Imagine the first time you gather in a group with no risk of Covid-19. When you reach out — in-person — to your colleagues, customers, friends and loved ones. How will you feel? Multiply that by billions of interactions, worldwide.
Few notice that in 2021 we’ll experience the last first reopening after a pandemic of our lifetimes. Sure, we might suffer future contagions, but this year’s will be the only first reopening we will endure.
Tremors of imminent reopening will loom large in our psyches, vexed by ambiguous timelines. With no single magic date of freedom, we’ll maneuver through fits and starts, surges and retreats. (Plans could even be derailed by new, vaccine-resistant strains… but so far, so good.)
The great unwinding
Like tight-coiled springs, our reopening lives will unleash colossal potential energy. The ‘Great unwinding’ — from suppressed personal desires to central banks’ balance sheets — will generate both chaos and opportunities. How will you leverage the energy of re-opening? Consider the following:
- What objectives will you prioritize — and why?
- What changes from 2020 should you retain?
- What of the past should you regain?
- What will re-opening mean for each of your stakeholders?
- Who needs help, and how can you help in purpose-relevant ways?
- How will you muster the agility to respond as conditions change?
Leading organizations have been exploring these questions for months. If yours is not, waste no more time. Don’t miss the unprecedented, never-to-return opportunity that is 2021.
Returning to a new normal
Our lives will never entirely return to 2019-normal. Many conditions, expectations and behaviors have changed. Who among us desires to reclaim a daily, multi-hour commute?
Nonetheless, as economies open, expect a surge in demand for in-person activities, from meetings and air travel to celebrations and concerts. We might thus experience a temporary, even significant, decline in online activity. Don’t be fooled. Consider this a backlash rather than a trend.
The Great Unwinding will manifest as a dramatic, temporary shift back to pre-pandemic behaviors. (With the exception of very large multi-day events — tens or even hundreds of thousands of individuals. Only a few — like Burning Man — will survive.)
Expect this backlash to be a speed bump along the inexorable digital transformation of our lives. In-person activities will continue to have compelling advantages of immersiveness and intimacy — but not forever. Imagine how much better online will be in five years. Or a decade.
Online, in-person and hybrid experiences will co-evolve, but digital capabilities advance far faster than in-person. Electrons are lighter than humans.
Many commentators opine the notion of a return to “normalcy.” While this feels like the right moniker, consider what it might, or might not, portend.
The term “normalcy” was coined by US President Warren G. Harding for his campaign of 1920, following World War I and amidst the last stages of the Spanish Flu pandemic which claimed over 100 million lives worldwide.
The world’s awkward relevance includes the fact that Harding, while one of America’s most “well-liked” presidents during his tenure, has been remembered as one of the worst presidents in US history. Following his untimely death in office in 1923, a range of scandals, corruption and mismanagement unraveled from his disastrous cabinet of cronies. Most historians agree Harding was unaware of the malfeasance, but that’s not much of a defense. A monument planned in his honor was eventually cancelled without fanfare.
Regardless of your political or policy biases, all agree we’re today transitioning out of one of the most divisive presidencies in American history. That active division — illustrated by the idiotic politicization of mask wearing — compromised America’s ability to meet the Covid-19 challenge. Let’s do better in 2021.
Re-opening impacts us all, globally
While some countries managed the crisis better than others, how each of us manages the re-opening affects us all.
It’s well known that a few East Asian countries like China, South Korea and Japan managed far better through the pandemic. They all “benefitted” (both accurate and ironic) from past viral scourges. They were better prepared and more proactive than the West.
Even for these countries, new insights will emerge regarding the efficacy of their management through the pandemic. China’s own Centers for Disease Control reported in late December that the actual infection rates were likely far higher than originally reported.
While some countries confronted epidemics prior to Covid-19, the re-opening of 2021 will be far different because it’s truly global. Unlike other recent pathogens, Covid-19 afflicted our entire world— trading partners, geopolitical allies and adversaries, home countries and homes of diasporas.
Evidenced by the world’s disconnected (e.g. — Europe), opaque (e.g. — China) and sometimes even pathetic and ad hominem (e.g. — USA) pandemic responses, too few of us recognize the profound implications of our global interconnectedness. While we are ‘all in this together’ — viruses don’t care who you are — we’ve not been in this together.
Good friend, TWINian and leading advocate for faith-based entrepreneurship, Rabbi Irwin Kula, first expressed this to me last year. “Everyone says we’re ‘all in this together.’ Really? I don’t see it. At a time when we most needed to stand together, our nation’s political divisions only became worse.”
Choices for 2021… And beyond
Each of us faces choices peculiar to this moment in history. What lessons from 2020 will we manifest in our decisions and behaviors? Which habits will we embrace? Which might we overcome?
Like many of you, I travelled a lot prior to the pandemic — over 200,000 miles a year for over a decade. I can’t wait to get back in the air (truly… @United); however, I’ve made a commitment to family and to myself to travel only when it matters. When immersion and in-person human engagements generate significant value. No more 3-hour meetings at the Frankfurt Airport Hilton.
Beyond individual choices, how will we collectively advance beyond this pandemic? Preparing for future pathogenic threats offers a singular opportunity to rehabilitate trust between nations. 2021 is not only our last first reopening after a pandemic. It has the potential to be the last.
While we can’t eliminate the threat of new pandemics — evolution is an agile target — we can be far smarter. As complexity theorist David Krakauer, CEO of the Santa Fe Institute, explained during TWIN Tech 2020, “pathogens spread not only because of their innate properties, but also because of our behaviors.”
How we navigate 2021 will be more far important than anything we did, or didn’t do, during 2020. Viruses will be viruses. The challenge to each of us is to progress as best we can through a tumultuous, perilous, opportunity-filled year. Our collective challenge is to — together — build more resilient and evolvable communities, societies and world.
How will you channel the energy of The Great Unwinding? For now, make a list of the people whom you most miss. Let them know you’ll soon be with them.
This article was originally published on Forbes on Jan 18, 2021.