When you’re fighting a fire, it’s easy to forget that the water can cause more damage than the fire itself. When you rebuild after a fire, the desire to rebuild quickly can trump the inclination to rebuild smartly. During a disaster, focusing on anything other than getting back to normal as fast as possible can sound impractical or even tone deaf.
Well, we’re in the midst of one of the biggest global disasters in centuries, and, at the risk of appearing impractical or even tone deaf, I’ll ask you to bear with me as I argue that we need to be laser-focused not only on how we fight the pandemic but, even now, on how we rebuild from it.
Governments around the globe have already committed about $8 trillion to address the health, social and economic ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. This price tag (which continues to grow) includes direct spending, equity injections, loans and guarantees. It is more than four times what all the countries on the planet collectively spent on military, weapons and war in 2019. It is a staggering 9.5% of pre-COVID global GDP.
That’s a really big firehose. And, there’s going to be a lot of rebuilding. The priorities and strategies guiding how the funds are used on health-related measures, emergency aid and economic recovery will shape our world for generations to come.
How do we address this emergency in a way that not only protects us today but also helps prevent future emergencies like it? How do we balance individual freedom of movement and privacy against stopping the spread of the coronavirus? How do we rebuild in a way that alleviates rather than exacerbates pre-pandemic societal issues like equity, sustainability, healthcare and a climate crisis that might dwarf this pandemic?
Whether consciously or inadvertently, we’re making choices that will shape all aspects of the future—and the choices will be much better if made consciously.
I’ve been working with Paul Carroll for some time on a plan for 2050 that we call the Future Perfect and that, while it is as hopeful as the name suggests, is technologically feasible based on six Laws of Zero. The basic idea is that, in six areas, key resources are headed toward zero cost, which means that infinite amounts can be imagined as available for the future.
The first Law of Zero is familiar because of Moore’s Law, which has described the plunge in computing costs that we’ve seen for going on six decades—a gigabyte of memory cost $300,000 in 1980 but costs less than a tenth of a cent today. Now imagine what computing power will cost in 2050; it won’t be free, but it will sure feel that way.
The other five Laws of Zero follow the same trend line. We’re seeing communication costs likewise head to zero. Just compare the cost of all those Zoom calls you’ve been on in the last several months to what such calls would have cost 10 years ago. The costs for gathering information will drop steeply, too, as sensors, drones and satellites cover the world. Energy costs are heading to zero(ish) if you look at the stunning drops in price for solar and wind installations and improvements in batteries. If energy becomes free(ish), then so will water—saltwater can be turned into fresh at scale, and water can be condensed out of thin air even in the driest spots on the planet. Most of the costs of transportation will also disappear once driverless cars hit scale.
Zero cost, however, does not necessarily lead to good outcomes. Technology is a double-edged sword. As I’ve previously discussed, every technology is an amplifier to human propensities and inborn drives. It can yield beneficial changes, such as how the printing press sparked the Enlightenment and how computing revolutionized science. But, technology can also have the opposite effect. Too cheap transportation, for example, can worsen sprawl, congestion and pollution. Worse yet, technology can amplify evil and stoke our tendencies toward narcissism, parochialism and tribalism.
Another here and now example: The Laws of Zero in computing, communications and information might help us make the scientific breakthroughs necessary to design and manufacture a coronavirus vaccine in record time, something we desperately need. They also amplify the likelihood of the bio-terrorism attacks that Bill Gates warned us about, just as he warned that we were not ready for a global disease pandemic.
As Paul and I developed our version of a Future Perfect, we certainly didn’t expect a pandemic or the economic devastation that it’s causing, but, as long as we’re spending trillions anyway, there are ways to combine necessary short-term actions with long-term perspectives that draw on the Laws of Zero.
Below is a preview of five ways that smart recovery strategies can create more hopeful futures for our children and their children. We want to leave them a Future Perfect, not a Future Pathetic. I will elaborate on each of the five in later parts of this series.
1. Future Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness
As we deal with and recover from this pandemic, we need to do so in a way that better prepares us to deal with future pandemics and other unpredictable but inevitable large-scale disasters, like very big earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes. The Laws of Zero on computing, communication and information give us ways to spot and coordinate on problems much faster than is possible today, and we need to tap into our urgency to lock in some amount of our recovery spending on long-term preparedness. Otherwise, history tells us that the urgency will fade, and our short-term nature will leave us as unprepared for the next disaster as we were for this one. Then, our children’s reliving of this nightmare will not be an issue of “if” but “when.”
2. Balancing Health, Privacy and Freedom
Early detection, contact tracing and quarantines are cornerstones of most strategies to contain the spread of the coronavirus. It is hard to argue against such measures, sitting as we are in the midst of the pandemic-induced anxiety and economic shutdown. Yet, it is easy to imagine all the ways that a rush to implement such systems could go wrong. What unjust pain might be caused by inaccurate or biased data and algorithms? What cybersecurity risks are enabled? How might such capabilities enable “mission creep,” accelerating society down the slippery slope of surveillance and control guided by other motivations? The Laws of Zero will help us build the tools to contain the pandemic but we must do so with a clear view of the dangers to avoid.
3. Globalization Versus Nationalism and Isolation
Globalization already took a hit from Brexit and from the United States’ “America First” agenda, and the pandemic exacerbates the tendency for nations to want to hunker down. The pandemic has also exposed how fragile many supply chains are and has already spurred calls for at least the major economies to have onshore manufacturing capacity for supplies that are critical in a health crisis, including masks, ventilators and pharmaceuticals. But the experience in the pandemic also offers arguments for global cooperation, at least in scientific cooperation to beat the virus. Imagine, for example, countries hoarding key advances toward treatments or banning the export of a vaccine? The Laws of Zero will provide unlimited infrastructure for digital interactions, but there must be ways to nurture continued cooperation by focusing on health and other bedrock issues that require an international community.
4. Health Care
Fighting the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on both great strengths and deadly gaps in our healthcare system. High on the positive side are the dedicated front-line health workers who have put themselves at risk to care for patients. Low are the revelations about the stunning differences in health equity, the fragility of our supply chains to provide critical supplies needed to care for patients and protect essential workers and the inability to provide other vital healthcare services during the pandemic. So, as far as health care goes, we can’t aim to just “get back to normal” after the pandemic. “Normal” didn’t work. We need to rebuild our public health system to be more resilient; to broaden coverage to all; to take advantage of our infinitely wired, Laws of Zero world to switch our focus from “sick care” to “health care”; and, to use the Laws on energy, water and transportation to address the social determinants of health and reduce the gaps between the well-off and those less fortunate. While we’re spending these trillions of dollars, we need to be building the right foundation for a healthy future.
5. Climate Change Crisis
A question long asked about the climate crisis was whether we could afford the changes necessary to shift our path. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken that question off the table. We’re committed to spending trillions. A good portion of that will likely be spent to address the pandemic’s gruesome damage to the energy industry and markets. More than one million production-related jobs might be cut. Hundreds of oil companies could go bankrupt. A wide range of countries dependent on oil revenues, like Iran, Iraq, Bolivia and Venezuela, face new threats of poverty and political instability. The question is now whether the trillions will be spent to double down on carbon fuels or to change our course by investing in smarter technologies, jobs and resiliency. Changing course would not only reduce pollution but allow for all sorts of creative thinking about how and where we want to live: Imagine if you could get all the energy and water you wanted anywhere on the planet, not having to worry about being tethered to the electric grid or gas or water pipelines. Wouldn’t that allow for some intriguing futures?
Sitting as we are with most of the world in lockdown, it is hard to imagine both beating the pandemic and addressing wickedly hard problems like future pandemics, equity and climate change. Yet, though no one would wish for such circumstances, this moment is the collective pivot point of our lifetimes.
We will rebuild. We can rebuild myopically and live with whatever future emerges. Or, we can rebuild smartly, and invent a better future for generations to come.
Read the entire series:
- 5 Ways Our Coronavirus Recovery Strategies Might Make Or Break Our Future: Part 1
- Part 2: Preparing For Future Pandemics And Other Disasters (Or Not)
- Part 3: Balancing Health, Privacy And Freedom
- Part 4: Globalization Versus Nationalism And Isolation
- Part 5: Reshaping Health Care (Or Not)
- Part 6: Addressing the Climate Crisis (Or Not)