The global COVID-19 pandemic has led to such massive global disruption that many believe the world will never be the same again. Given the scale and severity of the disruption it is no surprise that many are reflecting on, and are anxious about, the future. As humans we are quickly adapting to what is sometimes being referred to as a “new normal” as a result of the current disruption to work, school and life. For those lucky enough to maintain their jobs in the midst of lockdowns, in-person and analog functions are being digitally and virtually transformed.
On the one hand, we seem to have rather quickly become used to this massive change, adapting at scale in a short time frame to a radically new way of interacting with one another. The internet is full of stories of people and communities creating new ways of meeting their needs and the needs of others. Businesses and entrepreneurs in search of economic gain or business continuity are using innovative approaches to deliver needed food, health care and other services to communities. With global travel at a complete halt, previously thought-to-be extinct wildlife has reappeared, and the reduction of pollution can be seen from space. These disruptions seem to have unleashed a world of opportunity and optimism.
On the other side, the pandemic has exposed the deep inequities within and between communities. The virus may be transmitted indiscriminately, but its impact has exposed inequitable access to health, economic opportunities and social safety nets that enable families and communities to survive.
No one knows what this new normal will look like in the future. Scientists and trending data tell us we can expect an increase in crises and additional disruption from new and more frequent pandemics, growing conflict and crises, rapid urbanization and a progressively complex and evolving digital space, also known as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
This crisis has also allowed for a more sobering perspective on what has persisted from the “old normal.” In particular, the COVID-19 pandemic has called attention to the status quo on race, gender and socioeconomic disparities within communities in the U.S. and around the world. In lower and middle income countries (LMIC), women constitute nearly 60% of the informal economy, earn less and are more likely to experience poverty in the first place. In the U.S., COVID-19 has been killing Black Americans at three times the rate of white Americans, and job losses are disproportionately impacting the lowest wage earners, with a disproportionate effect on both racial minorities and women. It is no coincidence that during this same moment in history, there have been mass protests in the U.S. and globally. This understanding, that these two tragedies both reflect the structural nature of racial inequality, is why some counties and cities have declared race a public health emergency.
COVID-19 and innovation
In some cases, innovative responses to COVID-19 have exacerbated inequities by favoring design adaptations that disproportionately benefit already-privileged groups, while adding new structural barriers to exclude others. For example, with school closures, aside from child care concerns, children from low-income households have been at risk of going without meals and are more unlikely to have access to computers or the internet, putting them at a disadvantage compared to wealthier classmates who can continue learning online. For children with learning disabilities or other special needs, distance learning options create additional challenges for teachers, parents and students.
So where do we go from here? And what should we as development and public health professionals do?
What if, instead of seeking to create a new normal that resembles the old, we use this disruption as an opportunity to design a different future that is more equitable, radically inclusive, and truly reflective of and guided by diverse perspectives? Instead of accepting that inequities are inevitable, we need to actively and intentionally ensure that we incorporate and account for equity and inclusion in preparation for, in the midst of, and in the aftermath of COVID-19, and in other crises we will undoubtedly face in the future.
Innovation for equity and inclusion
How might we embrace the opportunity to accelerate change and take advantage of the disrupted patterns of behavior, thinking, interacting and approaches to meeting the needs of our lives right now — but in a way that rejects racism, xenophobia and gender inequality in favor of greater equity, inclusivity and embracing diverse perspectives?
The framework: Resilience brings an important framework to innovation. Resilience theory calls for the capacity to systematically learn from, engage and adapt within a socioecological system (organization, community, society). In other words, resilience means “to roll with the punches.” Innovation, particularly where disruptive, can transform the system. But a singular disruptive innovation that may, for example, contribute to equity and inclusion is not adequate. What resilience adds to innovation is the ability to understand the problem from a systems perspective, and to use this learning to evolve the system. Innovative solutions are not inherently beneficial to the overall system, but they are very good at addressing discrete problems. This is what we are experiencing in this new normal. For example, an array of learning apps and digital platforms have solved access to education for a large number of children, but this does not consider the broader system solutions. We need to do both and constantly reassess and measure our success towards equitable, inclusive communities and societies.
The strategy: Employ design thinking as a strategy for innovation and equity. What does this mean? This means that conceptually we need to design the world we want to see, to reflect real diversity, equity and inclusion. Antiracism in the U.S., for example, calls for designing systems (e.g., institutions, policies, community health, economic, education and public safety) in a way that benefits everyone. The death of George Floyd and the protests that followed call global attention to the longstanding systemic racism in the U.S. police infrastructure and criminal justice system. Aside from flagrant discrimination and harm to the citizens it is supposed to protect, the system clearly does not reflect the diverse needs of communities. Innovative policy, program and digital or technical tools designed with diverse community needs at the center will lead to better outcomes — for everyone.
The tools: Innovative digital and technological solutions will play an important role in our future. As we develop these tools, human-centered design can be leveraged, and we must prioritize funding for co-designing with excluded groups to devise solutions for challenges they identify as their priorities. However, as we employ, invest or design innovative digital tools, we must consider what we are prioritizing and for whom. Who will benefit? Whose problem does it solve? Does/can it better reflect the needs of those are typically excluded? Does it advance equity and inclusion, especially for those who have traditionally been left out? Digital innovations can promote equity by helping us more quickly capture data and assess and monitor inclusivity and equity, particularly in crises. These tools may also provide a range of solutions for barriers to things like health, education, skills and work.
As we invest in innovation, we must constantly ask who is innovating, to solve what problem and with what impact on the broader system. Each of us understands our own struggles and communities best. Resourcing with skills or financial investments to operationalize or scale these solutions demands genuine partnerships. We must collaborate and ensure that innovation is user-centered and that we prioritize problems and solutions that benefit the most vulnerable. From a global development perspective, we need to incorporate data to understand the changing dynamics of equity and inclusion. In these turbulent times, we will need sensitive and flexible data tools that capture a wide range of context variables while also detecting changes in their impact on people and services.
It will be important to prioritize innovation processes that are designed by and for communities that experience barriers to health, education, skills and work. All innovations must be designed with specific attention to the equity barriers for that group to effectively reduce inequities. Creative disruption can lead to possibilities and shape a new normal that is gender-transformative, diverse and equitable. It is about time that we stop settling for “normal,” and instead embrace equity, inclusion and our beautiful diversity so that instead of our tired, broken status quo we can achieve the extraordinary.
For more articles of this nature, sign up for From Plan to Action, a quarterly newsletter that highlights the technical work of Plan International USA.