As the Covid-19 crisis redefines how economies and society as a whole function, human ingenuity has sparked a wave of innovation set to be the blueprint for the decades to come.

Accenture’s Fjord Trends 202, the fourteenth in a series of annual reports from Accenture Interactive’s global network of designers and creatives, found that organisations will have the opportunity to map out new territory as they embrace new strategies, services and experiences to meet evolving human needs.

“Throughout history, after a global crisis, a new era of thinking begins,” says Mark Curtis, head of innovation and thought leadership for Accenture Interactive. “As we look to the future, a wealth of potential worlds opens up in front of us. Some are scary, some are exciting, and all of them are largely unexplored. What we do now will define the rest of the century. Businesses have the ultimate permission and space to think and do differently.”

Emma Carpenter, Fjord Johannesburg studio lead and head of design experience for Accenture Interactive, Africa, adds: “The pandemic has brought clarity and surprises alongside its chaos and tragedies. We believe the uncertainty will create and inspire new invention, a 21st century renaissance here in Africa as well as globally.”

The following trends demonstrate how African organisations are responding to the new challenges and provide practical advice on surviving and innovating in a precarious economy:

Collective displacement

How and where people experience things changed in 2020, leaving them with a shared sense of displacement as we collectively seek new ways and places to do the things we need and love to do. How we work, shop, learn, socialise, parent and take care of our health has changed for many of us, and brands need to seek new ways and offer new experiences to interact with people.

Zahara Chetty, Service Design Lead for Fjord Johannesburg said: “When millions of people worldwide started working from home during lockdown, more than 2,2-million jobs were lost in South Africa. While many had the opportunity to continue with their lives virtually, many Africans remain marginalised and without ways of meeting their most basic needs as urban-to-rural return migration increased due to lockdowns and job losses in the cities.

“Social distancing made the delivery of essential services and supplies difficult in remote, rural areas of Africa. During this crisis in consumer behaviour, creative ways of reaching communities are needed.

“Like Pick ‘n Pay and Shoprite who are ready to use their infrastructure and distribution networks to facilitate vaccines, innovative companies are finding alternative uses for their production lines, equipment and infrastructure as well as changing their business models and service offerings to meet consumers’ constantly changing expectations.”

Do-it-yourself innovation

Innovation is increasingly being driven by people’s talent for coming up with new ways, or “hacks,” to deal with their challenges, from the home worker using their ironing board as a standing desk to the parent-turned-teacher. Technology plays a new role — as facilitator for people’s ingenuity and as a result, people’s creativity is shining through.

With individuals from politicians to personal trainers repurposing platforms like TikTok and video games to stage concerts and get important messages out. Everyone wants better solutions, but the era in which a brand was expected to create a finished solution is transitioning to one where brands are creating the conditions for personal innovation.

“In a place where infrastructure is poor and access is difficult, the driving force behind problem solving has always been basic human need rather than the technology itself,” says Chetty.

In this context, the African continent is positioned to leapfrog ahead in terms of human-centred design and innovation as new technologies arrive in the wake of the pandemic.

As Covid-19 further marginalises people and deprives them of access to basic necessities such as food, medical treatment and education, individuals are taking on the challenge of conceptualising solutions to develop new products and services to keep their businesses and communities alive.

Vula Mobile is an example, allowing healthcare workers to virtually refer patients in remote, rural areas to specialists in major centres.

“Africa is one of the fastest-growing technology hubs in the world, and with online commerce growing in the region, we challenge more corporates to find ways to partner with local entrepreneurs and creators instead of competing with them,” Chetty says.

Sweet teams are made of this

Those who work remotely now live at the office, which is having a huge effect on the reciprocal agreement between employer and employee and the many assumptions around it — such as who has final say over what people wear for a work-related video call in their own homes or whose responsibility it is to preserve home-workers’ right to privacy.

Even with the promise of widespread vaccination on the horizon, a permanent shift has taken place in the relationship between people and their work and between employers and their teams.

The future won’t be one-size-fits-all — a lot of prototyping in the world of work can be expected for some time to come.

The African continent’s remote scene is thriving as many companies initiate digital transformation and accelerated new ways of working. Research by Kaspersky found that most South Africans and SMEs do not want to return to their 9-to-5 work schedules and routines.

“New business opportunities abound for entrepreneurs such as Ydox to support the foray into virtual and remote work and as employees continue to embrace more forward-thinking and flexible ways of working, it is important for businesses to adapt to their changing needs and provide adequate access to tools, training and both technological and psychological support to keep their employees productive and connected,” Chetty says.

“We challenge businesses to consider that 2021 is the year for shifting from rigid legacy systems to more human-centric, flexible and technologically capable platforms that support your workforce in everything that they need to do.”

Liquid infrastructure

Because the way people acquire products and engage with services has been displaced, organisations have had to rethink the supply chain and the use of all their physical assets and focus on points of delight — such as the immediate gratification many took for granted in store — in the last few feet before purchase.

This requires that companies build agility and resilience across their organisation so they can adapt quickly to change. Expect more change to come, often driven by sustainability.

Hazel Scrimgeour, service design lead at Fjord Johannesburg, comments: “Covid-19 pushed South African e-commerce forward 10 years in weeks and retailers innovated, pivoted and responded at speed.

“Today, the country has more than R1-trillion grocery market but less than 1% of that is bought online. Now, with social distancing forcing people to shop online, offline expectations of immediate fulfilment are crossing into all areas of e-commerce.

“Local on-demand grocery delivery startup Zulzi has raised R30-million in funding to grow its team and expand operations.

“In the next year we will see more partnerships developing between different companies across the value chain that can provide alternative services from delivery, to localised store spaces and dark stores,” says Scrimgeour. “We will also see new last mile options (and even last metre experiences) popping up and providing multiple options for customers to fulfil their purchase.

“Our suggestion for businesses, think about re-inventing your e-commerce capabilities to not only focus on your front-end purchase experience but also deep dive and consider different models and partnerships to assist in streamlining your fulfilment processes.”

Empathy challenge

People care deeply about what brands stand for and how they express their values. The pandemic has shone a light on many broken and unequal systems across the world – from access to healthcare to equality. As a result, companies must work hard to manage the narratives that shape their brands, prioritising the subjects that matter most to them and building their behaviours around those subjects.

“The pandemic also exacerbated the growing crisis of internet inequality within the developing world. With over half the world’s population (4-billion people) having no access to internet and fewer than one in five people in the least developed countries connected, we could see the established divide accelerate,” says Scrimgeour.

“Over the 14 years we’ve produced Fjord trends, we have seen business playing a larger role in the general wellbeing of their consumers and employees. This year, African network operators Vodacom and MTN proactively zero-rated educational apps and content for students to continue learning at home for example.

“As this trend continues to grow, a greater collaboration between government and the private sector will assist in the provision and rollout of general public services to citizens. We encourage businesses to define purposeful, holistic and inclusive strategies with employees and customers. Managing the narrative and message with the experience is crucial to earning the support of your audience as well as opening up new growth opportunities.”