For the past ten years I’ve been a collector of innovative ideas. When I write about them and interview the people behind them, I know they are far ahead of their industry. Over the past month as our entire culture has been upended by the arrival of the COVID-19 virus, one of positive side effects I have been watching is a rapid normalizing of ideas and technology that might have seemed too dangerous or risky to try.
Here are ten of the biggest ideas gaining momentum, along with some implications for what each might mean after the current threat of COVID-19 begins to lessen … whenever that might be:
1. Distance Learning
As schools across the world have cancelled classes and kids remain at home, the topic of distance learning has become an urgent and personal one for every parent and child. Options for learning remotely had been around for many years (Khan Academy was founded 12 years ago) but as an entire generation of kids are forced to learn online for what is likely to be several months, this is likely to be the tipping point that causes parents, teachers and students themselves to rethink the educational system itself.
2. Ghost Kitchens
More than a year ago I remember reading about a surge in what several journalists had started calling “ghost restaurants” – a term used to describe a kitchen-only restaurant that offered home delivery without investing in a sit-down restaurant. Now as restaurants struggle to rethink their business models, this futuristic concept is going mainstream.
3. Home Theater Streaming
Dreamworks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg famously said back in 2013 that he anticipated a future where people might pay to watch new theatrical releases based on screen size. That’s just one of the potential futures unfolding right now as Universal is leading the charge to release new films directly to live streaming audiences and the film industry considers a big shift in how people might watch new films in a time where theaters are closed (and even afterwards when they reopen but moviegoers may still be reluctant to come out).
4. Drone Delivery
The use and potential for drones was already moving quickly even before COVID-19 came along. Now there are new stories weekly of drones being used for surveillance, mapping, delivery and plenty of other applications. The innovation is causing an urgent debate in many sectors about just how fast they are willing to deploy these drones and how to make it work.
5. Remote Work
Over the past two weeks, I have participated in more virtual presentations and conferences than the entire six months before COVID-19. As the events industry works hard to adapt to more virtual events and just about everyone seems to be getting more comfortable on Zoom, many believe this will fundamentally change the way we work and offer proof that the rumors about remote work are true. You can actually get more work done without the constant interruptions of the modern office.
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6. Spectator eSports
Last night I watched two NFL athletes playing each other in a video game as part of the Madden eSports Tournament. As content-starved sports fans look for their next fix of competitive action, sports networks are responding with the one sport that can easily be played in isolation from home … video games. ESPN also launched an esports series with Nascar and we can expect to see more of these types of events as the orders to shelter in place continue. Along the way, this desperation-watching might finally offer the boost the esports needed to graduate from engaged fans watching on Twitch to gain a larger audience.
7. Digital Currency
Currency has already been marching steadily towards becoming mainly digital, but this current crisis and the accompanying disruption of financial markets may be what it takes to create a tipping point around cryptocurrency options like Bitcoin and speed the transition to a new future of money, banking and transactions.
8. Virtual Travel
In recent years, the idea of virtual travel seemed limited to the cool-but-motion-sickness-inducing experiences you could have with a virtual reality headset. As planes have been grounded and tourism halted, people are starting to think more broadly about how they might engage their wanderlust while stuck at home. Virtual trips, live animal cams, and even some (much better) virtual reality experiences are now seeing vast amounts of interest and an audience far more willing to experiment and embrace a disruptive new technology.
9. Universal Basic Income
Depending on where you live in the world, the idea of offering a Universal Basic Income of any kind might have seemed hopelessly out of touch. Until crisis hit. Now the United States and many other nations are either discussing the idea seriously, or actually implementing it to offer relief to citizens unsure of where their next paycheck is coming from.
10. Facial Tracking
Perhaps none of this technology being adopted faster is quite so worrisome as the potential uses (and misuses) of facial tracking technology. The potential ills of the technology are well explored in this powerful article from Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari. The scary part of how AI and facial tracking may be used isn’t only from what could be possible today, but what new standards and acceptable uses might evolve to be even after this crisis passes.
What comes next?
I know some of these advances will seem far more hopeful and optimistic than others. And more than a few of them will create a scary amount of disruption in each of our lives both personally and professionally.
It’s too early to know which will be positive and which will be negative, and I’m trying hard not to make too many judgements right now either way. When the world is moving this quickly and we’re surrounded by noise, the best thing any of us can do is try to be a bit more intentional about what we choose to pay attention to.
These are ten ideas I’m watching, and for now the best advice I can offer is that you pay attention to them too.
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