If last June we had been asked to guess what our end-2021 holiday message would be, it would have been something like “what a difference a year makes.”
But here we are, once again witnessing frightening surges in COVID-19, and facing uncertainty, both familiar and exhausting, over how the Omicron variant will affect life here in the US and across the globe in 2022.
It’s not difficult to doomscroll our way into the new year, what with Omicron, rising inflation, fractured politics, extreme weather and looming global crises over Taiwan and Ukraine monopolizing news feeds. For sure, these are all real and ongoing concerns. But it’s also the job of FSG scenario consultants to examine counter trends and to consider what could go surprisingly right in 2022.
And besides, our clients, collaborators and readers have doubtless had their fill of the negative in the year just passed.
So, here’s our 2022 “Hope scroll” – trends, events and forces for change that most of us would agree are hopeful developments on the horizon.
1. COVID goes from pandemic to endemic
It’s altogether plausible that, by the end of 2022, the combination of vaccines, better therapeutics, and resistance from prior cases could make COVID less of a fast-moving global health threat and more of a local and relatively manageable nuisance, akin to a mild seasonal infection.
COVID itself is becoming more treatable. Pfizer’s pill, Paxlovid, and Merck’s molnupiravir show particular promise. Molnupiravir reportedly halves the rate of hospitalization in unvaccinated COVID-19 patients; Paxlovid reportedly performed even better, showing an 89% reduction in hospitalization for patients who received the medicine within three days of developing symptoms. Unlike other common COVID therapies, these drugs are taken in pill form and can be prescribed for outpatient treatment. Some experts say they could be a game-changer.
Meanwhile, poor countries in the world should get more relief. Even though distribution may remain a knotty problem, COVID vaccine production, presently at 1.5 billion doses a month, will be in surplus by mid-2022, according to Airfinity, a life science data firm.
2. COVID R&D pays unexpected dividends
It happens all the time. Big government R&D spending yields significant benefits way beyond the target problem. US government funding for the Cold War and the space program laid the foundation for the digital revolution. The same will happen with the avalanche of government money that has gone into dealing with the pandemic; more good things will happen.
To cite but one example, The Economist magazine recently observed that messenger RNA (mRNA) breakthroughs will deliver medical benefits long past the end of the pandemic. In the not-distant future mRNA could be used for customized cancer therapies, regenerative medicine, allergies, autoimmune diseases and inflammatory conditions.
3. Climate change becomes even harder to ignore
Extreme weather events are not good. Hard stop. In an ideal world, we would not have to suffer untold human suffering and economic damage before reaching a consensus to actually do something about climate change. Yet here we are.
The upside hope is that the imperative to take some form of action may reach a tipping point after another year of extreme weather, as fatalities and damage mount, particularly in regions up to now spared the worst. Assuming this is the case, where might we expect focused action?
Probably in climate change adaptation, initially – e.g., reinforcing and climate-proofing infrastructure, relocating housing in flood plains and wildfire regions, practicing controlled burns in wildfire prone regions, etc. But stopping climate change itself may also begin to be more realistic. Alternative non-carbon energy sources are closer than ever to the tipping point where their costs are low enough, and benefits high enough, that pure capitalism can begin to get behind solving this problem.
4. A new, virtual normal for work
For decades futurists have been predicting the coming age of virtual work. The problem was this new age never really came – until the COVID pandemic forced it (as we foresaw back in 2003). And now, in whole or part, the virtual work world is here for good.
Even when the acute COVID contagion risks ease, it appears that many workers will enjoy unprecedented freedom to work remotely, at least part time. Having experienced the personal and family benefits of remote work, they are, in fact, demanding it. And employers are accommodating them, however grudgingly.
All of this is still evolving, and there are definite challenges to corporate culture and business processes. But the direction seems clear. This is a decoupling of where we live and where our job is. It provides us both freedom of movement to live where we like, as well as the stability to stay where we are. Companies will have much larger talent pools from which to draw instead of being bound by the local region.
We should also consider the cross-impacts remote work will have on urbanization/deurbanization, commercial and residential real estate, the environment, and transportation, and then all the higher order impacts of those trends (tax bases, political shifts, technology, public works, etc.) This is where the paydirt is in scenario planning, by the way!
5. Infrastructure spending gets underway
America’s road, ports, bridges, utilities, and energy systems are finally about to get an upgrade, thanks to the bipartisan $1 trillion spending package signed into law in November. True, it will take years for the work to be completed, but at least the funds are now committed. In many parts of the country the big challenge will be recruiting budget experts, contract managers, engineers, construction workers and skilled tradespeople to do the work and keep it on time and on budget. More than half that amount is new spending, substantial amounts of which will go toward achieving social goals, like clean energy, replacing old water pipes and stringing 5G broadband to rural areas.
Along with the good, we should all expect frustrating inconveniences, once the actual work gets underway. But keep in mind the eventual payoffs – and the hope that those bike paths and hiking trails you’ve been promised may finally get built.
6. “Geothermal brine” – a critical new lithium source
This may not sound like such a big deal: a new source of lithium. But it really is, because the metal is rare, both technically challenging and environmentally costly to access, and a critical element in the transition to the renewable economy.
Among countless other uses, lithium is an essential ingredient in batteries for portable electronics and electric vehicles. The World Bank has warned that by 2050 the world will need five times the amount of lithium that is presently mined if renewable energy goals are to be met. The good news is that scientists have rediscovered lithium sources in hot geothermal water – what they call “geothermal brine.” And with new technologies and processes, it’s considerably cheaper to extract, without significant carbon emissions, water pollution or disruption of local (often indigenous) communities.
Right now the commercial focus is on well-known geothermal sources in Cornwall, England. But what is really encouraging is the potential for deriving lithium from other regions, including the US. (e.g., California’s Salton Sea, also referred to as “Lithium Valley”) and Germany’s Rhine Valley.
Don’t forget to name-drop “geothermal brine” at your holiday gatherings.
7. A mental health tipping point?
An unanticipated – but ultimately positive – consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the attention it has brought to the state of the nation’s mental health, from school age children up to the elderly. The Kaiser Family Foundation has reported that 4 in 10 adults in the US have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, compared to 1 in 10 pre-COVID. At the same time, European studies reported in The Lancet have observed among adolescents increased rates of emotional distress and depression related to the pandemic.
Researchers are quick to point out that widespread mental issues, especially among young people, predate COVID. (And, in fact, medical leaders FSG works with were promoting mental health awareness and investments long before the pandemic.) But the pandemic may finally bring this issue to rightful prominence, with real action by governments, medical professionals, employers, community organizations and affected families.
8. Remember how fast everything can change
When everything seems to be going in the wrong direction at once, it may be the optimal time to bet on many things turning around. We don’t underestimate the headwinds the US and the world are heading into, or the practical challenges for addressing pandemics, war, inequality, political polarization, climate change, and so forth. But Sapiens is an adaptable creature, and at some point, we will begin to “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.”
History is reassuring on this count. Here in the US, it need not be a dramatic shift – today a pragmatic convergence around a few national priorities would appear huge in its consequences. But something bigger could arise out of the discontent reportedly present in the “TikTok generation,” whose activism and political influence on gun violence, race, climate change and LGBTQ+ issues are already being registered.
Who knows? Maybe “the turnaround” has already begun. We’ll be watching – with hope – as the events of 2022 unfold.
We wish our clients, collaborators and friends a happy and healthy holiday season, and a prosperous and hopeful New Year.