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radical Briefing 0021 - Gradually, then Suddenly… And Everything After: Contours of the Post-COVID Future.

Apr 2, 2020

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

That quote, from a famous lecture by the late physicist Allen Bartlett on the earth’s ultimately limited carrying capacity, haunts our present. And it’s one we’ve deployed literally dozens of times in the past to make a now almost quaint-seeming point about exponential change enabled and driven by emerging technologies.

But the inability Prof. Bartlett described—the failure to envision the exponential—doesn’t have to narrowly determine or even bound the scope of our possible futures. To live through the historical moment of now is to witness entire societies grimly, urgently reckoning with the gradually…then suddenly nature of exponential change, and to feel viscerally and irrevocably that tomorrow will not be like today.

We’re experiencing a warping of time horizons (something we’ll be writing more about soon) such that December 2019 feels like a forgotten epoch and December 2020 (by which time we *might* be seeing the light at the end of a long tunnel of recession) feels like the far future—largely undefined and very much contested. The COVID crisis means hitting a hard reset or at least a hard scramble on what Christian Crews called the “official future”—that body of expectations implicit or explicit that each organization and leader is forever designing and operating against, and as that COVID crisis becomes a COVID reset or a COVID shift, we have a unique moment to reflect on what might be, how we might build something better in place of what will be lost, and what assumptions and narratives might hold us back or carry us forward.

We invite you to take a break from furiously disinfecting the surfaces of the present and anxiously peering into the V-, U-, L-, or I-shaped alphabet abyss of the economic near-future and join us in considering what we might see in the way of durable longer-term transformations driven by the COVID crisis and response.

At a high level, we expect a range of COVID-driven trends to accelerate the development and adoption of the infrastructure for the unfolding exponential era while exacerbating—and not necessarily resolving—the tensions of our own liminal time (liminal in the sense that the anthropologist Ruth Behar used to suggest the “in-between place where what has been is no more and what will be is not yet”).

We’ve already seen both at play in the mad-dash mass migration of work and learning into the digital distributed environment, a transition (which we discussed in radical Briefing #0020) that had many commentators declaring that the “future” of work or learning had suddenly arrived. Building on an argument advanced by an education executive in our Digital Learning Partner community, we would suggest instead that the conditions conducive to the emergence of that future have arrived—with mass lockdown driving long-resisted behavior change on the demand side (i.e., we’re finally hungry to try digital) and the rapid adoption and development of digital distributed tools and systems supporting new models and offerings on the supply side (i.e., digital will finally be forced to fully develop).

The shape of that future will be determined through waves of experimentation, investment, and innovation with the near-inevitable outcome that many organizations, learning institutions, and individuals will realize the considerable upside to sustaining and expanding digital distributed models in the long term. Which is to say: that Zoom stock price will one day return to Earth, but the old normal of work and learning won’t quite.

We’re expecting a similar interplay of accelerated tech adoption and heightened tension around the public safety-personal privacy polarity as more and more personal data is leveraged in the public health surveillance tech response to monitor both COVID spread and compliance with lockdown orders. With the efficacy—and perhaps the necessity—of these digital systems pretty clearly established (and nicely visualized), the dynamic here is shifting rapidly and fundamentally in the interest of public safety. But the near-term choices made in how these systems are designed and constrained to protect privacy will have significant implications for longer-term questions around the futures of data collection, the surveillance economy, and civil liberties.

As the sweep of the pandemic has systematically exposed the weaknesses of a global economy built on outsourcing and just-in-time inventory, analysts and executives are increasingly calling for a new wave of production onshoring and diversification of sourcing and supply chains. A wave of global localization could lead to a sort of innovation boomlet as firms compete to reimagine supply chains and manufacturing processes they had long been content to outsource. It also seems sure to bring an intensified push for increased automation, a trend with rippling implications across sectors and the workforce. Autonomous and robotic system capabilities will be driven by innovation, and the combination of new pressure to compete and a new race to design for resilience will drive deployment. We expect to find that some forecasts for tech adoption that might have seemed wildly bullish just a few months ago, start to look much more feasible in the light of a post-COVID context.

Everything will look different in that light, and the most profound transformation and likely the farthest reaching will be one of collective memory. Long after the crisis passes, the memory will persist. This moment will no longer be unprecedented, and the searing experience of the crisis and response will inform everything that comes afterward. Researchers have already suggested that the trauma of the 2002-03 SARS outbreak dramatically shaped the preparedness and response capabilities of the countries that had fought it when they were confronted with the current COVID pandemic. The memory of the present will haunt the future, but we can see that there’s real power and transformative potential in using that lived experience to guide system-level design choices for the better and the more resilient.

These are the choices and possibilities we’re looking forward to exploring with you in the weeks and months ahead. Stay safe, stay sane & read on below for more projections of the post-COVID future from a couple of our favorite radical experts.

radically yours,

Jeffrey and the be radical team

P.S. Interested in exploring how this applies to your organization and your products & services? Find out how be radical can help you. Simply hit reply to this email, tell us a bit about yourself and the opportunity/challenge you face, and we will be in touch.

The Network Effect:

We’re tapping some of the experts in the be radical network to join the conversation. This round, we’re projecting lasting transformations for the post-COVID future with Dr. Tiffany Vora and John O’Duinn.

Dr. Tiffany Vora is the founder of Bayana Science, a science communication company, as well as Faculty and Vice Chair of Medicine & Digital Biology at Singularity University. She earned her PhD in the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University, previously worked in drug discovery & taught at Stanford University and the American University in Cairo.

“I’m watching signals that suggest future mindset shifts in healthcare.

(1) Preventive medicine is a multi-level approach. Despite decades of warnings, this virus’s explosive emergence caught governments, NGOs, and health-care systems flat-footed. Prevention will be key in future, to safeguard the health of individuals (for example through real-time monitoring) and to protect our interconnected systems (perhaps by disentangling them or paying a premium for robustness).

(2) Where is the “point of care” and who are “care providers”? Covid-19 is revealing that the answers are “everywhere” and “everyone.” Will governments and healthcare systems invest in shifting the paradigm away from today’s “sickcare”? Rapid, reliable, and affordable testing, monitoring, and treatment in many locations, including at home, will be highly disruptive to the status quo but potentially powerful for supporting the health of individuals and systems.

(3) Trust is crucial for health initiatives. I was stunned by how quickly the Covid-19 conversation shifted from hard data to panic, fake news, and political maneuvering. Most people urgently need to access trusted advisors to digest unfamiliar information. Governments, NGOs, the media, and organizations, including in health care, should evolve to view trust as the single most valuable commodity they can earn and deploy.”

John O’Duinn is comfortable in high stress, high ambiguity situations—writing code and leading teams in organizations ranging from four-person startups to nonprofits to multinationals—including the U.S. Digital Service in the Obama White House. John’s book Distributed Teams distilled lessons from 14 years leading and 27 years working in distributed teams. John also helped write Vermont’s “Remote Worker” law.

“(1) Most corporate disaster planning I’ve seen focus on short term “disasters” like snow days, power outages or microwave popcorn causing a small fire in the office kitchen. These happen more frequently than pandemics, thankfully, but can leave organizations unprepared for long-term office closures. When a building is an organizational single point of failure, a *prolonged* office closure is an organizational risk. Even organizations that need specific roles at specific locations rarely need *everyone* at that location. Learning how to work well together while physically apart is an essential leadership skill—tricky to learn under tight time-pressure and when already physically apart. Some organizations will survive this transition, some will not. Those that survive will have to consider how well their suppliers and their customers made the same transition.

(2) After this current covid-19 pandemic fades away, surviving organizations will have shown their offices are optional. Some will revert back to “business as usual” in offices. However, some will maintain these new leadership and operational skills by encouraging everyone to work outside the office at least part time—gaining competitive advantages like improved hiring, retention, workforce diversity and reduced real estate operational costs. “Never allow a good crisis go to waste. It’s an opportunity to do the things you once thought were impossible.” Rahm Emanuel, ChiefOfStaff to President Obama.

(3) This large-scale shift of “knowledge workers” out of offices will cause tectonic shifts in commercial real estate and housing markets. Related, this will accelerate a trend towards a new form of “Distributed” Economic Development.

radical Recommends:

We get it. There’s a lot out there. With radical Recommends, we’re not going to overwhelm you. We’ll only highlight a couple of reads/watches/listens each Briefing that are shaping our thinking, challenging our assumptions, or changing our minds.

⇒ What else is going on? The Future Today Institute published their excellent 2020 Tech Trends Report.

⇒ The economics of the pandemic in one essential slide deck from the London Business School .

⇒ Our expert Chris Yeh (whom we also interviewed for our Digital Learning Partnership program) on whether we’ll see a recession or depression and what businesses (especially startups) can do about it with the team at RISEUP.