The most important Innovation we need to pursue in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

17.04.2020 | OEB 2020

Source: OEB 2020

Innovation and adaptation are more important than ever. We must safeguard the common achievements of recent years, whilst changing our behaviour to respond to unprecedented societal and economic disruptions and challenges. Who better could we ask about the possible impact of this current crisis on our system and on our behaviour than futurist Marina Gorbis? She is the Executive Director of the Institute for the Future and Opening Keynote at Online Educa Berlin 2020.

We have seen massive disruption in response to the COVID-19 pandemic with a need for innovation and agility. Can you say something about this necessity of innovating and agility? Do you believe that workplaces and educations institutions can become more anti-fragile and sustainable as a result?

It is clear that many workplaces and educational institutions have had to adapt quickly to working remotely. For some it has been easier than for others. However, the present crisis is not so much the result of lack of innovation or adaptability but rather lack of foresight and ability to act on that foresight. Experts have been warning that pandemics such as the one we are experiencing today are likely to become more commonplace due to climate disruptions, population growth, and increasing global interconnectedness.

Over ten years ago, IFTF developed forecasts focused on biodisasters such as the spread of zoonotic diseases (those transmitted from animals to humans), anticipatory quarantines, and other viral threats. In 2009, ten years before the current outbreak, the Institute created a large-scale participatory game called Superstruct in which thousands of people collaborated to design and implement responses to five “superthreats,” including a pandemic. We were not the only ones saying we need to be prepared. Many experts, including in governments, have been sounding the alarm bells. However, we have very few incentives built into our systems for people to systematically think about the future and act on that knowledge. Our financial markets and businesses are rewarded for short term results; politicians worry about next election; a lot of media focuses on sensational stories rather than deep analysis.

While innovation and adaptation are important, the most important innovation we need to pursue is to create incentives in organizations, communities, education and political systems to focus on the long-term and to close the knowing-doing gap so we can be better prepared for the next pandemic, which is highly likely.


This isn’t a “regular” crisis. How do you think this will affect all businesses, academia and civic society? What good will come out of it, if any, in your view?

I think during crises like COVID19 pandemic many things that have been hidden come bursting into the open, many myths no longer turn out to be just that — myths. In the US, the coronavirus pandemic has already laid bare so many fundamental flaws in our society that were previously ignored or dismissed: The limits of privatized health care and the underinvestment in public health infrastructure. The fragility of a just-in-time economy. The critical importance and yet low levels of pay of workers in areas such as delivery, retail, care workers and sanitation. I think it is really important that these hidden inequities and vulnerabilities are becoming so obvious. Because the initial stages of the crisis are followed by a period of reset and reinvention. Reset is when we can reflect on what we just went through, give meaning to the experience, and understand its causes and wider implications. Re-invention is about just that — reinventing or adapting the system to prevent the crisis from happening again.


Looking forward, there will be physical and mental disruptions that we have to deal with for many months to come. Can you say something about the role of networks of individuals and your views on socialstructed economies, knowing what we know today?

I think this has already been happening — people coming together, creating bottom up networks to deal with the crisis. A great example COVID Accelerator started by our colleagues Eri Gentry and Tito Jankowski as an effort to bring together “motivated people who want to do something about this virus.” In just a few weeks the incubator nearly 1,000 people from around the world have joined the incubator, among them public health officials, designers, builders, and scientists The COVID Accelerator has already kicked off a number of projects, including an electronic cough tracker, a volunteer chores-service for medical personnel, and automated robots to perform COVID-19 testing.

We’ve heard that many companies need to rethink their business model (are they selling a drill — or a hole in the wall?). Has something changed for your organisation?

Many things have changed for us, including the fact that we don’t have access to our physical space and are all working remotely. More than that, we feel that our work has become more urgent than ever before because I believe many people are hopefully beginning to realize the dangers of short-termism and the need for actionable foresight. What is most exciting in the midst of all the anxiety and daily concerns about our communities and loved ones is to see many myths are being debunked and many approaches that might have previously not been politically viable suddenly appearing as solutions, such as Universal Basic Income, major public infrastructure investments, federal job guarantees, and others.

There is so much room and desire to imagine and build more sustainable, more resilient futures. As my colleague Jane McGonigal wrote, we are all “feeling the future” during this pandemic and this is not the future we want to live in. We can and need to imagine and build a better future for our planet and for ourselves.

Academic institutions and schools that have not delivered online learning before and companies that have not supported distributed work until now, have had to completely reverse their practices (due to the imposed self-isolation) What advantage do you think will arise in the long run for employees and students that are finally able to experience this huge transition? And what lessons could the companies and leaning institutions take forward? What will this mean for the future of work and education?

I think that companies and educational institutions are finding out both the advantages and limitation of online work and learning. As a result, they will hopefully come out with a much more nuanced and better understanding of the medium and what it good for and when and how to use it. The reality is that online is not a replacement to face-to-face, it is a different medium that is good for different things. For example, face-to-face interactions are really important for trust building, while online is great for asynchronous work. Hopefully as a result of being forced to be doing more things online, we will all become more media literate and will become more sophisticated in using both online and face-to-face interactions for the right purposes.

What are some of the best investments an education institution can make in this time?

I think people underestimate that online learning requires a lot of preparation. You cannot just take a lecture or a classroom curriculum and convert it to an online experience. You really have to create scaffolding for an online lesson, just like good teachers do for face-to-face instruction. I learned a lot from Howard Rheingold who pioneered the concept of peeragogy, an approach to teaching in which students play various roles as co-learners and participants in online education. I think more educational institutions should provide training to faculty in peeragogy and how to use online tools for learning rather than just assuming that teachers can just transition to teaching online.

Is there something that is making you hopeful, or perhaps even excited about these times? What are the things that we should never forget again?

As I said in response to earlier questions, I am hopeful that after this period of crisis we will move into the re-set and re-invention phases, and that the latter would include building in incentives for long-term thinking into the systems we create.

Interview by Online Educa Berlin for OEB Insights. OEB is the annual leading international cross-sector event on technology supported learning and training since 1995. A unique conference programme & exhibition foster exchange on the most important developments and trends that shape the future of learning in the corporate, education and public service sectors.

About Marina Gorbis & OEB

Keynote speaker Marina Gorbis, Executive Director of the Institute for the Future (IFTF), USA.