Opinion: A new Renaissance?

History is full of clues for what our post-pandemic future might look like. Richard Dawson explores how the Renaissance which followed the Black Death in the 14th century brought about huge social, cultural and economic change and asks what the 21st century Renaissance might look like

Given that 2021 has begun in much the same fashion 2020 ended, with COVID-19 continuing to dominate life in the UK, it may be reassuring to know that many great periods in history have followed a pandemic.

At first our attention turns to the 1918 Spanish Flu, which was followed by a wave of prosperity and social change euphemistically referred to as the Roaring Twenties.

But if we go back even further, there is an even more profound example.

Perhaps humanity’s worst pandemic, the Black Death wrought devastation on the populations of Europe and Asia in the 14th century.

At its worst in the period from 1346 to 1353, the plague is estimated to have wiped out somewhere between 30 and 60 per cent of Europe’s population. The situation was so bad in places like Italy that it took around 150 years for population levels to recover.

What’s interesting about this great human tragedy is that it was not the pandemic itself that defined huge social, economic and cultural change, but rather what came afterwards – the Renaissance.

The period in history marking the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity, the Renaissance casts a long shadow over art, literature and music but also politics, science, technology and commerce.

Immediately our minds are drawn to the paintings of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael and the writings of Machiavelli and Boccacio.

But the Renaissance also gave birth to modern accounting, the printing press and a scientific revolution led by the likes of Galileo and Copernicus.

Commerce boomed as a result of these innovations and laid the groundwork for Europe to become the most prosperous continent in the world, a position which it has only conceded in relatively recent times.

If this example is anything to go by, then we need to get our heads around the fact that it is not the coronavirus pandemic itself that will define our future, but rather what we decide to do in its aftermath.

As we step forth into 2021, theories abound on what our “what next?” might be, and businesses and entrepreneurs will no doubt be sighting opportunities to be a part of the coming Renaissance.

But the reassuring thing for those of us stuck at home day-in-day-out, is that better times are coming, that a new era of thinking has begun.

Right now, we have to decide what it is going to look like.

Multinational professional services firm Accenture has some interesting insights in this regard.

The Fjord Trends 2021 report is an annual study by Fjord, a subsidiary of Accenture Interactive.

It collates a list of key trends that are seen as having a big role to play in 2021 and beyond.

Chief among them is the trend towards ‘do-it-yourself innovation’.

This looks at the ways in which individuals have come up with new ways or “hacks” for dealing with their day-to-day challenges.

Examples include how office workers repurposed their homes for home-working or how entrepreneurs launched new businesses to meet demand for things like PPE, hand sanitiser and face masks.

The interesting thing here is how technology acted more as a facilitator of people’s ingenuity rather than being the driver in and of itself.

Often, we hear it said that digital should be thought of as an enabler and this became abundantly in 2020.

Alongside DIY innovation was the trend Fjord calls ‘the empathy challenge’.

This is about the extent to which businesses of the future must work hard to manage their brand narratives around the new and existing inequalities that their customers care about.

Corporate social responsibility has been around for many years, but it looks set to take a more central role post-pandemic as a more socially, culturally and environmentally conscious generation of consumers comes of age.

The final trend to pull out from Fjord’s report is the one called ‘rituals lost and found’.

One of the reasons 2020 was so emotionally challenging was because it saw disrupted or cancelled the rituals that we’ve built our lives around.

Whether it be going to church every Sunday, or the football match every Saturday, COVID-19 has torn asunder many of the habits we attach meaning to.

The opportunity for businesses here is helping consumers in their search for new rituals that bring them joy and comfort.

The Fjord report is one of dozens compiled by firms like Facebook, Deloitte and Adobe, each of which is doing some deep thinking about what the new Renaissance might look like.

They’re worth reading for anyone who wants to become a 21st century Galileo.