In her much anticipated annual Internet Trends Report, Mary Meeker paints a dire picture of COVID-19’s impact on a new world, business, and the human psyche.
But the renowned venture capitalist and former bank analyst, whose annual reports are used to predict the future of technology, is actually optimistic about a post-COVID-19 future.
After all, she says, "the world just doesn’t end that often."
The coronavirus pandemic isn’t actually something no one could have seen coming, as some have suggested. Our battle against infectious diseases has been ongoing since the beginning of time. So why does this one feel so novel?
Recent history’s "big killers," as Meeker describes them, have been outside the United States. The last pandemic at scale in the U.S., the Spanish Flu, happened more than three or four generations ago. This is long enough, Meeker says, for people to forget the pain and to be ill-prepared for something like COVID-19.
While viruses are commonplace, epic viruses—those that changed the world and killed hundreds of millions of people—are rare. But what might have been contained regionally centuries ago is now more free to roam the globe. Increased air travel, cross-border movement, and a mass rural-to-urban migration have created what Meeker calls a perfect setup for the coronavirus to have a global impact.
She says these trends are a “virus’ dream” allowing it to hitchhike across land and sea. But the big question is: How will the world relax social distancing without fueling an exponential rise in infections? Unsurprisingly, Meeker believes technology is the answer.
In fact, we’re fortunate to have a global team of doctors and researchers working together like never before during an epic plague. According to Meeker, the sharing of information and rapid mobilization of clinical research are what sets this pandemic apart from our past plagues.
In record time, best practices are being discovered, iterated on, and shared in real-time. She suggests this is a first in history that a “global collective “technology-assisted rapid response to a health-related problem” has been implemented.
Existing trends accelerate
The global pandemic has caused many parts of our lives to stop. But Meeker’s report explains that COVID-19 has expedited the growth and focus on other areas of our lives. Specifically, many of the trends in place prior to COVID-19 are accelerating due to the virus’ spread, including:
This is a moment for technology entrepreneurs to shine. Meeker credits the technology sector and its entrepreneurs with being the single greatest creators of value in the U.S. economy over the past 30 years.
What makes the leaders of tech companies—scientists, engineers, and domain experts—drivers of growth? Meeker suggests the innovative tech companies we all know are led by planners with both short and long term business plans focused on data, execution, iteration, engineering, and science.
With industry and government working closer together, Meeker believes the need to meld technology with data-driven planning will give tech companies a bigger voice in shaping the future.
Piggybacking off the prospect of tech having a bigger voice, Meeker cites the explosive growth in messaging and collaboration applications like Zoom, Slack, etc. to illustrate the recent evolution of work. Meeker has long wondered whether tech workers, many of whom use the aforementioned apps to collaborate despite being near one another in an office, actually needed office space.
To identify whether remote work might stick, Meeker informally surveyed some of the companies she invests in, many of which already accommodated remote workers, and learned the following after 1.5 months:
- Productivity was the same or higher
- Companies must ensure creativity is captured and not sacrificed by the efficiency of video meetings
- Although there are benefits of staying home, they can be offset by shelter-in-place stress affecting parents with school-aged children who struggle to balance work with elearning obligations or those caring for a sick loved one
- Companies focused on written communication and documentation find the transition to remote work easier and can lead to more insightful input and decision making
While managing security and maintaining culture are top-of-mind challenges, Meeker’s survey suggests more companies will shift to distributed work.
By the spring of 2020, Meeker predicts the best performing businesses will be those gaining efficiencies through digitization. They’re likely to be technology businesses with cloud-based tools that make it easy to work from anywhere, businesses that offer products that are always in demand, are easily discoverable online, and distribute their products contact-free.
Meeker suggests the transition will be evident in the following ways:
- Big brands ramping online efforts while offline falters
- Local restaurants shifting from four-top seating to curbside pick up
- Students shifting from physical to virtual and digital classes
- Doctors shifting from in-person to telehealth appointments
If consumer behavior changes forever, expect retailers to use many of the virtual tools on which they relied during the crisis (e.g. Zoom) to engage customers online and expedite the offline-to-offline O2O shopping trend. For example, retail salespeople are setting up virtual appointments with customers via Facetime, Hangouts, and Skype. These meetings are driving demand and resulting in online purchases that would have been made in person pre-crisis.
Similarly, Meeker believes the rise of on-demand services, or items consumers order and instantly receive like car rides and restaurant meals, will drive economic growth. While stay-at-home orders have resulted in downturns for on-demand ride-sharing services, Meeker believes that surging usage of grocery and restaurant delivery services will likely result in on-demand and to-the-door delivery services gaining permanent market share.
Meeker suggests the on-demand economy is likely to continue growing, especially when you consider that on-demand services in the U.S. aren’t as pervasive as they are in some Asian countries. On-demand work will likely become a much larger part of the economy as the number of on-demand platforms increase, unemployed workers look for ways to earn a living, or some participate in on-demand work due to financial insecurity.
Ecommerce, grocery, and food are the sectors leading this transformation. The communication on-demand platforms enable (e.g. Uber receiving immediate feedback on a pickup) is also likely to become foundational.
Government and technology
To determine when the economy can be restarted, Meeker suggests the government must turn to tech to ensure stimulus money is efficiently delivered. Governments should also partner with financial services companies so money can be instantly deposited.
Similarly, Meeker is hopeful that governments will use technology to help the unemployed find old and new types of work. She points to Singapore, which has successfully used technology to track the virus and alert citizens when they’re close to someone who is infected.
Healthcare and technology
COVID-19 has exposed flaws in healthcare systems around the world—notably, data shared with health care providers often lack connectivity. Meeker sees an acceleration in the trends toward telehealth, point-of-care diagnostics, and connected systems powered by artificial intelligence (AI).
Sports and technology
With live sporting events canceled, the trends toward esports and gaming are rapidly accelerating as teams and professional athletes are looking for new ways to engage with fans.
Multi-person streaming competitions between friends are evolving to include online tournaments in which professional athletes compete against one another. With these tournaments being carried on television and streamed online, Meeker believes the way sports are consumed may undergo a transformation that drives more interactive experiences for athletes and fans.
With professional athletes participating in virtual NASCAR races, expect new opportunities for advertisers and sponsors as well.
It’s always darkest before dawn. None of us, Meeker suggests, should underestimate the country’s spirit, optimism, and ability to innovate to make the world a better place. Meeker poses the following question: What if COVID-19 serves as a common enemy that unites us and prompts us to:
- Modernize and improve government, health care, and education to drive lower costs and improved outcomes
- Improve coordination between business and government for the benefit of citizens
Meeker is an optimist. There is hope, she tells us, on the other side of despair. The world doesn’t end that often.