How the chaos of 2020 will shape the next decade, according to 8 design experts

We talked to experts across industries to see what impact COVID-19 will have on the future.

How the chaos of 2020 will shape the next decade, according to 8 design experts
[Source Image: Tonkovic/iStock]

2019 marked the end of a decade. And with it came all sorts of predictions for what 2030 would look like. The future seemed so clear. But then 2020 happened, and you know how the story goes. COVID-19 struck. And the world fast-forwarded five years in five months.


Suddenly, children went to school through Chromebooks, people ditched dining rooms for drive-throughs, workers flocked to Zoom in lieu of offices, and delivery became the status quo on just about everything. Burgeoning trends became commonplace overnight. And at the very same time, protests for Black lives took to the streets worldwide.

So it’s time to regroup. We connected with experts across industries, from retail to education to social media, to ask the question . . . again. In light of what happened in 2020, what should we expect for the year 2030?

Whereas last year, the path ahead was all about undoing a century of excess that harmed our environment, this year, it’s clear that social equity, public resources, and systematic approach to wellness need to share the spotlight. Some of the predictions may appear more hopeful than realistic, sure, but we pushed participants to think a decade out with as much specificity as possible. And they did.


The new school: More learning pods, fewer frat houses

From kindergarten to university, education will have shifted from the 19th-century factory model to ones in which caretakers, students, and teachers reimagine notions of bush schools, “pod” schooling, and community schooling, which will be enhanced by a more accurate understanding of where digital and face-to-face instruction is required.

The Great Virus of 2020 caused a complete breakdown of the education system. Models of mass education based on packing people into rows of learners became untenable and unsafe. By 2030, resources from defunding the police will be reallocated to education budgets such that student-to-teacher ratios become 10:1, creating small learning pods.

[Image: AQtaro_neo/iStock]
Based on the wise practices from the 1918 Spanish flu and the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, bush schools that deliver learning outdoors in nature will become more popular. Learning pods will alternate between two experiences. The first will be nature-based curriculums whose lessons are enhanced by Indigenous knowledge, sensory technologies, and augmented reality. The second will be community schools in modified home environments, such as converted apartments in a complex or selected homes in a neighborhood. Universities will feature a mixture of being on campus in short bursts, but spending the rest of the time learning remotely. Low residency will become the default model for university education.


Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall, Dean of Design, OCAD University 

Social media without boundaries

Services like Twitter will be more open, accessible, and customizable with the option to craft bespoke experiences that reflect the needs of people and culture. With this, there will be more optionality and functionality—people can build or choose their own features, design, algorithms, and more. Options, context, and transparency must be part of all design. At the same time, we will have learned so much more about how people can take advantage of systems and will build robust technology to help keep people safe at scale. We’re working to make this happen.

Communities and dedicated spaces for people to talk about what’s happening will be at the forefront. These community spaces will be safe and have a multitude of controls. Successful social media services will be those where people feel safe, comfortable, heard, and connected within their communities.


Companies will design for people’s needs across different communities and cultures, and will be more focused outside of the United States. Everyone around the world will have an equitable opportunity to see what’s happening online and participate in the global conversation no matter where they are, what language they speak, or what device they are using, with high-functioning translation and accessibility tools built into every experience. The ways that people will be able to create and have conversations will be varied, deeply interactive, and multifaceted—far beyond what we typically use now. Developers will be able to participate in this ecosystem by creating unique capabilities that will range from bespoke recommendation systems to new creation tools.

What won’t change: people’s desire to connect with each other online, and feel a sense of togetherness and close community while having conversations about what’s happening and what matters most to them.

Dantley Davis, Chief Design Officer, Twitter


Pandemic response, at the speed of Amazon Prime

The COVID-19 pandemic has armed the delivery of healthcare with 21st-century technology. Doctors and patients learned to enter into a virtual relationship through telehealth, remote monitoring, and other digital tools. The coronavirus fundamentally redesigned our health-journey map. In the future, “digital healthcare” will just be referred to as healthcare.

When another novel virus threatens our public health, you will be able to order a pandemic survival kit as easily as buying toothpaste on Amazon Prime. This kit may include items such as a smart pulse oximeter, biodegradable N95 masks, and a rapid saliva-based viral detection kit. A patient will be able to connect with her doctor on a user-friendly platform. A team of doctors and nurses will monitor your vitals signs remotely, and AI-fueled algorithms will predict your clinical course.

[Images: ONYXprj/iStock, BlindTurtle/iStock]
The healthcare system will be redesigned for load balancing. SARS-CoV-2 killed so many people in NYC because some hospitals were overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases while others had capacity. The poorly designed system failed to evenly distribute sick patients. Healthcare facilities will share data openly and build a coordinated response to emerging threats. It’s possible that an autonomous ambulance will pick you up at your home and transport you to the hospital with the greatest number of available ICU and ER beds.


In the future, we will redesign hospital rooms with enhanced ventilation systems and viral sensors that continuously detect levels of airborne pathogens. You will be able to visit your family member in a hospital during the next pandemic because you will be given a powered air-purifying respirator helmet with a clear visor that doesn’t mask your face. No human will ever die alone in a hospital separated from those who love them.

Bon Ku, Director, Health Design Lab, Thomas Jefferson University

While we hole up inside, businesses move outside

The pandemic is forcing long-term changes on how we engage with built environments and space. Nine months into this pandemic, we’re already seeing that how we interact with existing and future urban spaces won’t return to the status quo. Today we’re seeing a rapid acceleration of changes in experiences that will last well beyond the pandemic:


Restaurants are taking to the streets, displacing curbside parking with curbside seating. These alterations will cause cities and governments to rethink public spaces.

Gyms and fitness activities have moved inside our homes, but also to mainstream public places. A wellness-focused community in open spaces will cause us to reconsider park and recreation programming in new ways.

Theaters and the arts are moving from stages to outside lawn seating with big screens, which bring the ability for new audiences to the art of performance. Access for new and diverse audiences will bring new programming—with buildings as backdrops versus vessels.


While built environments are often rich tapestries created over time and designed to shape experiences for those that engage them, this pandemic will likely accelerate the creation of new engagement, which will rapidly transform the places we use in new and powerful ways . . . and that’s the silver lining we can walk away focusing on.

Brad Lukanic, CEO, CannonDesign

Less ageism, more green spaces

The role of designers will change. There’s been a general trend toward design for social impact in recent years. It’s been partly the result of a new generation of socially engaged designers who are keen to change the status quo, as well as increased pressure on businesses for more transparency and better behavior on everything from use of resources to manufacturing processes to supply chain labor practices.


In 2030, the majority of design will be geared toward a social, environmental, or governance angle.

Wellness will be embedded at the heart of project briefs. Until recently, health and well-being may have been a “bonus” element on a project brief, but going forward it’ll take center stage.

Design for aging will also be part of the mainstream. As populations continue to get older, there’s a great need for better design for older demographics. Key to this will be how to encourage healthy, independent living for longer. This whole sector needs a complete revamp. The perception of what it means to be old is changing. The New Old exhibition curated by Jeremy Myerson at the Design Museum a couple of years ago addressed this, and there is growing interest in products and services with a more modern aesthetic that do not pander to a dated view of what old age looks like.


We’re already seeing cities invest in green and blue spaces as ways to improve both quality of life and environment, and even outside of cities, we’re going to need to plant trees in order to return disused land or former farmland to native forests. This investment in greening spaces will continue, especially as a result of COVID. As more people continue to work from home on a part-time basis, repurposing Main Street is going to be key to the economy and communities.

Vacant Main Street spaces may provide opportunities to expand local food production, in a bid toward more circular economies. Vertical farming is on the rise, and hydroponics is facilitating farming in disused underground spaces. These methods would help increase local food supplies, minimizing our impact on the environment and empowering local communities toward self-reliance.

Paul Priestman, Designer and Chairman, PriestmanGoode


We will crave foods that haven’t been invented yet

The food system is broken, and people are starting to realize it. By 2030, people won’t need to be convinced that sustainable food choices are better—it will be obvious and frankly the only choice. The production of food from animals will be well understood as extremely inefficient and unnecessary. Plant-based meats will have been invented that are better on every metric—more delicious, less expensive, better for our health—and people will choose to eat these foods, regardless of whether or not they care about the environment. More and more people, especially young people, will begin to view eating animals as something completely prehistoric.
Not only will all meat come from plants, but I imagine many other types of sustainable foods will have been invented that are better for our planet and healthier for people. Crops will start to become optimized for human consumption, rather than as food for the animals that we eat today. We will create new and diverse food textures, flavors, and aromas that people crave. We’ll likely have entirely new categories of food that don’t even exist yet.
In fact, I think many industries will experience similar transformations, since most of them are broken from an environmental standpoint. People will not stand for this anymore—they will no longer choose to consume and use products that destroy the planet. We will change what we eat, what we wear, what we drive, and how we travel. And because of that, we’ll have a bit more greenery in the world.
Giselle Guerrero, VP of Creative, Impossible Foods

Virtual filmmaking, but real space travel

We will likely look back and remember 2020 as the father of innovation.

2020 has been the catalyst accelerating the development of things that were meant to happen 10 years from now. As a result, revolutionary shifts have started to develop that allow us to scale for the future. Entertainment has changed to conform with new realities, with theaters closing and studios streaming via on-demand services, while film and TV productions use real-time engines to build photorealistic content to replace shooting on location.

[Image: cherezoff/iStock]
While transportation took a massive hit this year, its future looks bright. Airspace will see orbital low-earth travel to destinations far and wide, while electric vehicles are set to become a major disrupter as demand skyrockets—but uncertainties around dwindling supplies of lithium might preclude its use as a viable long-term option for battery power. Meanwhile, lanes and highways will be constructed specifically for fully automated vehicles, a boon for transportation.


Finally, as our collective need for more data grows we can expect greater debates over privacy, an increasingly hot-button topic. This is where the emergence of self-governing blockchain technology will likely evolve as a storage solution to replace powerful centralized entities that currently hold governance over our data.

Marti Romances, Creative Director, Territory Studio

The mega-retailer as your personal assistant

You likely have some predictions for retail in 2030, and they’re probably all correct. Delivery (be it by crowdsourcing, drone, autonomous vehicle, or the usual truck) will be huge, and convenience will be king. But it won’t end there. More than any technology or service, it will be about companies knowing you as an individual and making your life easier.

Consciously or unconsciously, customers will be looking to lessen the number of companies they interact with because of this simple thought: People want to be known. No one wants to be a no one everywhere; they want to be a someone somewhere. In many cases, that means they will want to interact with local retailers . . . who doesn’t love a text from your local shop when your favorite brand arrives? But for big retailers, it will mean rising customer expectations of personalization.

Imagine a retailer being able to manage not only your shopping list but your complete to-do list. Groceries can be delivered not only to your doorstep but to your fridge. While there, the item you want to return can be picked up and your dry cleaning dropped off. With that same retailer, you can make appointments with your healthcare provider, and they can then send your prescription, recipes with corresponding grocery list, workout gear, and whatever else your doctor asked you to do to stay healthy right to your door. When you order for pickup, your personal shopper knows how you like your bananas, and when you visit a store, technology guides you through your personal list in the best way. You’re getting useful and relevant product suggestions, and you can make sure you’re staying on budget and even getting ahead with expert financial services.

It’s about solving problems for customers as individuals, building trust with them, and having it all just happen.

Everyone will be racing to offer the fastest and cheapest ways to get anything to anyone. But the winners in retail will be those who make their customers feel like someone.

Janey Whiteside, EVP and Chief Customer Officer, Walmart


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach