Hybrid Continuum: towards a new state of reality

How the COVID19 pandemic has brought out new behaviours halfway between the physical and digital world and what challenges await companies and design in shaping and delivering future services.

Luca Mascaro
CEO & Head of Design

25.06.2020 - 11 min read

A few months have now passed since the outbreak of the pandemic that is continuing to rattle the world. It has affected health first, but also daily life, the global economic structure, the ways of understanding business and also the political dimension. In short, the whole spectrum of experience. 

The outburst that COVID has sparkled, it is now clear, is no longer transitory, but a structural one: some of the changes that this situation has generated will remain with us for a long time. The pandemic was the paradigm shift of this beginning of the century, a bit like digital technology was for the end of what has just ended. 

It changes our vision of what is normal - in this sense the term paradigm as understood by Thomas Kuhn fits perfectly into this situation - and we place our beliefs and habits in a different and alternative horizon. They are painful changes, and it is no coincidence that Kuhn calls them revolutions, accepting them requires a great effort of understanding and adaptation before finding a way to embrace them definitively. 

I leave it to sociologists, psychologists and politicians the not easy burden of understanding how we will change as individuals, societies and nations, and I choose to focus on the transformations of the market. 

Towards a new paradigm

Every paradigm shift announces itself, in the theory of scientific revolutions, with an accumulation of anomalies, until it is no longer possible to find the means to bring them back into "normal" narration. In this case, the pandemic was not the only cause of the transformation: the elements - the anomalies of the model - were already all present, only in a latent, silent way. COVID was the reagent: it brought them to the surface, quickly. 

We can list the significant elements of this new scenario: the growing role of the digital, the change in use and consumer behaviour towards hybrid forms, the profound transformation of companies, to the point of investing the very purpose of their operations. 

All these dimensions are deeply intertwined with each other. It is a bit like hitting any point of a domino, one by one, the tiles collapse and - if it goes well - a pattern appears.

In this case, the design develops in a multidimensional space.

The ‘new normal’ will be defined by experiences lived seamlessly and transparently in a hybrid state, made of both digital and physical contexts. People will be free to choose how and in which contexts to live their experiences, along a hybrid continuum between physical and digital.

We have discovered that in a context of hazard and fragility, it is safer to entrust one's daily tasks to hybrid behaviours between physical and digital space. We have lived in a hybrid dimension that has allowed us to reduce the risk of contagion while being able to live, work, relate and shop. So we continued to work, but in smart working, shopping - online or ordering on the phone at the store and having it delivered at home or going to the supermarket - to see friends - on zoom or face to face when it became possible again. 

The behaviour that emerged during the pandemic will not change even when a vaccine is finally available. COVID, in its drama, has made us discover new dimensions that will complement the old ones and can represent an alternative and an opportunity: and it will be the context, the mood, the comfort, the habit to determine people's new behaviours opportunistically.

Probably the 'new normal' will be defined by experiences that we will live seamlessly and transparently in a hybrid state, made for a part in digital contexts and a bit in physical settings - let's make a hypothetical 50 and 50. It will be the people who will freely choose how and in which contexts to live their experiences along a hybrid continuum between physical and digital (the Kusanagi effect for those who catch the nerd quote).

Let's try to consider these behaviours one at a time, starting from people and trying to explore the interconnections and emerging opportunities.

Suddenly, it was no longer possible to live outside the home: buying any goods or services was more manageable, and safer, online than physically, even for those who were not accustomed to digital shopping due to habit, age, culture. 

According to some data collected for Il Sole 24 Ore by Universal Mccann (UM), consumption has made an evolutionary leap of ten years and, according to Netcomm, the lockdown has created 1.3 million new "digital" consumers in Italy alone.

In the same way, all the potentially crowded spaces - offices, banks, schools, shops - have emptied. 

Now we can shop again in stores, take exams face to face, go to the office with a mask in front of our face. But the behaviour we adopted in the days of the lockdown will not fade. 

Smart working will no longer be a timid experiment conducted by the most advanced firms but will become the norm. Or rather, the ability to access a remote working regime will become the norm. There will always be those who prefer to work in the office - for convenience, habit, or because it is not possible to concentrate properly at home. Others, on the other hand, will prefer to work from home, or from another place that suits them, and come to the office only when necessary. 

However, this will have significant repercussions on the very nature of the working relationship and its regulation: safety at work, work-life balance, quality control and, at the same time, protection of the relationship of trust between company and worker. Companies will have to find a way to make this feasible if they want to keep people on board. At Sketchin, we are working on this very point, and we are trying to harmonise our practices and activities accordingly. 

Private spaces, such as houses, will also have to change to accommodate production functions: we need dedicated spaces to be able to work in quality, appropriate equipment and technical service infrastructure that makes it possible. Making phone calls on the balcony or in the bathroom so as not to disturb the other inhabitants - as we have done almost all these months - is uncomfortable, inefficient and cannot be the rule. 

In this new scenario, what is the use of the large office spaces we used to go to every day (and the consequent rents and related management costs that each company had in mind)? The large corporate buildings will probably shrink to become representative offices, spaces where to collaborate and meet between colleagues, customers and partners. But if this is true, the nature of cities will also change. What will happen to an urban space where offices do not dominate the area? What to do with the place available? Will people continue to choose the city as their residence, or will they disperse? And what effect will this have on the rest of the countries concerned? 

Until now, large cities - challenging to speak of a metropolis for Italy (with the possible exception of Milan) or Switzerland - have acted as a pole of attraction, emptying the peripheral areas of people and talent. A dynamic that can be seen clearly in France or the United States: the spaces between cities are empty, of people and opportunities. 

Considering Italy, if young and ambitious people no longer have to move to the most advanced cities, they can enrich less developed regions, shifting the demand for more services to areas where backward cultures persist and therefore increasingly more impoverished

Of course, there will always be people who choose the city despite everything. Because they prefer the concentration of services and people because they want more choice because they feel the charm of the metropolis, which is mighty and goes through history. 

Internationally, however, there would no longer be the need to move to another country to work, unless you want to or to do some work. Companies, on the other hand, could have the entire world at their disposal to find talent. 

But how are we going to deal with the regulation and taxation of labour? What about the granting of visas or migration laws? 

And if a firm will be less and less constrained by the availability of the workforce and by the ease to activate the supply chain, then what about their location? Physical concentration has become synonymous with fragility: there is always the risk that production may be stopped (the resurgence of the pandemic is the most likely event, or some conflict) with the damage we have come to know. A greater geographical spread reduces the risks and could increase the benefits for the territories (if guided by ethics, and does not become a convenient excuse to translate into neo-colonialist cannibalisation of impoverished areas at the expense of workers' rights). 

Social distancing regulates interactions between people: never too close to each other and wearing adequate protection. But this does not only apply to people, but it also has effects on the entire value chain: partners and suppliers can only meet under certain conditions and by observing specific rules to preserve the safety of workers and places. Meet people other than your colleagues, hold business meetings, provide B2B services, activate supply chains... even business relationships will be distributed.                  

The vast topic of risk management has also been introduced on the market. Many companies that tended to under-invest in the digital market in order not to cannibalise their commercial networks and therefore received 90% of their turnover from shops and 10% from digital contexts found themselves totally closed and even the growth of 3-4 times of Ecommerce did not compensate the losses. From now on being too unbalanced on a single infrastructure becomes a risk, and therefore, it is likely that the most balanced companies will be those most rewarded by the financial markets.

But, for a company, bearing the weight of the investments needed for this transformation is no small thing, it was not before, and it is even less so now, having to absorb the impact of the collapse in demand. It will likely be the small and medium-small companies offering goods and services that will suffer the most and instead will benefit the larger companies - which will occupy the market holes left by the former - or the more resilient ones. 

Companies that were already at an advanced stage in the digitisation process are and will be able to benefit from the opportunities of this new situation: they will have an enhanced digital offering, faster recovery, and a stronger position in the market. The same cannot be said of the others.

And this brings us to the last aspect of the scenario outlined so far: it will no longer be mere profit the primary purpose of a company, but the ability to overcome almost unscathed - while changing and adapting - unexpected or destructive events. A crucial capacity also for society, and consequently for politics. 

Design for the Hybrid Continuum 

The scenario I have described so far defines a new way of understanding the reality in which we live. And therefore a different way of living it for people. It is worth reminding that a scenario is a projection, a hypothesis of the future based on the evidence of the signals, weak or strong as they may be, that can be read in the present.

I believe that people will live their experiences in a fluid and seamless modulation between physical and digital environments: individual, impromptu paths, often composed based on the moment, the context, the opportunity and even the mood of those who make them. 

We have called this behaviour "Hybrid Continuum", taking the term from quantum mechanics and fluids. This term, more than others, underlines the dimension of continuity between different states, in different conditions. A sort of middle world that takes some characteristics from one context and others from another. 

Light - probably we all remember some notion of higher physics - is the perfect example to understand this kind of situation: it sometimes behaves like a wave, sometimes like a particle beam. It does not change its nature - light is not entirely a wave or entirely a particle - it changes its behaviour, the way we observe it and the tools we have to use it for our purposes. 

In other words, the nature of hybrid systems pushes us to go beyond the concept of duality - wave or particle, to make the case of light - and instead embrace the idea of continuity between different states - which in our case and if applied to people's experience, services and market, are physical, digital, cybernetic. 

In a physical market that could switch on and off at brief notice and in an uncontrollable way, companies must modulate their offer on a dynamic balance and compensation between physical and digital systems, to distribute the risk and not be too dependent on individual infrastructures. They must find if we want to continue with the metaphor of the matter, the state that allows them to reconcile this new state of affairs with their initiatives. 

To clarify these concepts and appreciate their complexity and their impact on the way we conceive services, let us try to take the example of spending. In our Hybrid Continuum, people will be able to choose to shop in a store, or do it online, or order it over the phone at their trusted store; pick up the goods immediately, or pick them up at the store, or have them delivered to their home or office; choose the proximity store, the department store, or e-commerce, or even a physical but fully automated store. They can change their mind along the way, add and remove items, change the delivery date or place. The expectation - it is obvious - is always to have a punctual and precise response to their needs. 

So a challenging game is opening for the company: they have to find the right balance between the mechanisms of physical and digital go to market. It means radically rethinking organisations, the ways they operate, the products and services they provide and all the activities that make this transformation possible. 

It means going beyond the concept of omnicanality and designing systems, products and services suitable for these new behaviours, protecting, on the one hand, the performance and scalability of products, services and organisations in the physical world and guaranteeing accessibility and inclusion in the digital world. 

Summarising the new services, products and systems suitable for the Hybrid Continuum, they must have these characteristics: 

  • Complete redundancy between the physical and digital worlds. People must be able to do the same things in one context or another.
  • Total transparency between the two worlds. People can move from one context to the other without interruption and any loss of value. 
  • Total inclusion. All people must be able to benefit from these new services, processes and systems whatever their technological competence or capacity in both worlds.

I believe that finding ways to design for this Hybrid Continuum is the biggest challenge facing design soon. Despite all the pain that this pandemic is spreading, for design it represents an excellent opportunity to put people, their needs and how the rest of the context should serve them better, moving towards a new form of reality.

Luca Mascaro
CEO & Head of Design