A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.
— Attributed to Paul Romer, Professor of Economics, Stanford University
There’s nothing good about pandemics; they come out of nowhere when a new mutation of a virus turns out to be both highly contagious and really deadly. The COVID-19 virus is by far the most serious since the Spanish flu of 1918-1919, when about 50 million people around the world died, 675,000 of them in the US. (In today’s numbers, that would be about two million Americans — more people than in any US city other than New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Houston.)
They’re the ultimate example of “stuff happens.” What makes them not as bad as they might be is how well people and their institutions respond to the challenge of containing the spread and reducing the death toll among those who contract the virus. COVID-19 itself, and the countermeasures implemented, are exacting a gargantuan economic toll as tens of millions of people are idled while businesses, factories, and public facilities are shut down for an unknown period of time. As of this writing, we have no firm idea of the human and economic toll to expect or how long painful countermeasures will be necessary.
A crisis? For sure. Let’s not waste it; let’s learn from it. Our forced adaptation to a totally unfamiliar world can and should cause us to critically examine assumptions about how we live and work and conduct business. There is a broad spectrum of possibilities, but this Advisor focuses on where IT plays a major role. Three categories bearing examination are:
The overall design and use of familiar 20th-century IT.
More effective use of 21st-century network-oriented IT.
Opportunities for innovative IT in the next decades.
Following are just a few examples.
Rethinking 20th-Century Innovations
Healthcare Data Management
The science of medicine thrives on data; many techniques of mathematical statistics were initially developed in aid of medicine (in fact, one early automated statistical analysis package was named BIOMED), particularly public health. COVID-19 has shined a harsh light on how poorly medical data has been managed, despite the abundance of tools, methods, and cheap accessible storage that today’s IT offers. For clinicians, the lack of anything approaching standardized and integrated health information at the country level has hampered efforts to find, test, and treat victims. For epidemiologists, the lack of a consistent count of victims and outcomes from place to place cripples their ability to model the spread and evaluate the effectiveness of measures to contain it.
Fixing these problems will require huge investments that medical providers may be unable or unwilling to make, but a national policy (or, much better, an international one) with clear standards and subsidies to ease the transition, would enable longer-term savings and, more important, far better healthcare.
Sophisticated automation has enabled global supply chains to function with maximal efficiency. COVID-19 has shown how it’s possible to overoptimize when vital supplies like PPE (personal protective equipment) and various generic drugs come from a single country X for no better reason than because country X is the lowest-cost producer. In some ideal world, country X would not be subject to political turmoil, natural disasters, or pandemics, but COVID-19 has underscored just how ideal the world is not. (For example, the Fukushima nuclear accident disrupted supply chains around the world because some components were only produced in that area.) Supply chain management automation per se is not the problem; the trouble arises in how it’s used. A bit of redundancy and inefficiency should be thought of in the same way as insurance; nobody bemoans what they spent on fire insurance because their house didn’t burn down that year.
Maximizing the Benefits of Networked IT
Working from Home
Most major cities’ skylines are dominated by huge office towers where tens of millions of people converge every morning so they can spend their working time in a cubicle, sitting in front of a computer and telephone. Now that so many of those people are working from home, employers have no choice but to make the best of it. If they’re wise, they’ll keep an open mind to find out empirically what works in their line of business and how a bit of culture change might make working from home a productivity win for both employers and employees. It’s not as though offices are uniquely productive environments in every case. Success depends on rethinking how work is done and managed when everybody’s online. The benefits to employees and society in general would be huge as hours wasted commuting are recovered, congestion is relieved, and transportation-based pollution is slashed.
New Emphases for IT innovation
Increased Focus for AI
While artificial intelligence (AI) is already being applied to drug discovery, COVID-19 has brought new focus in the medical community on viruses, the antibodies that fight them, and the possibilities for treatment and immunization. AI’s ability to analyze the myriad physical forms viruses take and sort through and evaluate the near infinite range of possibly promising molecules could move research and development significantly. The challenge is to mobilize and support experts from the fields of medicine, biology, and AI to work full tilt on the problem. Such an investment in basic science is best funded by governments. It represents a far more beneficial use of limited AI talent than targeting advertising or formulating hyper-sophisticated securities trading algorithms.
Like all crises, COVID-19 will eventually subside, and the natural human reaction — the line of least resistance — will be to get back to the status quo ante as quickly as possible. That may prove impossible, but even if we could, it would be a tragic waste of opportunities to better our lives and, worse yet, an avoidable waste. The year 2020 has delivered us shedloads of lemons; let’s at least make some lemonade!