Back is NOT the Way Forward

Is COVID-19 just another pandemic that will pass, or is it an inflection point that can help humanity and the rest of the planet thrive together?

Sunil Malhotra
Jul 6, 2020 · 16 min read

The critical difference between the disruption caused by #COVID-19 and almost every “similar” event in history is the current state of technology. The world has never been more connected: connectivity that has facilitated real-time collaborations across timezones, and equipped humanity with the unprecedented advantage of fighting the virus as one. And technologies that are accelerating simultaneously as they continue demonstrating an aspect of Moore’s Law (the well-known phenomenon of doubling in performance every 18 to 24 months), that technological growth is exponential. This is true in medical science and technology where, according to Safi Bahcall (on the Elevate Podcast ~53:00 min), there are:

(Updated at the end of the post)

Steven Kotler further observes that the world is facing 3 pandemics:

  1. The #COVID-19 virus
  2. A pandemic of fear
  3. A positive pandemic of cooperation

This last one is the most fascinating. Will it gain traction enough for the #futureofwork to help move humankind’s fiercely competitive culture towards more badly needed global collaboration?

To get a sense of the full impact of #Covid-19, think of it as the Great Depression and the Spanish Flu hitting the world together, at the same time.

The Experts* Have It Wrong

(*Experts: the majority of narrowly specialised theorists including snake oil salesmen)

“Post-COVID” has become a moving target and experts have theories of what normal will look like after the pandemic runs its course. Many seem to be comparing the pandemic to events of the past to find their answers: Spanish flu, WWII, the Great Depression, the attacks of 9/11, the 2008 financial meltdown…and the list goes on. As we’re painfully learning more and more about the virus though, #Covid-19 doesn’t fit neatly into any past patterns. So these experts will all be more or less wrong.

There’s a fable from India (in the Panchatantra) of four scholar friends who come across the carcass of a lion and each of the “learned” three wishes use his expertise: one is a bone specialist and he can put the skeleton back together, the second has the skills to add flesh and skin and the third knows tantra to breathe life into the animal. The fourth pleads, “Please give me a moment. I wish to climb a tree before you make use of your scholarship.” The “experts” who went back to the normal of the living lion, got eaten. The fourth, who used “common sense”, lived to tell the tale.

#COVID-19 has already had some pivotal effects, globally. While lockdowns, closed establishments, and working from home are helping control the virus’ spread, whole industries, domains and businesses are struggling to survive as a result. How closely everything is intertwined becomes evident as we see these shockwaves rippling throughout the world and ponder key questions. Key questions such as when will people have the confidence and courage to return to flying routinely? And when can we all just go enmasse to sporting and entertainment events again? We can all imagine unappealing answers we don’t want to acknowledge, while we desperately yearn to get ‘back to normal’.

Remember the last time the world locked down? Me neither. At the time of writing this, nearly every nation has been through different stages of locking down, testing, tracing and controlling the virus. And while the solutions that use coordinated cooperation are clearly doing the best, rampant growth is becoming associated with societies that emphasise individual independence at the expense of collective health, such as in the United States. #COVID-19 seems to have brought to humankind a forced pause, giving us the opportunity to reflect and decide if we want to return to our greedy, unfair, everyone-for-themselves competitive ways within which,

or to ways that that are cooperative with the “natural” system we are a part of. At the ExOWorld virtual conference, Salim Ismail, Chairman of OpenExO, a global ecosystem of over 5000 changemakers, noted, “the global supertanker has ground to a halt. Left to themselves, our global leaders will try and take us back to where we were. It’s up to us [individuals and communities] to turn it to a direction that’s more desirable for humankind.” (Brackets mine).

But What If WE Are the Virus

Nature puts all species (including humans) in balance with everything else. And this pandemic clearly reminds us to balance our ways before the planet does it for us. Paulo Coehlo speaks through the protagonist of The Winner Stands Alone

The world is always re-writing its code of life and this pandemic is a stark reminder of Nature’s ways. No amount of research, expertise or knowledge is going to get us back to our old normal. Realising we are Nature’s creation and not apart from it—combined with imagination, creativity and innovation—can move us to the next level.

It is

>> Less about being only individuals than understanding, respecting and preserving what we are part of.
>> Less about restarting the economy than
reviewing, rewriting and renewing our values.
>> Less about reverting to our old business-as-usual than
reinventing our commercial ways.
>> Less about reaping profits from scarcity than
spreading and sharing the abundance of the world.
>> Less about nationalistic protectionism and more about
global cooperation and ethics.

It’s shifting to higher gears of consciousness and leveraging humankind’s very first opportunity to build the world from the ground up, armed with the benefit of hindsight, and the amazing technology-enabled tools we’ve created.

This may well be an inflection point.

Steven Kotler puts it nicely,

What’s Really Going On Here

Our minds are conditioned to quickly jump to solutions, and not linger in the problem space. Humans have a tendency to see patterns everywhere, which are important when making decisions and judgments and for acquiring knowledge; we tend to be uneasy with chaos and chance (Gilovich, 1991). Unfortunately, that same tendency to see patterns in everything can lead to seeing things that don’t exist³. Somehow, we are conditioned to fitting problems quickly into solution shapes we have seen in our past. Not being able to do so, makes us very uncomfortable. We’re more at ease when we can recognise a familiar pattern, but “if all you seek is knowledge that you already believe you have, then that’s often the most you will ever find”.

Ray Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind argues that the structure and functioning of the human brain is actually quite simple, a basic unit of cognition repeated millions of times.

Because human cognition is hierarchical, these hierarchies are made up of patterns. The human brain has evolved to recognise patterns, perhaps more than any other single function. Our brain is weak at processing logic, remembering facts, and making calculations, but pattern recognition is its deep core capability.

Deep Blue, the computer that defeated the chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, was capable of analyzing 200 million board positions every second. Kasparov was asked how many positions he could analyze each second. His answer was “less than one.”

So how was this even a remotely close match?

Because Kasparov’s 30 billion neurons, while relatively slow, are able to work in parallel.⁴

Expertise, in essence, is the familiarity of patterns of a specific field. Now do you see why experts are always going to get it wrong, despite their best knowledge and intentions?

The methods we have developed over the years to recognize and respond to commonplace disruptions seem increasingly, painfully inadequate when the world appears to be falling apart. It’s hard to see the big picture when everything insists on coloring outside the lines,” writes Jamais Cascio. “To borrow a concept from chemistry, there has been a phase change in the nature of our social (and political, and cultural, and technological) reality — we’re no longer happily bubbling along, the boiling has begun.

Crisis As Catharsis

Unprecedented or not, #COVID-19 presents immense opportunities. According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, governments don’t understand that when you have a crisis, you should come out of it better than you were before. So you should never waste a good crisis. We have to get ahead of the virus which makes it imperative that we don’t allow existing knowledge stand in the way of our understanding. Also, a crisis of this magnitude has created room for innovation by removing most of the resistance generally faced by change initiatives.

Actually, it turns out that among other things, our knowledge is what stands between us and the future. This is partly due to the fact that all our knowledge is composed of memories. And memories are always from the past, meaning therefore, that all the knowledge we possess individually and as a species always lags behind the now. To quote J Krishnamurti,

The mind is frightened of [the] unknown, and so it escapes into knowledge, into theories, hopes, imagination; and this very knowledge is a hindrance to the understanding of the unknown. To put aside knowledge is to invite fear, and to deny the mind, which is the only instrument of perception one has […] it is not easy to put aside knowledge.⁵

Our present predicament is a good example of the unknown. It goes without saying that knowledge builds on itself and is not an enemy of new knowledge or insight. Expertise per se is not the problem. Nor past knowledge. Einstein did not have an epiphany to declare energy equals mass times the square of light, he studied Newtonian physics. Riemann studied Euclidean geometry to produce the geometry named after him. Past knowledge is to build on — stepping stones, not destination. People who stay trapped in past knowledge (theoreticians and academics who can only draw their power from degrees and past qualifications) can only tell us what is, not what might be. Today we need more enlightened globalisation, more enlightened balance between the state, representing collective action, and the citizen, taking on individual responsibility and holding the state and our hallowed institutions to account.

The good news is that our collective consciousness seems to have gone up a notch, going by behaviours observed in spontaneous collaboration: Hackathons, Sprints, Antiviral drugs, PPEs, Ventilators, Sanitisers, etc. Companies have quickly rejigged themselves to produce masks and protective gear to anticipate any sudden demand. Countries are sending medical supplies and doctors to assist life-saving efforts. For this spirit to have a long tail and for these behaviours to be amplified, and become business as usual, we should stop expecting our world after to be the same as it was before the lockdown. It’s our old cognitive habits that make us even think of an after, and that can stand in the way of making the most of the present.

The now possible is characterised by

>> Building our lives ground up rather than doing more of the same.
Reinventing our business models rather than finding innovative ways to leverage past investments.
Contributing to collective efforts rather than exploiting the crisis for personal gain.

The lockdown has given each one of us a window to such a future. So what are we going to do with it?

#COVID-19 has reminded us that ME must not be at the expense of WE, because it has been clear for a while, even to the most ardent capitalists, that single-mindedly following the Western ‘I’-oriented way is making our climate warmer and diminishing our biodiversity.

It is also important to understand that the US is no longer the command (sic.) centre of human progress, even in economic terms. While we must provide for ourselves and our families, we also need to work for the greater good to stay in balance with our world.

In today’s world, humans have more collective comfort and convenience at our disposal than at any other time in our history. Yet ironically, our improved health and happiness is at risk as we promote changes to our planet to make it more hostile to the health and well being of so much of its life.

We see industry after industry being disrupted even as we speak, and there’s the urgent need to help create newer and more relevant value propositions without waiting to curl up and die in our comfort zones. The blanket is off. Now is the time to clean the cobwebs of our minds.

Let’s take the example of education. While it has been clear, for over almost a decade now, that our education systems have far outlived their useful lives, we still keep flogging a 150-year old “production-line”, designed to serve the vested interests of an industrial age mindset. Compulsory education has no business to be in the business of education in the 21st century. Outdated subjects built on leveraging scarce resources — teacher and the classroom — and an outmoded pedagogy (read craft) driving scalable efficiency much like a factory. Come #COVID-19 and you find all schools scampering to use video conferencing and conducting “classes” online. Instead of taking a pause and using the God-sent opportunity to reinvent learning from the point of view of the student and her context, at a pace that suits each individual instead of the average, all we’re doing is pushing the same junk using the same pedagogy. Merely using a digital medium for delivery does jackshit … actually it creates screen fatigue for both the teacher and student. Meaning that nobody’s accepting our current reality to be the new way of being, and all we want is to simply wait it out; once the lockdown “opens” we’ll be quick to return to the comfort of the physical classroom. Back to the past. The cat just vanished, leaving nobody holding the bell.

Back is NOT The Way Forward

We must design our collective future.

Instead we want things to go “back to normal”. Listen to ourselves. Back and normal are both problematic at the very least, if not downright undesirable. Back is the past. Back is going in reverse. Back is clinging to comfort. Which is the reason why the word resilience bubbles to the top of leadership’s lexicon of change. Resilience is about bouncing back, meaning that there’s nothing bigger or better in store than what we’ve already seen in the past. (For you physics geniuses, coefficient of restitution can never be greater than 1.)


Normal is equilibrium. Normal is status quo. Normal is stable. Stable had disappeared long before #COVID-19. Remember VUCA? Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. Eddie Obeng tells us, in his entertaining TED Talk, that the pace of change has long overtaken the pace of learning. He reminds us:

At the turn of the century the world freed itself from the clutches of linearity and became exponential.
From Singularity University.

While, on the one hand, these exponential times bring uncertainty, chaos, disorder and unpredictability, they are also times fraught with abundance. (#Abundance is a different discussion.)

Shifting from scarcity to the mindset of abundance is a switch. The problem is that they cannot coexist.

>> Scarcity starts with constraints, abundance with opportunities.
>> Scarcity encourages zero-sum thinking: if I win, you lose.
Abundance is about plenitude, not surplus.
>> Scarcity markets secrecy as competitive advantage,
abundance champions collaboration for the greater good.
Licensing is scarcity thinking, open source is abundance in action.

Salim Ismail asserts, “We know from tracking innovation across thousands of companies that disruptive innovation must be managed at the edge of the organization. As Buckminster Fuller said, “in order to change an existing paradigm you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete”. That means we cannot fix our societal systems from the inside. We must create new opportunities (in education, journalism, governance etc) at the edges and let those become the new gravity centre.”

“At the edges” is easier said than done. Much of the innovation in the last decade has been by companies coming at incumbents laterally—AirBNB, Uber, Netflix, GitHub are prime examples of disruption, not only of competition but also of the industry/domain itself. Airbnb’s marginal cost of adding a hotel room is almost zero, whereas a hotel chain has to build a whole new hotel. This happens similarly with Uber or Wikipedia or thousands of other such Exponential Organizations that have learnt the art of exploiting abundance.

Heal the World, Make It a Better Place …

So if back is not the way forward, what is?

Leandro Herrero explains Viral Change — “you don’t fight a behavioural epidemic from within. You create a counter-epidemic that takes over.”

It reminds us of the popular quote attributed to Einstein,

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Perhaps it’s the combination of tools and methodologies (which is the easier part), driven by a completely new mindset that will help to create a desirable future. But more importantly, it’s using the lessons we have learnt from the #COVID-19 lockdown. Unlike the Spanish Flu, this pandemic has affected the urban middle class, largely comprising those who feed consumerism. The lockdown has allowed the affluent to experience the joys of simple living and a much cleaner environment, thereby exposing our unsustainable lifestyles just preceding the pandemic. Oddly enough, it has equalised the higher echelons of society, meaning that it doesn’t matter which car you drive— all cars are standing in parking lots. Or for that matter, what luxury brands you own—you are stuck at home all the time. Or even which destination vacation you chose to go holidaying this summer—all airlines are grounded.

Whole industries have been disrupted—automotive, luxury retail, real estate, transportation, …— in turn completely destroying global supply chains which were propping up the economy till just a few months ago. The lessons are all there. Live simpler lives, don’t take from the earth what you don’t really need, move from a competitive to a collaborative style of work, work from home when you can, and a host of others. Why to go back to a normal that makes little sense to anybody except the vested interests that were feeding off our baser instincts.

How do we take control of our own destinies? In the few years preceding the pandemic, exponential technologies accelerated digital transformation initiatives against the backdrop of the 4th Industrial revolution. These technologies have been powering organisations, institutions and governments, while simultaneously disrupting them and reshaping them. “When breakthroughs become democratized and available to everyone, entrepreneurs and organizations [and governments] globally are able to use the new exponential technologies and make a difference in the world. A recent example of this was put into action in a Vietnamese fishing village. To save rising diesel fuel costs, some villagers got together and literally created a solar powered boat by laying solar panels on their boat roofs,” wrote Salim over a year back.

In 2018, Jeff Smith, co-founder of LUNAR Design (now part of McKinsey Design), and I outlined an Integral Design Framework to help leaders manage change and navigate uncertainty. Combining an approach like we advocated, with the Exponential Transformation Sprint, can help individuals and organisations to tide over the current crisis and go beyond. Accordingly, for organisations to evolve to next level of sustainable success, not only must leaders leverage more ‘feeling’ and ‘thinking’ dimensions of humanness, but also pay more attention to the ‘being’ dimension.

Image: © Randy Glasbergen

Yogi Berra famously said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” That’s exactly where today’s world leaders are standing. And whichever way they go is a path of uncertainty. At the business end, everything of value is quantified. But things like #Empathy, #Creativity, #Aesthetics, #Experience…everything #Design, defy conventional metrics and measurements. In other words, 21st century skills.

We, as world citizens, have an even bigger role in making sure that the lessons we have learnt are not forgotten. The way we have collaborated and the ways in which we have come forward to help the less fortunate, are refreshing and unprecedented. We must keep the new behaviours. “New role models have risen, teaching us empathy and citizenship. In India, Sikh groups have opened langars for all, NGOs are feeding hundreds, the alumni of two elite law universities — NLSUI and Nalsar — organised transport for migrants at their own cost, and countless others are pitching in too. This new generation of young citizens that is emerging is anxious to build bridges.”⁶

The future is ours to see.

Updates on 21 July 2020.


Delighted to see this morning’s news about both the AZ/Oxford and CanSino vaccines inducing strong neutralizing antibody as well as T-cell responses, which add to Moderna’s promising data released last week.

A big thank you to my friends (you know who you are) for helping with fact checking and providing invaluable feedback on this post. __________________________________________________________________

¹ Steven Kotler — What is ‘The Third Pandemic’?
² Yuval Noah Harari — Homo Deus
³ Patterns: The Need for Order
A Pattern Recognition Theory of Mind
J Krishnamurti

Covid-19 has exposed middle class paranoia and India’s class faultlines

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Sunil Malhotra

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Zen maverick | white light synthesiser | #Designthinking | founder + Cocreator #bmgen Book | #DesigninTech | #ExponentialTransformation

Age of Awareness

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