, but the huge mechanisms that are entrenching the conditions that manifest reality we are currently facing will not change in 2021.

Until we see strong evidence that alternatives to these mechanisms are being adopted at scale; climate change, inequality, population growth, urbanisation, fear, violence, refugees, nationalism, economic recession, disease, the threat of nuclear war, cyberwars, cancel culture, government debt, corruption etc etc will continue to intensify.

2021: The forecast

The global problem of inequality is going to get far, far worse

Image courtesy of The New York Times

No real surprises here, but for all of the nice words about 'sourcing more product locally', being more ethical, when it comes to issues relating to environmental sustainability and seemingly heart-felt Instagram posts featuring models from racially-diverse backgrounds; big business will continue to exploit people, planet and society for private gain.

Using their unregulated powers to undemocratically influence policy makers at the highest level of government and siphoning off billions of dollars of profit away from public coffers into tax havens - big business will continue to have just one intention in their cross-hairs...growing stakeholder value [which carries a very narrow definition as to who the stakeholder is] at all costs.

Old white guys will continue to be appointed CEO of these corporations, while being paid an outrageous amount of money for doing so, and the same cycle of extraction and exploitation will continue as per usual.

Despite the head of the World Economic Forum (an old, white, overpaid Swiss guy) calling for 'A Great Reset' of the world's economic system, there is very little evidence to suggest that this mindset of extraction is anywhere close to collapsing.

The result is that global inequality will continue to advance.

Even though the world waved banners and pretended to be 'outraged' at massive gatherings, systemic racism and gender discrimination are very much still alive and well and continue to control the world in an unsustainable way - as has been the case for the last 400 years. A clever hashtag and a few token appointments here and there haven't turned the tide on this one.

Disenfranchised groups will grow in strength, cyberwars will intensify, nationalism will advance, extremist groups will swell in numbers in an attempt to fight an enemy that is in fact, the very socio-economic system that has created the world that we live into today.

The epidemic of fear of the future will grow in strength in 2021.

More jobs will be lost, more public violence will erupt, people will feel more hopeless, and in desperation some will do whatever they can to migrate to the big cities of the world to try and survive, while others will take up arms and opt for new isolationist dispensations like Brexit to protect what they have from 'the invaders'.

Consumer demand in 2021 will be extremely weak.

So what?

Consumers will continue to 'buy-down' while many others will go out of their way to become more self-reliant; sewing their own clothes, growing their own food, opting out of society.

Concerns over data privacy, in particular will see regulators trying to impose stricter measures of compliance on technology companies, but the mistrust of the news media and social media providers will continue regardless.

So bare this in mind when you think about your business strategy in 2021. People are fearful, broke, pissed off with corporations and just wanting to 'check out' in general.

Try not to upset them further with patronising advertising or 'deals' that are really just your way of taking the money that they don't have.

Take the time to truly understand people frustrations and offer real help in response as a business- or don't bother at all.

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Welcome to the new world of hybrid-work models

A blurring of lines between the office and the home space will most certainly continue long after the story of Covid-19 pandemic has been published in the history books.

For those that haven't done so already, business will need to design new operating systems that make full-use of the benefits of the hybrid work model.

Smaller office spaces will be required, with less desk floor area and possibly better 'social-zones', where people can gather...share ideas and collaborate in-person when they do get to 'the office'. New remuneration and admin guidelines are needed - that include employee reimbursement for electricity and home office rental.

Business will also now be competing for talent on a global stage.

Skilled professionals located in Cape Town can now just as easily work full-time for a company based in New York, as they can for one situated geographically in Woodstock. That'll mean that the price for local talent will undoubtedly increase in 2021 as a new world of work opportunities opens up digitally for skilled labour.

'Semi-gration' out of the big cities and into smaller towns and quieter rural areas will be a trend to watch closely.

Will families continue to love the peace and quiet of working the 9-5 from the countryside or will the lack of big city stimulation bring them back in time?

Will a flood of skilled international remote workers set up shop in a beautiful city like Cape Town - choosing the affordability of the city while still working full-time for organisations based abroad?

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It's quality digital...or die

In 2021 - every business is going to need to have a very strong drive towards digital transformation. This strategy will need to include both external as well as internal systems transformation.

It's not a nice-to-have anymore, it's do-or-die.

However with the world focusing so heavily on going digital, this project is not just about ticking the digital box - it's making sure that your digital channel is of a high standard and delivers the kind of customer experience that your brand intents to stand for.

Far too many South African retailers, in particular (well-known ones too), wrongly assume that they have the 'digital' thing under control and leave it at that; only to realise that developing the right kind of digital experience, that is fit-for-purpose in 2021, needs a lot more work and money to simply get it on par with their competitors.

Digital transformation is not a silver bullet - you don't simply 'do it' and then consider it done and go back to being the business that you were before. Digital transformation must be implementing hand-in-hand with an accompanying business transformation.

Going digital is an ongoing process that requires constant tending to and nurturing, and for those that neglect this, will be the fastest way to damaging your brand in 2021.

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A year of cheap money

Image courtesy of Bloomberg

Cheap money - being offered at historically low interest rates - is flooding the world.

In an attempt to stoke come consumer demand into economies, central banks have slashed interest rates to historic levels and banks are getting increasingly keen to find buyers of this cheap debt.

If you are thinking about starting a business, buying a house or investing in any other long-term, value-driven project that requires financial capital - 2021 is a good year to be borrowing money.

Some economists are sounding the warning that all of this cheap money will lead to a fresh wave of global inflation, but to be honest, those same economists have been saying the same thing since 2008.

Stockmarket analysts are literally salivating at the prospect of a continuation of radical economic stimulus. According to them at least - with cheap rates and no inflation they foresee themselves having a very good 2021 - thank you very much.

For the rest of 2021 at least - low interest rates are highly likely to continue and there doesn't appear to be any inflation on the cards yet.

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A shift to wellbeing

After a year of illness, it makes sense that the antithesis should now be a major focus.

Mental wellness, physical wellness, spiritual wellness, financial wellness, planetary wellness - all of these variants of the wellness-theme will enjoy an above average amount of attention in 2021.

Veganism, low-alcohol drinks, yoga, mindfulness, road running, cycling trips to nowhere, farmer's markets, digital diets, low-carb, Keto, self-pleasure, acupuncture and a general 'checking out' from the madness of 'modern reality' may sound like some kind of new hippie movement, but in many cases, people are just so burnt out they simply cannot continue as per usual anymore.

The wellness drive has shifted from something that kids with long hair and a trust fund used to bond over; into a flourishing, diversified movement that is saving people's lives.

In 2021 the trend evolves into a focus on holistic wellbeing, not just a wellness of the physical state. Wellbeing includes a nod to economic, mental, spiritual and community wellbeing which is sustainable and ethical.

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The rise of the professional curators

With trust in governments, business, Big Tech, Big Pharma and media at historic lows, people will increasingly gravitate towards those with untainted opinions they do actually trust.

The definition of who can be considered an influencer in 2021 will change.

Individuals who's opinion impacts the behaviour of others will shift away from those that 'simply look good in a bikini' towards a hugely diverse spread of far more culturally relevant individuals who's ability to curate honest recommendations is highly-valued and trusted.

Fake news and the over-commercialisation of many social media platforms is pushing people towards closed networks; new digital communities that are safe from the data mining greed of Big Tech and desperate marketers.

These growing subscription-based networks will generate their value from their impenetrability and the curated, authentic lifestyles that they facilitate on behalf of their followers.

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The East rules the world

For the past 30 years a global power shift has been happening.

The ageing West has been losing economic and political power to the emerging, power blocks in the East in a steady deflation of confident, WASP-y bravado.

The global pandemic year of 2020 was in many ways the watershed moment when the balance of global power finally tipped in favour of the East.

In a last gasp attempt to assert some kind of control back, Donald Trump waged a futile trade war with China during his presidency and UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, made a flimsy offer of a path to UK citizenship to Hong Kong residents after Beijing clamped down heavily on political dissent in the territory. The move indicative of the UK's new elected level of weakness on the world stage.

Increasingly - business leaders looking for inspiration as to what's coming next are turning their attention to China instead of the US and Europe. From e-commerce and patents to tattoos - the East is out-innovating the West in a diversity of areas and with a strong focus on technology and the pursuit of innovation - this trend is set to accelerate in 2021.

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For many younger people - reality bares very little resemblance to the worrying construct that the world's news headlines would have you believe we are living in.

Lockdowns, school closures, work-from-home situations have collectively inspired an unprecedented growth in digital escapism through channels like gaming, binge watching of streaming content on platforms like Netflix and YouTube and dynamic online meet-ups.

The shadow side of this trend is the ever-growing popularity of alternative reality political ideologies flouted by likes of QAnon that are fuelling the anger of millions with misinformation and theories that are literally destabilising societies.

What many used to tinker with in the past, has now become a more preferred version of reality. Now with the continued rollout of 5G networks in 2021 - access to seamless anti-reality portals is guaranteed to be easier and cheaper and the proportion of time that people spend in these virtual worlds is forecast to increase dramatically in 2021.

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In conclusion: A great need for a strategy of resilience

Image credit: Victor J. Blue; courtesy of The New York Times

The overall forecast for 2021 is undoubtedly negative (no real shock there) - if you were sailing a yacht on the open ocean right now, you would be preparing for very bad weather up ahead.

In the context offered here, there is a great need for individuals, organisations and societies to focus on building an enhanced level of resilience in 2021.

Financial resilience, physical resilience, operational resilience, cognitive resilience, cultural resilience - the exact needs will vary depending on the entity that is applying the lens to their futures thinking.

What is clear is that the world is experiencing a 'growth spurt' and in the context of this rapid and pervasive change, building a future on a rigid platform is problematic.

On the longer-term horizon, the events of 2020 / 2021 will be an important catalyst for improvements of many aspects of society, which will eventually be redesigned to better serve an evolving world, but in the short-term our perception will be that the world has been thrown into total chaos by the convergence of seemingly disconnected events.

Flexibility, agility, simplicity and resilience in combination with building good relationships and networks, partnerships, a focus on innovation and sustainability - all need to be a dedicated focus area of organisations in 2021.

These insights are available as a presented keynote presentation for organisations planning strategy workshops and requiring some big-picture context in which to stress-test their thinking and plans.

Please get in touch with us for rates and availability.