During a Pandemic, Look for the Innovators
We’re living through one of the scariest moments in modern history. The coronavirus pandemic threatens to kill more than two million Americans, necessitates unprecedented lockdowns on freedom of movement and has already thrown our economy into chaos. It would surprise no one if mortal fear and economic insecurity came together to birth psychological paralysis and cause a collective retreat to our comfort zones.
We might expect people to show stronger in-group bias and hostility towards people who are different, turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms like alcohol or freeze new economic investment. Some of this has already come to pass: Racism against Asian-Americans is surging, and many startups are already finding it harder to raise capital.
But in crisis moments, we also see the best in humanity—kindness, altruism and innovation. In fact, history shows us that crises typically usher in an increase in entrepreneurialism, as the thinkers, doers and makers among us find it hard to sit still—and as new necessities birth new inventions.
Historian Alexander Field found that “the most technologically progressive decade” of the 20th century was the 1930s, during the Great Depression. In 2009, as U.S. GDP contracted by 2.8 percent year-over-year at the height of the Great Recession, Americans started 550,000 new businesses—the highest rate in 14 years.
As a long-time organizer in the progressive movement, I have seen the same phenomenon first-hand. The election of President Donald Trump was indubitably experienced as a crisis among those who work on issues like civil rights and civil liberties, environmental sustainability and income inequality. It was outside the realm of what any of us would have considered possible, even just a year previously, and fundamentally shook our faith in democracy.
And what was the reaction on the left, after the 2016 election? Unprecedented innovation.
At New Media Ventures (NMV), where we invest in tech and media that power movements, we saw five times more applications for funding. Groups like Swing Left, Sister District, Indivisible and Run for Something were started in living rooms across the country by founders who couldn’t sit the moment out. And groups like Mijente, Stay Woke and United We Dream—which had already been working for social, racial and economic justice before the election—expanded their programs and experimented with new approaches. With our community of donors and investors, we moved $3 million to 17 projects that have changed the face of civic participation.
As the incoming president of NMV, I know that our energy is best served supporting projects that will buoy our most vulnerable communities as COVID-19 remakes the world.
We are already witnessing a wave of innovation. New and thriving mutual aid groups have sprung up around the country, from Chicago to San Francisco. Schools and universities’ experiments with virtual learning environments will reshape the future of education. In the world of politics, campaigns are pivoting from in-person fundraisers and door-knocking operations to virtual events and voter contact. In the social justice space, new networks of activists are coalescing around critical issues, like paid sick leave, occupational health and safety regulations and releasing people who are unnecessarily incarcerated in jails and prisons, which are petri dishes for disease.
Innovation is burgeoning within existing companies and organizations as well. Social distancing is revamping organizational culture and processes as we know them—and creating a moment when everything is on the table for re-evaluation. Within NMV, our current mantra is “assume nothing.” Any program decisions made more than a few weeks ago need to be revisited, and as a result, we will be running many experiments this year that will inevitably inform and improve our future work.
I anticipate that productivity will drop dramatically while organizations adapt to the new social and economic circumstances, like working from home, and unprecedented competing demands, like navigating childcare and caring for sick family members. But simultaneously, teams will develop new skills and have no choice but to optimize processes that were previously “good enough.” These changes will inevitably result in increased productivity after the pandemic.
As funders and investors, it can be tempting in times of uncertainty to pull back and wait out the crisis. We get it: the capital markets are paralyzed, and foundations’ endowments are at the mercy of the stock markets. But it’s exactly the wrong time to stop investing.
It’s our collective duty to support this innovative work and the brilliance that is to come. If we invest now in the new solutions this crisis is unlocking, we have the opportunity to emerge from this pandemic stronger as a society than ever before. Won’t you join me?