What are the five trends for the 2020s that will cause the greatest change in the next decade? The five trends by which businesses will live or die. Or by which governments might rise or fall? I have been tracking these trends for the last five years. One of them was the basis for my first book, High Frequency Change. I strongly believe that these trends, as they clash with global pressures like climate change, will drive the greatest change in almost every aspect of our lives, in the next ten years.
These five trends for the 2020s are all indirect effects of technology. That doesn’t mean that these are technology trends. They touch every aspect of our lives from healthcare to housing, employment to education, finance to foreign affairs. Technology takes friction from our lives and our work. It allows information to spread faster and further. Technology lowers the barriers to entry to markets. And it enables every human to do more. This friction-lowering effect is continuous and irreversible. And it is therefore important that everyone understands what it does to our companies, our organisations, our careers and our lives.
These five trends for the 2020s are how this friction-lowering affects our lives and our work. Therefore they show what you can expect to see in the next decade.
Trend 1: The spreading impact of High Frequency Change
When friction falls it allows a higher rate of change. This does not mean that everything changes faster: the grand arc of history continues on its steady, low frequency way. But overlaid upon it are harmonics of high frequency change. These are most visible in those domains where there are fewer dampeners to slow change down. These dampeners include capital requirements (if a market is expensive to get in to), regulation, and innate human conservatism. In the past I have written about high frequency change being visible primarily in popular culture or consumer electronics. But increasingly I see it in politics, in regulated markets like finance and banking, and even coming to extremely conservative industries like construction. Ultimately, every dampening effect is overcome, if there is pressure for change.
Therefore, the first of my five trends for the 2020s is the growing impact of high frequency change in a wider range of domains. You can expect continuing volatility in our politics. More big, established names will be disrupted and displaced from their dominant market positions. And you can expect to see some things that haven’t changed for decades suddenly be transformed.
Trend 2: More intermediaries feeding on the choice explosion
Low friction means lower barriers to entry. This inevitably means more competition in any market. That creates more choice for the consumer, whether in a personal or corporate context. This in turn puts pressure on price and service, ideally driving one down and the other up. But it also puts pressure on the buyer. How do you choose when your options seem almost infinite?
As choice grows, it gets harder for buyers to find the right sellers and the right products. Inevitably we therefore see new intermediaries coming into the market to do the matchmaking. So the second of my five trends for the 2020s is the growing role of intermediaries. In the next decade, there will be more and more services to help us choose, whether it is insurance, energy, TV shows or breakfast cereals. And more and more of these matchmakers will be robots, not humans. Or they will be combinations of the two. You can expect to outsource more and more of your decision-making to machines. In fact, you will just forget about a lot of decisions as they are made on your behalf. If you can afford it, you will place a growing premium on advice with a human face as more and more services are purely digital.
Trend 3: A nation of iron men and women
Technology is really a long word for tools. And tools amplify our strength in particular areas. In the 2020s, three classes of tool will take human strength to new heights.
The first class is physical. Strength and endurance augmentation will become increasingly a normal part of work wear and even clothes. From passive reinforcement of joints with smart materials, to active strength enhancement with exoskeletons. Expect to see these deployed not just in the military but on construction sites, in warehouses and elsewhere as the price comes down.
The second class is cognitive. Our brains have long been augmented by technology. But we have little awareness of it. In the 2020s our augmentation goes up but our awareness falls even further as the interface between human and machine becomes so slick as to be invisible. At home and at work you will be increasingly reliant on machines to do your thinking for you. That might sound scary but it should free your mind for more productive and creative tasks. Though there is a huge risk to privacy. Drugs too will play a part. Get comfortable with pills to boost your brain power.
The third class is where cognitive and physical augmentations combine into automation. There will be more and more embodied devices in the 2020s, acting autonomously in the physical world, whether they are cars or drones or household assistants. They won’t be cute like R2D2. But they will be functional and they will change the employment environment and our streets. Note: I don’t expect full autonomy in cars until the end of the 2020s at the earliest. There remain technological barriers, but more importantly, legal, cultural and business issues to overcome.
The third of my trends for the 2020s is human augmentation. Over the next decade we will be increasingly bionic.
Trend 4: Now, now, now
In the 2020s we will get even less patient, if you can believe it. There will be growing counter-trends to slow things down as a result. But overall the trend will be for everything to accelerate.
Trend 3 will somewhat insulate us from this. Much of the high speed traffic of commerce and consumerism will increasingly be between machines rather than humans. All we will see is notifications that things have been done in the background. But where humans are the interaction we will have less patience with any delay. This has big implications for streaming and gaming, customer service, ecommerce and deliveries, and physical retail.
The responses will include increasing levels of personalisation (balanced with the demand for privacy), accelerated networks (5G and fibre), and a growing role for automation and AI assistants.
Trend 5: Everyone is a corporation
Lowering the friction in communications and business interactions allows you to build businesses differently. Companies no longer need to sit under the same physical, legal or financial umbrella to be efficient. Instead you can assemble a network of smaller corps, freelancers and partners to meet the customer’s needs. This is increasingly the model for tomorrow’s business: networks, not monoliths.
The ultimate expression of this is the growing prevalence of freelancers, corporations of one. In the 2020s, we will see more and people put a corporate wrapper around themselves, whether for their full time employment or as part of their side hustle. Freelancers, already a growing population, will grow even further. Most teams will have a proportion of flexible labour on them, allowing the company to scale up and down, and bring in expertise as required. And networks of collaborators will become increasingly competitive against more established business models.
Five trends for the 2020s: hope and fear
So, that is my five trends for the 2020s. Expect to see more high frequency change beyond social media and consumer electronics. Expect the explosion of choice to drive a subsequent explosion in intermediaries, middle men and women. You will be more a cyborg in 10 years than you are today (though you are already bionic). The one bit of you that won’t be augmented is your patience. And more than ever you are likely to work for yourself.
It is going to be a difficult decade in many ways. We live, as they say, in interesting times. But there are great opportunities as well, for us as individuals, as organisations, and as a race. Let’s hope we can take them.