Several years ago, I visited a city that had been ravaged by a devastating storm. Much of the nearby infrastructure had been destroyed and it scarcely resembled the community from only a few days prior. During the chaos, a local politician stood on a makeshift stage and vowed to commit resources so the community could be rebuilt exactly as it was before.
I recall thinking: what a missed opportunity. While politically expedient, and clearly popular with the residents experiencing immediate hardship, the promise made to that community lacked bold leadership and vision.
Why the same? Why not better—much better, even?
Many of us spend our lives making incremental changes because bold change is too hard to achieve, or so we tell ourselves. This belief stems from the fact that many changes, especially the radical kind, often require depriving someone of something—whether it be a routine or habit—to which they had become accustomed. This creates the perception of loss. Change is also difficult because, although there may be something much better waiting for us on the other side, people tend to become comfortable with and protective of what they have today.
But these constraints go out the window when radical events such as the COVID-19 pandemic alter the world around us. What remains is a critical question: Do we rebuild exactly what we had before, perhaps letting the new normal unfold naturally, or do we push for something better—much better?
How should we think about shaping the new normal?
During a crisis as devastating and unprecedented as the COVID-19 pandemic, with its mounting loss of human life and economic repercussions, how can we begin to separate the truly destructive from the promising? How can we plan for what comes next?
As is the case with much of our work modeling behaviors, forecasting changes, and advising leaders, I find it helpful to consider how inertia within the system will be impacted. Consider the following:
- It’s difficult to take away people’s options, but once those options are gone it’s easier to provide new ones. A year ago, national parks were overcrowded with visitors and it was unthinkable to turn people away at the gate. But today there are no lines. It’s a perfect time to introduce new policies to manage demand in an equitable and conscientious way. In fact, this holds true for overtourism around the world. What would you do as a manager if you had a tabula rasa like the one created by COVID-19?
- It’s difficult to change people’s behavior, but once that behavior has been altered it’s easier to reinforce new norms. I recently spoke to a friend whose stay-at-home requirement removed his 3.5-hour round-trip commute into the city. Ever the family guy, he now has dinner with his kids and plays with them in the evenings. For years he was committed to his job and resigned to his commute. But now he cannot imagine going back to that life. What new behavioral norms should we be reinforcing? How many other people are experiencing similar positive changes in their work/life balance, and how can your organization’s policies support these individuals going forward?
- It’s difficult in normal times to imagine the extremes we face during a life-threatening crisis, but during a crisis our minds are open to other potential events. This global pandemic caught us all unprepared. Many states have struggled to obtain the necessary personal protective and hospital equipment required to treat patients and protect nurses and doctors. Some drugs were in short supply due to supply chain disruptions. We will recover, albeit with the scars of this horrific crisis. What is the next challenge we will face? Will it be environmental? What about our food supply? And how can technologies like drones or telemedicine shape how we respond to the next crisis? How should your organization’s resiliency planning change?
- It’s difficult in normal times to accept necessary but extreme change, but with our entire lives upturned, the old “extremes” no longer feel so extreme. For years now we have known that we must take certain actions and we have simply put them off. A prime example is the use of gas tax as a revenue-generating source for transportation infrastructure. It’s doomed and we all know it. But with travel and gas tax revenue down by double-digit percentages across the country, it’s not just doomed—it’s dead. Isn’t now the time to put those big ideas in motion that we know we need to pursue to ensure a strong future?
What comes next is not as important as what we do with the present opportunity
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a few lessons. Much has been written about how the air quality has improved in cities or regions in lockdown. At the same time, many people are now choosing active modes of transportation over driving.
The question for planners and business leaders now is whether it is possible to reinvigorate commerce and the broader economy while preserving some of the gains made during the COVID-19 pandemic. Which of these new behaviors will stick, and how can policies help shape these positive outcomes once travel resumes?
These and other changes were in the realm of the theoretical prior to COVID-19, but the reality of our current daily lives has us considering them in earnest and with a sense of practicality that was absent before. Millions of Americans are reexamining their own travel behaviors and habits as we hit pause on our commuting, work, and school schedules.
Expert opinions or thought pieces about the new normal are now commonplace. These all ask variations of the same question: What will people do when this is over? Most of these discussions adopt a passive perspective, signaling the next chapter will be written by its active participants.
People will, of course, still have a say in terms of what our lives and communities look like after COVID-19, but I’m more interested to understand how planners and business leaders can help shape the new normal. To do that, we need more than hunches or anecdotes. We need data, and we need a vision for how our communities can truly prosper after this crisis is over.
Now is the time for government officials and business leaders to shift perspectives and consider not what things will look like but what they could look like.
It’s time to make things better—much better.