Innovation expert Jeremy Gutsche speaking at the closing keynote at the 2023 ULI Spring Meeting in Toronto.

It could take 10 years for the world to settle into a “new normal” after the global COVID-19 pandemic, innovation expert Jeremy Gutsche said in his closing keynote at the 2023 ULI Spring Meeting in Toronto.

“We’ve gone through 19 pandemics; we’ve done this before,” said Gutsche, author and chief executive officer of Trend Hunter, the world’s top trend research platform. However, societies don’t go through a crisis and period of chaos and arrive at the new normal right away, he said. It can take a decade.

Gutsche noted that NASA is using standards that date to the Roman Empire: the width of 4 feet 8½ inches was the standard width for roads and rail lines because it was the average width of two horses drawing a chariot. Because NASA also uses rail to transport much of its equipment, it is limited by this standard as well. “We are more dependent on past decisions than we think,” he said.

Gutsche highlighted seven traps of path dependency, which include the traps of success and ease of inaction.

The bubonic plague caused the collapse of the social structure in Europe, which was largely based on inherited wealth, he said, and the Spanish flu of 1918 killed more people than World War I. But what followed the plague was the Renaissance, and World War I and the flu were followed by the Roaring Twenties. Neither period was perfect, but they were times of freedom and innovation, Gutsche said.

Many of today’s largest companies were founded during recessions, he noted, including Disney, Apple, and Microsoft. Even Fortune magazine was started in 1929 after the stock market crash.

Gutsche highlighted a story from his own family: his father bought a building that had housed a failed restaurant and was located near a highway because he saw an opportunity to reposition the structure as a billboard and run the restaurant at a loss.

In 1996, against the advice of his partners, Gutsche’s father took over the bankrupt Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League, eventually having to sell his own home to help finance the team. He turned the team around and won the league’s championship in 1998 before selling in 2001.

Gutsche illustrated how the human brain forms shortcuts around repetitive behavior, and practicing new behaviors helps people form new patterns. As a counterpoint, he noted that digital photography was invented at Kodak in 1975 by engineer Steve Sasson, but the company was largely unable to seize the opportunity the technology presented because it was invested in producing film for traditional photography.