We Predicted That COVID-19 Requires Ambidextrous Thinking
(Apple and Google: You’re Welcome!)

When a colleague and I published our article entitled “Biology vs. Economy: A False Choice” @ ORMS Today on April 10, 2020, we didn’t anticipate that Apple and Google would announce their joint initiative on the very same day.

Our article made a case for the emergence of a non-intrusive approach to contact tracing (now called “exposure notification” by Apple and Google). Using systematic innovation (admittedly, an unfair advantage), we deduced that a non-intrusive approach to contact tracing would solve the tension — what we call “a contradiction” — between the effectiveness of contact tracing (the positive attribute) and the intrusiveness of contact tracing (the negative attribute). The “null hypothesis” presumes that the contradiction can’t be resolved; by “inverting the null hypothesis” and presuming that the contradiction can be resolved, Apple and Google identified a solution that resolves it.

We typically solve a contradiction by de-composing the opposing forces into their underlying elements (“functional de-composition”) and re-composing the elements (“functional re-composition”) by various system transformations (modular architecture; layered architecture; distributed architecture; simultaneous loose / tight integration; appropriate complexity) into a cohesive whole that includes the advantageous attributes of the combination and excludes the dis-advantageous attributes of the combination. Apple and Google resolved the contradiction with a distributed architecture based on Bluetooth instead of an aggregated architecture based on GPS.

Binary thinking says either / or — that is, either we protect private rights or we advance the public interest. Ambidextrous thinking says both / and — private rights and the public interest. Due to the blind spots in our field of vision, we often miss such opportunities to replace binary thinking with ambidextrous thinking. But they are usually — or often — present, just waiting to be discovered. And a disciplined (systematic) approach to design and innovation can make such discovery more repeatable and scalable.

The Apple / Google initiative is actually what we call a third-order innovation; it enables a second-order innovation — an ensemble approach to social intervention that combines social distancing with testing and contact tracing. Until contact tracing becomes non-intrusive, it can’t integrate with and effectively enable the ensemble. The ensemble approach enables a first-order innovation, which is our ultimate goal — resolving the tension between biology and economy by advancing both dimensions concurrently. Social distancing in isolation is a blunt instrument — it suppresses economic activity and it can’t be relaxed (without creating a biological catastrophe) unless it is combined with testing and contact tracing.

So the third-order innovation cascades “up” to the second-order innovation and ultimately the first-order innovation. We actually worked the problem from the other end of the equation — we cascaded “down” from the first-order innovation (our ultimate objective) to the second-order innovation and ultimately the third-order innovation. Working backward, we spanned three layers of innovation… which enabled us to anticipate the Apple / Google approach. We anticipated that the contradiction (three layers down) could be resolved… and they resolved it. Like we said — an unfair advantage.

Every truly disruptive innovation solves a contradiction.
Every solved contradiction was once an un-solved contradiction.

This context isn’t the only situation in which we’ve applied systematic innovation; and it’s not the only context in which it’s relevant. It’s repeatable and scalable.

We’re not saying that Apple and Google were conscious about using systematic innovation; but, whether un-conscious or conscious, they nonetheless practiced an approach that could be made more conscious and repeatable. The Apple / Google initiative, while distributed, lightweight, and elegant, has some wrinkles — two issues in particular:

1) The initiative involves “public health authorities” as administrators of the program. While this issue is organizational, not technical, it will deter adoption and possibly prevent the solution from reaching critical mass. Many potential users will decline if there is even a whisper of government involvement. At minimum, the organizational solution must assure users that aggregation of personally identifiable information by “public health authorities” is not possible.

2) The initiative is still recording the proximity and duration attributes of “exposure events” — even increasing the resolution of those attributes. This approach enables users to deduce personally identifiable information. Users will vote with their feet: if the solution doesn’t satisfy their privacy concerns, they won’t adopt it — and it won’t be effective. Some estimates indicate that 60% adoption is required for contact tracing to be effective.

Apple and Google continue to gather feedback from public health authorities around the world and make adjustments to their approach. We hope that they will resolve these issues in the direction that we have indicated — or at least allow for regional adaptation of the solution.

Apple and Google: Thank You!

The author wishes to acknowledge Livio Mariano for his collaboration on the technical origins of this perspective.

mathematical economist and information architect… expert in knowledge management, technology forecasting, and systematic innovation… patented UX inventor