‘Polycrisis’ is the word of the moment. Used to describe the scale of the problems the world is currently facing, polycrisis may sound like just another buzzword, but the term represents a major trend and perfectly sums up how we are lurching from one crisis to the next, with no time to adjust.

In recent years there has been a pandemic, a war, extreme political division, wildfires, severe weather events and a dramatic increase in the cost of living – with no time to take a breath after each one before another rolls in. But there is always light on the other side, times like this offer a platform for innovation and new cultural trends, some of which we are already starting to see emerge.

Taking its toll

Living in the polycrisis era – that relentlessly demands mental coping strategies – is gnawing away at people’s trust and belief in the systems they are part of. In fact, a survey by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy revealed that 66% of therapists said that the cost-of-living crisis is impacting people’s mental health but, despite their increasing need for help, 47% reported patients cancelling their sessions because they could no longer afford them.

Constant instability is also emphasising the normalisation of contradictory behaviours. Our own research found that people are allowing themselves to be inconsistent as they reconcile personal values with practical realities, with 69% of those asked saying they think paradoxical behaviours are both human and acceptable.

Responding to threats

Clearly, human beings are struggling and the way they choose to respond in a polycrisis will have major implications on their relationships with both brands and employers. Companies therefore need to understand and be ready for the following potential responses: fight, flight, focus and freeze.

In the UK, we are already seeing a strong fightback through a wave of strikes, with formerly rule-following citizens taking extreme action in the hope of better equipping themselves to survive financial strain. People are fast approaching the end of their patience and many more of them are doing what is often a last resort: standing up and fighting for what they need.

However, not everyone has this fight left in them after an extended period of instability and insecurity, and they will take the flight response. Others will find themselves looking for alternative options including relocation, switching financial systems, and finding different digital platforms.

Another coping mechanism humans may adopt is to focus on what they can control. This could manifest itself as people channelling their attention on the communities where they feel they belong. They will reduce their sphere both physically and virtually, quieting the noise and rejecting the global-first version of life that has been promoted by online news and social media in the past decade or more.

Finally, there’s a risk that people will switch off entirely. “Resignation” more often relates to quitting something, but a lot of the time it can equally mean enduring, or simply not fighting anymore. In that way, ‘quiet quitting’ is not simply about leaving a job, but more about an emotional power-down to economy mode.

As growing numbers of people embrace instability as the norm, the way they adapt will affect what they buy, and how they view brands and their employers. Companies therefore need to be ready to meet their customers’ ever-changing circumstances and priorities.

Brands must understand their own permission space in fine detail, and to avoid invading spaces where they aren’t welcome. This is reflected in calls for brands and people to “stay in their lane” and includes keeping tabs on how new platforms are evolving, whether they belong there, and whether people want to hear from them on any given topic.

Meeting consumer needs

The pressures facing people today inevitably impact brands too and organisations will also need to demonstrate their value through meaningful products, experiences, and services, and not through short-term gestures that can ultimately be viewed as PR stunts.

When faced with hardship, people always use creative solutions to get through it, adapt, and evolve into a new version of themselves, and that will continue to be the case. People will come through this period and the way they adapt will likely define a generation and the products they love.

While brands need to be mindful of where and how they play. They also need to embrace new technologies and new human behaviours to help drive forward the next evolution of their business. A sense of belonging is at the heart of most human behaviour, and we are seeing new communities arise on new platforms, experimenting with new ways to share their passions. Community-generated content will become more and more popular and new revenue models will arise to help support this. How will brands harness this? And how much autonomy are they prepared to give to their superfans?

One of the most significant trends we have seen is the rise of creative AI. Gone are the days of AI being an invisible robot that spews out product recommendations, we now have AI as a companion to help create at speed, scale and at quality. This will only advance with time, in a few short months we have seen it go from text to image and before long we will be talking about AI for music, video and 3D spaces. This changes so much internally and externally for brands, it is important it is used to enhance the work we do rather than replace, right now it is a great way of getting from 0-1, but human creativity is still needed to help get the best out of this tool.

While this may seem a daunting evolution, there is also great relevance and excitement to individuals who now have the tools of creativity in their pocket, something they were previously excluded from on the grounds of ability and talent. While this raises questions about immoral use, copyright issues and a whole host of new content to moderate, it also gives a platform for rapid innovation for humans of all walks of life.

When times get hard, companies often make the mistake of dropping things they see as luxuries, like innovation, advertising, and brand building. Brands must resist the tendency to behave in the same way as people do when under pressure – i.e., dropping what they deem to be non-essential. Often, the best innovation happens against a backdrop of constraint and difficulty. Right now, AI is rapidly emerging as the most exciting avenue for innovation.