What Can We Build After the Global Pandemic?
by Marina Gorbis and Kathi Vian, Institute for the Future
Even as the world stares a hundred-year virus in the face. Even as societies lock themselves down and sever direct social contact. Even as stock markets tumble, as businesses close and households fail to meet their monthly rents, and as governments scramble to plug the gaping holes opening in their economies.
Even as all these very real crises demand immediate attention, there’s a longer story to be written. Right now. Today. And this story has to be told by all of us, because the stories we write and the actions we take today will shape how we emerge from this crisis.
How do we engage in the project of writing stories of a post-COVID-19 future?
As people — families, communities, organizations, and institutions — engage in the process of crafting their stories of the future, we at IFTF want to offer a recipe with some basic ingredients for how to go about crafting compelling and internally consistent visions of the future.
Step 1. Assess the Current Situation — What is revealed?
In times of crisis, many things that have been hidden burst into the open. In the United States, the coronavirus pandemic has already laid bare many fundamental vulnerabilities in our society that were previously ignored or dismissed: The limits of privatized health care and the underinvestment in public health infrastructure. The fragility of a just-in-time economy. The real measures of societal illness, from extreme wealth inequality to proliferation of precarious work and food deserts. The constant connectivity and geographic mobility that obsolete our political borders.
You can start to think about the future right now. Engage in conversations in your community, in your organization, within your family about what they’re seeing around them. Don’t rely solely on experts. Talk to people who are experiencing what life feels like at the ground level — get at what we call “ground truth.”
Everyone has a different view of the current situation and those views fill in the details of a well-imagined story. What did they not know or think about before the crisis? What surprises them?
Step 2. Look back to see forward — Discern larger patterns
Today’s health and economic crises are repeat performances of past crises, albeit in a very different context. Certainly, as the economy began to tilt in recent weeks, we have all been reminded of similar experiences from the recent past: the 2009 financial meltdown, the 2000 dot.com bust. We can go even further back to understand the much larger crash of 1929 with its decade-long economic depression that required massive investments in public infrastructure to pull the United States out of the economic malaise, followed by the WWII mobilization that ultimately led to a post-war boom.
We cannot think about the future without understanding these prior crises and consistent patterns they’ve exhibited. What did we do then? What decisions did key players have to make? What can we learn from their successes and errors?
Health historian Howard Markel has written about leitmotifs: the consistent patterns present in most epidemics. They include efforts to conceal the crisis by the authorities in order to protect economic stability; a tendency to scapegoat certain populations; and an ultimate economic devastation that propels a strong public response.
History is not a rigid lesson, but it is a prompt for our imagination. How will we turn this expanded awareness of the past into the ingredients for new stories of the future?
Step 3. Collect signals of the future — Detect novel responses to a novel virus
As important as the large patterns from the past are, the small signals all around us today point to what’s possible in the future. Signals are concrete events, data points, and developments from the present that give us hints of the future.
Already in today’s coronavirus pandemic, we see signals of worker unrest. Delivery and warehouse workers threaten strikes against employers like Amazon and Instacart (the companies that have been leading a digital rout of the retail industry). Facing life-threatening contagion in their daily work in exchange for minimal wages — while white-collar workers shelter in place — this workforce is ripe for mass protest. Do these early walkouts portend a more general strike across the country in an economy where low-paid service workers have come to dominate the workforce? Are these signals of a reignited worker power?
Side by side with such signals of disruption are signals of invention. Veteran community builder Eri Gentry (founder of BioCurious) responded to the crisis by launching a COVID Accelerator to link motivated people who want to do something about the virus. In less than a week, 250 people from around the world had joined the accelerator to initiate projects ranging from a cough tracker that reminds you to wash your hands when you cough to a #covid-swap-meet to help doctors and nurses find volunteers who can help with personal tasks like groceries and childcare.
What signals do you see around you today that give you hope or give you pause? What signals make you question commonly held assumptions? What signals suggest the beginning of a larger pattern that’s forming (Step 2)?
Step 4. Lay out a framework for choices — What values will make the future?
The patterns from the past and present and the signals from the future reveal choices that will mark our path. And when it comes to choice-making, our minds are organized by polar thinking. This is how we frame our contested policies, and all too often, our visions of the future. Do we self-isolate in a time of pandemic for collective well-being or do we choose social connection and head to a bar? Do we protect the immediate economy (in an attempt to save jobs, worker savings, and stock values in the short term), or do we protect human lives (and thereby avert the long-term loss of GDP and the social chaos that results from mass deaths)?
Polar thinking is the source of our human invention and also our human discord and destruction. It’s the source of seemingly unresolvable dilemmas. But can we use it to discover unimagined paths to the future? We can, if we realize that each polar choice is not binary but rather a spectrum, and we can make choices along that entire spectrum.
For example, in the COVID-19 crisis, we might start by listing all the debates about how to respond. We can examine these debates to find a core set of values — polar values — that might guide our choices:
These are some of the dimensions that define the complex human-made system we’re living in today. And each choice will have an impact, or many impacts, over the coming decades — impacts on our health care systems, our food and educational systems, the labor force, and our global and regional economies as well as our politics. As we think about the post-pandemic future, we can use these polar dimensions as additional ingredients for imagining diverse futures.
Step 5. Create your own future stories — What’s the path to the future YOU want?
Building on historical patterns and signals from the present, we can start to tell our stories.
Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. Today, most of us are telling stories about how the COVID-19 pandemic started, how we’re currently going against our basic social instincts to lock ourselves down (even as doctors and nurses, grocery clerks, and delivery drivers risk their lives to keep us alive), and how this global catastrophe might end in three months or three years.
But the crisis is only the first part of a story that we can think of as three curves of global change: the initial Response, the stabilizing Reset, and the long-term Reinvention.
Right now we are in the Response phase. Response is usually followed by a Reset — the time when we put the crisis into a larger perspective, when we assign it meaning, and rebuild stability. Why did this happen? Who and what is responsible? Who is impacted and how? How did our thinking and lenses for seeing the world change as a result?
After reset comes Reinvention. What do we want to build? What choices do we need to make? Who needs to make these choices? What can I, my community, or my organization do to make our future story a reality? How do these choices shape our four basic futures?
Step 6. Share your story — What can we create together in a post-outbreak world?
We humans are always telling stories to ourselves as we sift backward through our memories and look forward to tomorrow. Storytelling is our human superpower. It’s how we make a shared reality — however fragile that reality might be — from our individual memories and our collective imagination.
The pathway to creating the post-pandemic future that we want is to harness the best of our storytelling to guide our public and private lives. We need to use our ability to recognize patterns and signals as well as our diverse frameworks to assemble communities that can collectively create stories that will lead to the kinds of futures that touch our hearts as much as our minds.