From This Global Disaster Will Emerge a New Era of Progress

April 28, 2020

By: Richard Gendal Brown, CTO

This piece originally appeared on Forbes.com


It may be “time to build,” but Marc Andreessen questions whether we have it in us. By focusing on what went wrong, he misses the green shoots that already exist, writes R3’s Richard Gendal Brown.

Predictions are hard, especially in these uncertain times. But what if one overriding prediction is all we need to plan for life after the lockdown?

Rewind to January 2020. What if I told you that you only needed to foresee one event to predict everything else that was going to happen in the economy over the coming months?

What would that one event have been? For the current crisis, the answer is probably “a global months-long lockdown”.

That was not easily foreseeable for most people. But if you’d asked anybody to imagine it happening, then almost everything else that followed could have been predicted. The spiraling unemployment, the shuttering of entire industries and, conversely, the breakout success of some firms.

Lockdown itself may have been unthinkable and unpredictable. However, to take an almost trivial example, “food delivery firms and video conferencing apps do well” was a pretty obvious outcome, but conditional on lockdown happening.

The hard part was the mega-prediction rather than the implications.

As business people, we have to plan for what happens after lockdown ends. And we have a duty to our customers, employees and investors to do our part in rebuilding the economy. And that means being ready to pursue as many high-quality opportunities as possible. After all, our contribution to the collective effort can only come from being as valuable as possible to our customers.

So it’s interesting to apply the lessons of the thought experiment above. Just as the economic implications of lockdown were trivially foreseeable once you considered the possibility of lockdown, what is the one theme that could play out once we ‘get back to work’, that may not seem obvious, but which has lots of implications that are obvious once you convince yourself that this one theme will materialize?

I believe that one theme will be society’s rekindled desire for progress.

We will desire and pursue progress over all else. There will be an elimination of excuses. The era of the ‘people who say no’ will be over.

What will the world will be like when the “prevailing bias” moves from “no” to “yes”?

There will be a ground-swelling clamor for countries to build, grow, work, and achieve again. To earn the wealth necessary to pay back those to whom so much is owed. To put people back to work. And if I’m right, some important predictions follow very obviously and naturally.

But first, here’s why I think the future will be one of progress.

For how long have futurists been writing about vague concepts like “digital transformation”, often with little to show for it? For how long have many in public discourse been bemoaning the West’s apparent inability to “get stuff done” these days?

Indeed, Marc Andreessen has just lambasted the West for its complacent failure over decades to invest, build, modernize, and prepare for the future. He uses failures at all levels of society to demonstrate how this has made the Coronavirus pandemic so much worse than it needed to be. He urges us to build! But he writes it imploringly, almost begging us to change our nature. I imagine he felt despair after hitting “publish”. After all, how often do people and societies change because they’re asked to?

And yet… by focusing on what went wrong, Andreessen misses the evidence that not only can we change; we already have.

Just look at how the paralyzing impact of the COVID-19 crisis has led to generational changes in a matter of weeks. The “impossible” has become routine in a matter of days. Doctors now embrace telemedicine. Universities are one of Zoom’s fastest growing customer segments. Working from home is now normal. Even the New York Stock Exchange has embraced the twentieth century and moved, if only temporarily, to all-electronic trading.

And look at how China, the UK and other countries have built entire hospitals in a week, the speed with which sophisticated contact-tracking solutions have been rolled out and the urgency with which entrepreneurs have responded to the need for ventilators and protective equipment.

Whether it’s the rollout of existing solutions or the development of entirely new ones, where there’s a will, there’s a way. And we now have the evidence of our own eyes to remind us of that fact.

This is energizing and empowering, because a myth has taken hold in the West that we “can’t get things done” any longer. We beat ourselves up about our failure to transform or to make big projects happen. We look at China, Singapore and other fast-growing, “can do” nations and sigh. Andreessen’s complaints are well-made.

But what the last two months have shown us is that when the will is there, obviously beneficial solutions do get adopted, and when the need is there, the public and private sectors, separately and collectively, can roll out new infrastructure at a breakneck speed.

We’ve just proved that when we put our minds to it, we still can make progress.

But there’s something else too.

When we are all allowed to move around again and get “back” to work, we will have to face the reality that our countries are all a lot poorer than they were even three months ago. We have a mountain to climb to regain that lost income, to earn our way back to prosperity.

And, at the same time, we will need to repay the moral debts we have to the millions of low-paid workers who put their lives on the line. Those homes they need, delayed for so long in bureaucratic processes, will finally be built. At unimaginable scale.  We may even see the army of the newly unemployed brought back to work as we finally discover the political imperative to rebuild the physical infrastructures of our countries, neglected for too long because it was hitherto just too hard to get anything done.

We are going to witness an awe-inspiring whirlwind of progress, driven by the unstoppable combination of renewed confidence that we can get things done, the need to put people back to work, our duty to repay those who sacrificed so much, and our desperate need to rebuild the trillions of dollars of wealth our countries have collectively seen evaporate since January.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for all parts of society and the economy to work together to deliver projects with long-lasting, generation-defining impact.

But hang on… what about all those special interests with the power to say “no”? Those forces that prevented progress in the past?

My prediction is this: for a brief, beautiful moment, their voices will be silenced. Nobody will be listening to the forces of no.  We won’t want to hear why something can’t be done.  Because we’ll all be too busy getting on and doing it.

Now is our chance to make a massive leap–let’s seize it!

Out of this global disaster will come a new era of progress. And woe betide those who stand in the way.

So what does this mean for those of us in business trying to make sense of this new world? If the public mood is going to shift towards a “can do” rather than “can’t do” attitude, how can we help? And where are the opportunities? What, in other words, are the obvious predictions that follow from the one, big, nonobvious prediction?

What will the world will be like when the “prevailing bias” moves from “no” to “yes” in other words?

All those projects–runways, railways, new hospitals–that everybody knows are the right thing to do but which blocking minorities have previously derailed–will suddenly become unblocked.

Suddenly narrow self-interest simply won’t be a good enough reason for standing in the way of an otherwise viable and valuable project. Firms subverting the greater good for their own narrow self-interest will become pariahs.

The greater good will prevail. This won’t last forever, but there will be a critical window of opportunity.

So the right question to ask is: what could you do if the blocking minority were obliterated?

Speaking as CTO of an enterprise blockchain firm, and hence now looking far more narrowly at my own little part of the world, this thought process makes my brain start to buzz.

After all, if you look at the high-quality enterprise blockchain projects out there, what characterizes them is that they bring together groups of firms–often fierce competitors–to improve how their market operates, for the benefit of all–themselves and their customers.

Yes, sometimes excellent projects can be delayed solely because a blocking minority would benefit less than some others. Or simply for apathy. But the need to rebuild the economy will smash apathy. And a newfound zero tolerance for individualistic “I’m alright” corporate nimbyism will take care of the rest.

So if you have a business opportunity predicated on optimizing how your market operates, or an idea that will increase overall wealth and help us rebuild our broken economies, then it’s possible the forces that stood in your way last month have just disappeared.

Morning is dawning for the progress-makers. It’s time to build!