Skyscrapers, coronavirus and trying to predict the future

Pete Marcus

28 May 2020

Amid the millions of words being written about the implications of the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about skyscrapers. Let me explain. Back in the autumn of 2001, in the days and weeks after 9/11, it became widely accepted that the era of skyscrapers was over. What big city would risk putting up tall buildings after what happened in New York, now we know they are obvious targets for terrorists? Which companies would fund them or want to pay for the office space in them? Who on earth would want to work in them? Instead, something surprising happened. Skyscrapers kept going up. Cities like London, Dubai, Shanghai and even New York itself all experienced skyscraper booms. Right now we’re living through another global shock, as with 9/11. These shocks overturn the status quo and challenge the assumptions we’ve lived with for decades. They also prompt an awful lot of prognostication and chin-stroking about What This All Means and How This Changes Everything – much of which, it turns out, will be totally wrong. My skyscraper comparison should remind us to be humble and honest about how hard it is to predict long-term effects.

Unchanging man

As a planner, this tension is part of the job. We spend a lot of time trying to work out what’s genuinely changing in people’s behaviour and mood, and what isn’t. It’s an exciting and baffling element of our role. It’s also a puzzle that has interested business thinkers for decades. Bill Bernbach, the advertising legend, used to talk about “unchanging man”: “It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.” Similarly, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has argued that it’s more important to work out “what’s not going to change in the next 10 years?” than what is – “because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.” The sight last week of cars queuing up for their McDonald’s drive-thru should remind us that, while the pandemic has allowed lots of people to experiment with baking sourdough, many people will still like the same things as before. But this isn’t the same as saying that nothing changes.

The luxury of hindsight

9/11 undeniably affected popular culture and the public mood. It made our movies darker and grittier; it boosted the interest in documentaries and non-fiction stories (perhaps because real life was more fascinating that we thought?); it made us all more security conscious in different ways; and there’s even evidence it altered how parents looked after their children. Changes in the cultural zeitgeist and popular behaviour at a macro level are incredibly complicated and messy, of course, and isolating specific causes is all-but impossible. But these changes do happen, and sometimes they’re only visible in hindsight once all of this has had time to work through our psyches and through the institutions we build around us. That’s a problem in today’s instantaneous world, where 24/7 news, social media and the thought leadership-industrial complex demand something new to write and obsess about every few minutes. Let’s not forget that we’ve just got through another, more localised seismic shock in the UK – that of Brexit. When the referendum happened on 23rd June 2016, commentators were immediately hailing it as a historic moment that changed everything straightaway. Instead, we then had three and a half years of political tussling over how to interpret the result and forge a way forward. (Arguably we’re still in that period!) Similarly, the pandemic isn’t over and talk of a “post-Covid world” feels premature to me. We’re going to be debating (and living through) the political, economic and social implications of the pandemic for months and years to come. It might spur more nationalism, or it might encourage more global cooperation. It might rebuild our faith in the importance of experts, or it might undermine it. It might lead most of us to work from home, or we might all be grateful to go back to our offices as quickly as we can. Tracking these changes and the effect they have on society, businesses and each of us as individuals is part of a planner’s job. For me, it’s the most fascinating aspect of what I do. But as I add to those millions of words written about the impact of the coronavirus on our lives, I’ll remember those skyscrapers, and I’ll try not to get carried away.