By Marina Gorbis, Executive Director, Institute for the Future
Weare at Ground Zero — individually and as a society. COVID-19 has been the shock that is making many of us rethink life plans, reset expectations, change how we see what (and who) is essential. As a society, we are trying to grapple with an unending stream of revelations. How is it possible that in a country with some of the mightiest global companies, nurses and doctors have to sew their own masks and wash and reuse equipment because there is simply not enough to go around? Shortages of toilet paper? In the U.S.?! Before COVID-19, the only other place people would carry toilet paper around like a prized possession was the Soviet Union in the final days of its existence. In a place that is home to the most innovative technology companies, government agencies are relying on outdated systems, making it virtually impossible to get an accurate count of infection spread, conduct contact tracing, or issue unemployment payments on time.
The narratives and the images of ourselves we’ve created over many decades are being shattered virtually overnight. It’s as if we had been looking at ourselves and the world around us through a crooked mirror, and now that the mirror has been shattered, a different reality is confronting us. This is a sobering and painful experience — adjusting to a new image and identity for our country. However, as painful as it is, the process is much needed and long overdue. Eventually all the fragilities and distortions hidden by crooked mirrors had to break through — extreme wealth inequality, racial injustice, brittle supply chains, an underfunded public health system, outdated public technology infrastructure, and so much more. Our social immune system — our collective ability to withstand shocks — has been severely compromised as a result of decades of abuse and neglect. It took a tiny virus to shatter the mirage of might and prosperity.
Now that so many frailties are on full display, where do we go? What can we imagine and what do we need to build after the pandemic? These are the questions my colleagues at the Institute for the Future and I have been asking for the past three months. We’ve been looking at historical patterns, collecting data, interviewing experts in different fields, and conducting panels with workers and activists in order to develop a set of four alternative scenarios for a post-pandemic world. Our Growth scenario is about pursuing economic values — rapidly opening up businesses to return to some semblance of pre-pandemic economic growth. The Collapse scenario envisions sustained levels of militarized confrontations on the streets of America. The Constraint scenario involves reliance on data and algorithms to reorganize society around germ pods or clusters of virus-free communities under the guise of safeguarding health, but in the meantime justifying and entrenching existing wealth and racial inequities. The Transformation scenario moves us to a very different path of pursuing social rather than purely economic or technological agendas, ultimately leading to greater collective wellbeing, clearly a preferred option.
But how do we get to Transformation? The starting point is our deeply ingrained beliefs, the ideology that has resulted in fragilities that made us so vulnerable to the pandemic like COVID-19.