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Common Knowledge May Not Be

By Bob Priest-Heck

I’ve been thinking lately about what constitutes “common knowledge.” Some examples involve immutable truths. Most people know that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit/0 degrees Celsius, that the earth rotates around the sun, and that the capital of the United States of America is Washington, D.C.

But some kinds of common knowledge evolve over time as technology and society change. For example, we used to have to dial zero to speak with an operator — a real human being! — if we needed to find a phone number. But now we have smartphones, Google, and other digital tools to help us find information about almost anything, at any time.

It is entirely possible that the pandemic will produce a similar sea change. Much of our accumulated social common knowledge is likely to be changed, perhaps forever. Instead of handshakes, we’ll have elbow bumps. The once-polite gesture of using your hand to cover a cough or sneeze is no longer the considerate move in a post-COVID world.

Our common knowledge around health and hygiene is being rewritten as we speak, and hopefully people will come to understand not just what those gestures do from a safety standpoint, but also how they show respect, compassion, and social generosity toward our fellow citizens of the world. For instance, how frequent handwashing habits, or use of hand sanitizer that is at least 70% alcohol, are not only hygienic and effective, but a sign of social generosity. Likewise, the voluntary wearing of facemasks when we are sick, but must be in public means we are being respectful of others. I expect we will see more hands-free design in public transportation, retail environments, schools, and all the shared spaces we once took for granted.

I also believe we’ll see a new set of common knowledge truisms appear in the world of events. For example, it used to be common knowledge that the prime exhibit locations were found in the highly trafficked corners and cross junctions of the show floor. As we redesign live business events, not just to be more healthy, but to be better, new common knowledge will grow. For instance, instead of packing a convention center, we’ll have smaller, more highly targeted in-person events with a hybrid digital component. Exhibits will become more personalized and targeted as participants arrive pre-registered with personalized wayfinding apps that guide them along the path of greatest relevance. Virtual events have already begun to develop their own brand of truths, and they will continue to redevelop as technology grows.

In the future, what I hope to hear from people are things like how trade shows set the benchmark for health and hygiene standards, or how all exhibits meet sustainability protocols. Even someday, perhaps, that live business events present the most effective, engaging, and inspiring marketing channel available today, because of how digital technology and data analytics bring both personalization and scale to the formula.

Even though those things aren’t common knowledge yet, as we keep evolving our industry in the return to live and events themselves to be better and safer…they will be.

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