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'COVID Is The Bike With The Training Wheels For This Decade'

David Houle
The Sarasota Institute
David Houle

The coronavirus pandemic has turned our lives upside down. But how many of these changes will become permanent? On this week's Florida Matters, we talk with a futurist who says the changes that are coming in the 2020's will be more transforming than anything we've seen in decades.

Visions of the future used to be flying cars, hovercrafts, robots easing our lives by doing our every chore. But like many things, the future isn't what it used to be. Now, many of us are stuck at home, worrying if our fates will change just by going outside our bubbles and talking to someone.

Our lives have turned upside down. The way we work, the amount of time we spend at home, how our children are schooled. But how much of this will become permanent?

On this week's Florida Matters, WUSF's Steve Newborn talks with David Houle. He's a futurist and founder and managing director of The Sarasota Institute, which bills itself as a "21st Century think tank."

Here's an excerpt from the interview. You can find a link to the audio of the extended interview below:

In a world where there's the ubiquity of cell phones, there's no time distance or place limiting human communication. We have two realities, we have the physical reality based on atoms and the screen reality based on digits. And what COVID has done is that the screen reality represents the future.

Back in 2010, I said that there would be collapse of physical retail over the next 10 years. Why did I say that? Because of the screen reality called Amazon.com. The example with that is that retailers were competing with one another in their physical space, they didn't see they're going to get annihilated by the screen reality. So the point is, is that what COVID has done is accelerated society to move to the screen reality.

There was some research that Procter & Gamble did back in the 70s. I think...it said it takes 21 days to establish a new habit like, oh, if you're using Colgate, you go to Crest, it takes 21 days to make that a habit. So, if say 80 million people work from home for the first time, I would say that the vast majority go, hey, this is kind of good. So what that means is that work is going to change because the office real estate business is going to collapse.

I've spoken to a number of companies, say anyone that had more than 500 white collar employees, and not one company had more than 10 percent of the people saying they wanted to go back to the office. And the other thing is, it's a lower cost, and it's a higher productivity. And there's much more employee satisfaction, say if you're single mom, going back to school, there's high anxiety. You can work into the evening but you’ve got to deal with your kid during the day.

You say the retail office market is going to basically collapse. What does this mean for downtowns? Downtowns have built themselves as these big work spaces with Class A office space. Are we going to see the transformation of downtowns, which have been thriving, into maybe more residential instead of an office environment?

In Chicago, there's enough downtown center city condos and apartments to last for a year. In other words, people are going to the suburbs. If you take midtown Manhattan, there's a half a million people pre-COVID who used to come in every day, they're not coming in. So that means a total collapse of all the retail and stores. The people now who have retail establishments in New York are just decimated because even families are leaving.

So what you're going to see in the area of work is vacant downtown office buildings and vacant downtown apartment buildings. The perception is density increases risk for COVID. So that's not going to go away until we get a vaccine. People ask me, so when we're going to get a vaccine, and we're not going to get a vaccine until 2021 sometime.

So the question there is, how set in the ways will everybody be? COVID is kind of the bike with the training wheels for this decade.

You can find links to David Houle's books, including his new "The 2020s: The Most Disruptive Decade in History," here.

'COVID Is The Bike With The Training Wheels For This Decade'

Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.