As the year draws to a close, what shall we say about it? Like everyone else, we’ll be happy to put 2020 behind us. The New York Times referred to it as A Year Like No Other – I suppose you can’t argue with that assessment. The Economist, on the other hand, called it The Year When Everything Changed. They noted how, a century ago, pandemic and war marked an inflection point, bringing on the Roaring Twenties. And they postulate that our current pandemic might presage a similar result: “Out of the ashes of all that suffering will emerge the sense that life is not to be hoarded, but lived.”

That seems right to me. The suffering this year has indeed been great, but it’s been unevenly distributed, and for many largely psychic. For those fortunate enough to have been able to work from home, there is both pent up demand and pent up spending, ready to be unleashed back into the economy. Those in the top line of our K-shaped recovery seem more than ready to carpe diem again as soon as they can. So maybe this century’s twenties will indeed be roaring again. 

2020 was a year for re-imagining: uses of technology, ways of working, learning, socializing, supporting one another, engaging with entertainment, etc. Meetings, performances, art galleries, conferences, festivals, fashion shows, school courses, fitness classes, social gatherings – all have been migrated to the virtual world. Decades-long technology advancements provided the foundations for us to introduce new ways in which connection can happen more organically in the online world. Fashion designer Anifa Mvuemba launched Hanifa’s newest line as a virtual, 3D fashion show streamed via Instagram Live. Ikea unveiled a new augmented reality app in which shoppers can preview what furniture would look like in their homes, helping people to redecorate just as they started spending way more time at home. DJs launched massive online dance parties. Once-niche platforms and technologies received much wider visibility almost overnight.

The events industry, one of the areas most affected by the pandemic was also one of the most adaptive. Last January, CES and Sundance Film Festival were some of the last big in-person events uninterrupted by the pandemic. Not long after, Mobile World Congress was cancelled. Then organizers promised to hold SXSW as planned only to reverse course in the face of pressure from protestors and the local government. Now as we approach January 2021, MWC has been pushed to the summer and all the rest of those events will be held with robust online agendas, boasting new opportunities to collaborate, engage, and interact with their communities. Sundance notes that “this year’s Festival presents irrefutable evidence that despite the challenges, the independent voice is as strong as ever.” Films will be screened online as well as to satellite screen locations across the US, making the festival more geographically accessible than ever before: a silver lining for now-virtual events. 

CES will be the largest virtual event yet, a test of how well their Virtual Venue can compete with the usual Las Vegas locale. CES is traditionally where the newest developments in technology and electronics are presented for the coming year (some 20,000 new products per year), serving an important role for the entire consumer electronics industry. This year the content is still the same – but made available virtually and hence more accessible. In their own words, “we share the view of many respected technology and business consultants that an investment in digital today is essential to driving growth tomorrow. That makes the all-digital CES not an anomaly to be avoided – but an unmatched opportunity to dive into digital engagement on the world’s biggest technology stage.” It seems fairly certain that the broader access enabled by this move to virtual platforms will remain, even after in-person events are able to return. 

Some technology innovations were imbued with greater utility by the pandemic in the science and health sphere as well.  Virtual reality systems allowed frontline workers to train in safe and realistic environments while maintaining safe social distancing. AR headsets can enable surgeons to effectively develop X-ray vision, guiding them through procedures based on real CT scans. On a more personal scale, families and friends across the country pivoted their social lives to Zoom calls: playing breakout-room trivia, online “board” games, and using it as a safe way to gather. This even extended to Christmas, where kids could visit Santa virtually via a number of different platforms

And the adaptation hasn’t just been virtual. Re-imagining took shape in real life, in finding ways to enjoy experiences safely while still crafting excitement, interactivity, and cultivating new experiences. Platforms like Netflix and Hulu created drive-in movie experiences decked out with lights, movie snacks, and live performances. An LA dance company performed Parked, a dance piece in which audience members could drive up and watch live, from the safety of their cars, whose lights illuminated the performance itself. LA also saw the debut of Netflix’s Stranger Things Drive Into experience, a themed attraction based on the hit show. 

So what will 2021 hold? More adaptation for one – this process of imagining new ways of doing things is not one that will dissipate at year’s end. Nor will the accelerated adoption of technological advancements. In the near term, we’re surely due for more of the same – cases are surging again in many places and vaccine rollouts promise to be slow. But overall the results of 2020 should offer us hope for the future. We faced many challenges and overcame them in cunning and innovative ways, as we always do. And the very human drives for socialization and new experiences are clearly undiminished. We may just be on the cusp on the Roaring Twenties redux.