In 2004, the phrase "Life comes at you fast" was a clever tagline for US insurance company Nationwide. In 2020, it has become a meme for our times.
Few of us are comfortable with uncertainty, but our certainties are built on human expectations that things will track a certain way. The real world, as the past month has shown, deals in randomness and chaos.
Throughout history, people who had less confidence in their ability to bend the world to their will have devised philosophies for dealing with unpredictability. Mental approaches to maintaining peace through the whiplash to-and-fro of restless ages have been part of every culture. Ideas devised by people as different as the Romans and Chinese share a common factor: when you can't change your circumstances, change your attitude. It is also prudent where possible to help fate. So while COVID-19 puts an earthquake under everything we've built, we can be thinking about the structures we might build post-quake. One trend seems likely to have long-term consequences: the untethering of business from bricks-and-mortar.
A big percentage of the world will conduct all its affairs online for three, six, 12 months. Not everyone will go back to the office. If a big corporate successfully runs its business with a remote workforce for the next six months, is it going back to paying rent on CBD real estate when COVID-19 is under control? Not likely - which means a sizeable percentage of workers will be freed of the need to live within commuting distance of a metro CBD. Perhaps this, along with the new sense of urban areas' vulnerability to supply change disruption, will drive a new wave of treechangers.
The economic fallout of the coronavirus will almost certainly hasten the evolution of regional retail businesses. Bricks and mortar retail has been under pressure for years, but with every customer now online, forming online habits, that evolution may be compressed into a matter of weeks.
What sort of retail will prosper in regional areas in a more online world? What sort of physical businesses will remain in demand? The uncertainty principle is at work, but it's probable tomorrow's streetfront won't look like today's streetfront.
I hope for any window with a "To Let" sign, there will be two or three online businesses emerging, hopefully dealing in regional products or expertise.
And, if as some forecast, we have suddenly hit the end of peak globalisation, what does a world with shorter supply chains offer? We can't know whether the post-COVID-19 world will be better or worse for us. But it can't hurt society that we have been involuntarily, focused on what's essential. With imagination and agility, we can surely use the coronavirus realignment of values to support a lasting, positive change in how regional production and people fit into the affairs of the nation.
- Robbie Sefton is a farmer and managing director of Seftons.