a unique opportunity

“The spread of germs is the price we pay for the spread of ideas.”Nicholas Christakis

Many people want a return to normal. But normal is what got us into this pandemic — mass air travel, global supply chains, constant expansion, pollution, biological weapons research, etc. What we have is a unique opportunity for significant change and a 21st century Renaissance.

“The Black Death upended the world of the Florentines and mightily reduced their numbers. And how did the Florentines respond to mass death and a shortage of hands? With great creativity and new visions. They opened their society to change and filled the ranks of the dead with new faces. You called it the Renaissance.

My COVID-19, on the other hand, is a minor pandemic, a small disrupter. A rupture to be sure, but nothing like my Black Death. But do you think that I have stopped your world so you can daily complain about lockdowns and shortages of toilet paper and computer chips? No. I am here, present and alive, so you can take stock, make amends, and pay attention to what matters.

Whether there will be a renaissance in your future depends not on how much knowledge your society has manufactured. Rather, it rests on how much wisdom you have cultivated.” —The Pandemic Speaks

angel of death during plague in rome

The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome — Wikimedia Commons

The authors of The Age of Discovery liken our current era to the European Renaissance of the 14th to 17th centuries. The Renaissance brought wonderful new discoveries — universities, astronomy, print — as well as new challenges — the pox, war, mass slavery. Our age is bringing similar discoveries — nano materials, mRNA, machine learning — and new threats — pandemics, extremism, climate change. We need to move beyond governments and markets.

Today, we are in desperate need of diverse thinking.

Seek difference. The point is not simply to visit different places and read different things; it’s to accumulate new perspectives. We may think we do this already, but most often we don’t, not really. We visit new spaces, but do we learn to see them through local eyes? If every business trip follows the same script — airport-taxi-hotel-office-artisinal café-taxi-airport — then the answer is no. —The Age of Discovery

We need to seek out the different. Curiosity is the key to progress as individuals and as a society in times of extreme complexity.

One area where we can make rapid change is in drastically reducing the commute to work and the energy used to support urban offices. In 1993 Peter Drucker declared that the office commute was obsolete. We can now prove him correct, almost 30 years later.

“It is now infinitely easier, cheaper and faster to do what the 19th century could not do: move information, and with it office work, to where the people are. The tools to do so are already here: the telephone, two-way video, electronic mail, the fax machine, the personal computer, the modem, and so on.” —The Ecological Vision

One year ago I concluded that most people would like the option to work from home, most of the time. This is especially true for knowledge workers. They have tasted it, and in spite of the challenges of being forced into what I would prefer to call ‘distributed work’ — they like it.

The CEO of Deloitte UK recently announced to 20,000 employees that, “We will let our people choose where they need to be to do their best work, in balance with their professional and personal responsibilities”.

These are the first small steps — in the right direction.

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