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Previous Pandemics Stopped Progress In Its Tracks. COVID Is Accelerating It


It is never easy to predict the future, and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic proved many prognosticators wrong.

In writing his latest book, 2030, Wharton professor of international management Mauro Guillén attempted to lay out the collisions of demographics, technology and society that will reconfigure the world over the next decade. If he had known about the pandemic, however, Guillén says he wouldn’t have changed much of the book’s content. He would have just changed the title. 

“My only regret is that it should have been titled 2028,” Guillén said on the latest Walker & Dunlop Walker Webcast. “The pandemic is bringing on the future faster. There’s more urgency now to solve the world’s crises.”

In the past, global pandemics — the Plague of Justinian, the Black Death and the Spanish flu — tended to derail historical progress, Guillén said, setting humanity back in terms of scientific research and societal efficiency or shifting geographic centers of power. But many of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic have simply accelerated existing trends.

In 2030, Guillén extrapolates global demographic shifts to show that African countries like Nigeria and South Asian countries like India and Malaysia will grow in economic and political power as their populations swell, while European and East Asian countries shrink. Many of the most developed countries in the world have been the ones hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Now, the deaths caused by COVID-19 in countries like the U.S. and UK are exacerbating low fertility rates and low immigration in those developed countries, further lowering estimates for population growth. 

Mauro Guillén, Dr. Felix Zandman professor of international management at Wharton, on the Walker Webcast

The pandemic has also focused global attention and economic power on health care for the elderly, a trend that was already growing as baby boomers, the largest American generation by far, age and require more medical assistance. For Guillén, the only solution to care for an aging global populace is technology: manufacturing better and cheaper equipment like MRI machines, but also investing in machines and even artificial intelligence that can automate elder care. 

“We’re going to see robotics, not necessarily to automate every aspect of life for the elderly but to automate tasks that a 70-year-old or a 90-year-old would have trouble performing,” Guillén said. 

While the coronavirus has ravaged many rural areas, cities have faced the most convulsive changes as a result of the pandemic, from lockdowns to ongoing health and budget crises. Those challenges are due in part, Guillén said, to the meteoric urbanization of the global population. By 2030, he predicts in his book, 60% of the global population will live in cities taking up 1.6% of the Earth’s landmass, and he predicted that the outflux of people living in American cities caused by the pandemic would be only a small blip on a much larger growth pattern for urban centers worldwide.

Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker on a webinar with Mauro Guillén

As they grow, global cities will face many more challenges over the coming decades, both due to their size and the warming climate. Many of the world’s biggest cities already face water scarcity for months out of the year. As their populations swell and water sources dry up due to climate change, cities and their surrounding areas will have to find ways to use water more efficiently for agriculture, business and residences.

Many of the growing global crises are within humanity’s power to change, Guillén told Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker. The solutions will have to come from a cooperative effort between governments and businesses, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions by electrifying trucking fleets, and from a collective shift in consumer consciousness, like reducing water use and eating more vegetables and less red meat. 

“We’re going to have to educate consumers and provide incentives to do the right thing,” Guillén said. 

On Feb. 10, Walker will host Michael Bush, CEO of Great Place to Work, and McKinsey North America Chairman Gary Pinkus on what makes a workplace great. Register here for the event

This article was produced in collaboration between Walker & Dunlop and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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