The Three Crises Caused by COVID-19 — and How to Respond

By Kaitlin Milliken, Scott Kirsner |  June 19, 2020

Futurist Steve Brown sees the current pandemic as three overlapping crises. The first, he says, deals with public health. The second is an operational concern, as people navigate stay-at-home advisories and social distancing protocols. The final crisis he points to is an economic one.

“Each [crisis] requires a different response,” Brown says. “The public health crisis requires a safety response. … Next comes an operational [solution]… The economic stuff — the only way out of that is to invest and innovate your way out of it.”

Brown is the founder of the consultancy Possibility and Purpose, and author of the new book “The Innovation Ultimatum.” Prior to starting his own company, Brown was Intel’s Chief Evangelist. He also worked as a futurist for Intel Labs.

Brown advises that teams use the crisis triggered by COVID-19 to accelerate innovation. “No one comes out of a downturn on a growth path by saving and scrimping and cutting their way out of it,” Brown says. “So the innovation agenda is just as relevant as ever.”

Highlights from a recent conversation with Brown follow. You can also view the video of Brown’s conversation with Kirsner above.

How COVID-19 Can ‘Stress Test’ Your Business

I think [of the pandemic] in many ways as the great accelerator. … The trick is to make the investments that you need to make [because of] COVID, but you also know are good for the long-term strength of the business, and it’s not going to hurt people. To have a great digital end-to-end customer journey, it’s not going to hurt people. For the workers…give them flexibility to work remotely. It’s all good hygiene for the business. … I’ve been encouraging people to use COVID as a pressure test for their business to figure out where are the holes? Where do I need to build more resilience? It gets them thinking about the long-term of the business, even though they’re short-term fixes.

Projecting the Timeframe for the New Normal

If you vaccinate one American, every second…it would take you over 10 years to vaccinate everybody. So it’s going to have to be a monumental military-scale operation to get that done in a six-month timeframe. … We are going to be living with physical distancing for that time… [For] about a year or 18 months from now, we have to plan for there not really being a vaccine or not being an effective treatment.

I would say 18 months from now, we can start thinking about going back to a new normal, but I don’t think we will return to December 2019. Once we have a vaccine, things will have been accelerated. I’ll give you simple examples. Touchscreens in airports and fast food joints. …

Some people are going to move, because they just have a different level of risk aversion. Or they realize that “I can work remotely, and I can convince my boss to let me.” …And I think consumer demands on understanding more about what they buy, and where it comes from, is going to be a new normal we stick with as well.

I think about this time…as the great defroster. It is going to unfreeze all of these systems and allow them to change out of necessity. If you are a change agent, this is a great time for you.

Unfreezing Paralyzed Industries

Another way to think about systems is very often they freeze in place. It is very hard to change them. And that could be because of regulations in an industry — think healthcare. It could be because of tradition — think education. It could be because of a risk-averse culture, or a management team that’s run out of ideas. There are lots of reasons why things become paralyzed. The other way I think about this time is as the great defroster. It is going to unfreeze all of these systems and allow them to change out of necessity. So if you are a change agent, this is a great time for you. … It’s an opportunity — probably a once in a generation or two — to drive meaningful change for the good.