As Stanford economist Paul Romer once wisely observed, ‘a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.’ And it will be fascinating to monitor which industries – and competitors in those sectors – lean into the pressures created by the coronavirus pandemic and emerge more efficient, more essential, or both.
As the increased pace of change in technology, demographics and other global trends have disrupted sector after sector around the world since we entered this century, it has been instructive to watch which industry sectors have seemed most unable (or unwilling) to transform themselves and take advantage of trends that could create competitive advantage for the future. Certainly, the health care delivery systems in the U.S. were an example—there was a lot of talk but very little dramatic change. Now, of course, the current pandemic shines glaring light on the inefficiencies and gaps in that sector, especially for people of modest means and for the provider organizations themselves. Shame on all of us if we don’t take advantage of what we’re learning and ‘make a better mousetrap’ for our children’s and their children’s future healthcare.
U.S. higher education also has, for the most part, been on borrowed time for a more dramatic shake-up and re-invention—too many schools chasing the same shrinking pool of students, dragging overweight expense structures and service delivery lacking innovation to meet the needs of future students who face mountains of debt. For more than a decade, funders and analysts of the sector have predicted the closing of hundreds, if not thousands, of post-secondary institutions—but a booming economy and stock market have enabled many to hang on—the reckoning for many may now be near. I sincerely hope leaders in those schools can rise to the occasion and consider options and avenues that in earlier times were judged too extreme: mergers of equals, challenging the methodologies and operating models, and re-imagining the role of education in our dynamic society.
And, of course, much is already being written about the ‘post-pandemic’ public sector—as we’ve looked to government at every level to deliver us from the current challenge, we should not allow demagogues who consider ‘government is the problem’ to retake their place without a refreshed debate. Do we want to see our extraordinary private sector re-emerge to innovate, grow and thrive again? Of course we do, but the hangover of anti-public sector politics needs to be acknowledged for what it is—a hangover from a period of extraordinary license for commerce, a period that made a few of us wealthy, many of us stuck in downward spirals and, at the end of the party, left us collectively incapable of staying out of the ditch without a government-funded ride home. None of that is articulated to suggest that government can’t and shouldn’t be improved, as well; but as with health care and education, the re-imagining should start with a shared acknowledgement that an effective public sector serves the common good. If we learn nothing else from COVID-19, let it be that.
What are other sectors that could and should look toward the horizon and use this highly disruptive time to re-imagine their future?