The Most Valuable Thing in Your Wallet
This story is part of a series of design fiction that explores what a new era of public service could look like in 2025, five years after COVID-19. Learn more here.
Lyn Li loves her job. She started as an administrative assistant at a physical therapy clinic, but these days, she wears multiple hats. One week she’s untangling IT snarls, and the next she’s doing the books and keeping the clinic financially fit. Lyn Li has become a critical member of the team, and she’s proud of it.
Before the pandemic, Lyn Li commuted all the way from Forest Hills, Queens, to Lower Manhattan — more than an hour each way on the train. But after the crisis, her clinic moved into telehealth, and today only a quarter of appointments are in-person. That means Lyn Li can do her job remotely. She sure doesn’t miss the alarm clock going off at five in the morning! With a virtual commute, the internet is Lyn Li’s public transit.
There’s just one problem: Lyn Li’s not alone. The practice of working from home quadrupled in the years after COVID-19, and broadband providers struggled to keep up with demand. Like so many others, Lyn Li can’t risk a spotty signal — it looks unprofessional.
Seeing an opportunity, the NYC government piloted an initiative long under consideration: Outfitting the city’s public library branches to be local internet beacons. At first, the program started slowly: Just a few neighborhoods with the highest need for a reliable, fast, and free Wi-Fi signal. Forest Hills was one of them, and the experiment meant that Lyn Li could not only keep her job, she could thrive in it.
The city learned a lot from the pilot branches, including that the need was even greater than anticipated. The program expanded, and soon every library branch was broadcasting free internet. The result is a network of strong internet signals blanketing nearly the entire footprint of New York City. A gap in that signal blanket is one of the primary factors in determining whether or not a new library branch gets built.
Lyn Li remembers having to pull out her Metrocard back when she took the subway each morning. She never would’ve guessed, but more valuable by far is her library card.
How might city, state, and federal governments reallocate resources to meet emerging needs?
Where to go from here
There are numerous ways to take this profoundly unusual year as a chance to permanently transform. Governments at national and local levels that embrace this “reset opportunity” will emerge stronger. It’s time to listen to people, learn what has changed in their lives, and find new ways to address their needs.
These six provocations are more than hunches; we believe they will be critical territories in the new landscape of leadership. Read more about the visions behind these questions:
3. How might city, state, and federal governments reallocate resources to meet emerging needs?