April 08, 2020

Stop thinking the world is gonna go back to normal

Adam Rang

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The Global Hack will help shape what future generations consider to be the new normal.

When everything returns to normal” is a phrase you’ve probably been hearing a lot lately.

We’re longing to return to that golden age before we ever heard of this damn coronavirus. Back when we could stand less than two metres from each other, as well as enjoy all the benefits that enabled — a world of limitless possibility with open borders and open businesses.

However, that might just be the latest stage of our collective denial about this crisis.

At first, many of us assumed the virus was too far away to affect us. Then it arrived in our communities, but we assumed the threat was just media hype. After all, we’ve seen other apocalyptic predictions come and go in our time — from the Y2K bug to swine flu. Then we saw tough lockdown measures going into force around us and some still assumed it would just be a few weeks of disruption.

But I want you to consider the possibility that the world never does return to normal. History shows that is more likely, but also less worrying than it sounds.

This is the assumption on whichThe Global Hackhas been created. The Global Hack is an online hackathon next weekend that will bring people together people from around the world to find solutions for this crisis and beyond. That last part — looking beyond this crisis — is just as important, if not more so.

Sure, humanity may eliminate this virus sooner or later. Or we may at least learn to coexist with the virus in a manageable way. And we will eventually be able to stand less than two metres from each other, even if these lockdown measures last longer in various forms than many of us are currently expecting.

But this crisis is still going to permanently shape our planet beyond that point in almost every aspect of our lives. It’s an entirely new starting point from which the rest of our history as a planet will continue. Some changes during this crisis may seem temporary at first, but become permanent. Some consequences of this crisis will lead to even more consequences as yet unforeseen.

Those long term changes could be for better or for worse, depending on our actions now. Most likely a complex combination of both.

Bear in mind that many people fought in the world wars with the belief that they would be putting the world back to normal afterwards. “It will all be over by Christmas” is a common characterisation of public sentiment in the UK at the outbreak of the first one. Instead, the world was fundamentally altered by both the devastation but also solutions that resulted in lasting positive changes. The post-war consensus established our international law, while post-war recovery efforts led to new ideas about how to organise society, such as the creation of national health services.

The past is another country, as the saying goes.

Even my country, Estonia, eventually joined that post-war ‘golden era’ after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The cover photo I chose for this article shows my partner (in life and business) looking out over an area to the west of Tallinn called Rummu. Until relatively recently, that was a vast and functioning Soviet prison below where inmates would mine limestone. It was below sea level, but there were pumps to take the ground water away. As the Soviet Union collapsed, the prison was shut down, the pumps were switched off, and large parts of this facility were submerged. This happened so rapidly that equipment and vehicles were abandoned beneath the rising tide.

That sunken prison remains here as a powerful monument to just how rapidly our world can change forever.

Sometimes we think only our political opponents are living in the past. Take Brexit, for example. One side seemed to imagine turning back the clock to a golden era before Britain joined the EU. But the other side may be equally as guilty as imagining the clock can be turned back just a few years and we can then move on as if the referendum result never happened. Those divisions have at least paled into insignificance in the current crisis.

Here’s the thing about nostalgia though. Those golden ages are never quite as shiny as we like to remember. Before this crisis, did we really live in a world of limitless possibility with open borders and open businesses? For many people, the answer is no. Our pre-coronavirus world had many other huge problems too.

So there’s no going back to normal after this crisis but that’s not necessarily a bad thing either.

That’s why the Global Hack is so important for both dealing with this crisis and looking to the world beyond. We all have an enormous opportunity right now to shape the new normal, both for our own lives and future generations.

The global hack: Tips for participants

The Global Hack is divided into 12 tracks:Arts & Creativity,Crisis Response,Economy,Education,Empowerment,Environment,Governance,Health & Wellness,Media & Entertainment,Mental Health,Solidarity in Action(which was recently added) andWork.

The team has been working incredibly hard behind the scenes to put this together over the past few weeks and have chosen these topics very well. They asked me to give a few pointers for participants about why each track was chosen so you can find those on the links above.

I now want to expand that with a few extra tips for participants.

1. Innovation isn’t just technological

You may come up with a solution that involves both technology and innovation. Remember though, that the technology itself does not have to be the innovation.

The most powerful innovations often depend on changes to processes or legal frameworks — or sometimes just making existing technology more easily available or usable.

Take e-Residency, for example (which happens to be sponsoring the future of work track in the Global Hack). E-Residency is often praised as a technological innovation, but that’s not quite true. The digital ID cards on which e-Residency was built are actually 20 years old! That’s when they were first issued to citizens and residents of Estonia.

The main innovation for e-Residency was purely legal at first. Laws had to be changed so that these digital ID cards could be issued to citizens of other countries around the world. After that, more legal innovations were introduced, as well as innovations in user experience. As more people around the world signed up for e-Residency and began creating companies through the programme, we had to keep improving the processes to make it easier to use, especially for English speakers with no prior business experience.

So embrace innovation, but remember that the technology and tools you need for your innovation may already exist in the world around you.

2. Focus on real problems

When times were good, we had the luxury of dreaming up solutions then looking for the problem that they solve. We celebrated and embraced technological change without a clear understanding of what solutions it might lead to. Remember when even Long Island Iced Tea became a blockchain company for some reason.

Those days are over, at least for now.

We currently have no shortage of real world problems that urgently need solving and that is what will triumph in this Global Hack. The biggest challenge right now is merely trying to figure out which one to get started with.

Speaking of which…

3. Change the world for at least one person

Your idea might not save the world. That’s ok though. This isn’t a Hollywood movie.

Working on the big virus problem, such as by developing a vaccine, might be sexy. But there are thousands of related problems right now and working on solutions to them might deliver a better rate of return. In fact, just minimising the impact of one problem would make a huge difference.

Let’s take one issue as an example. There are worrying reports about a significant rise in domestic violence during this crisis as people spend more time locked down with added stress on perpetrators and fewer opportunities for victims to find safety. Yet even official advice around the world on why people can leave their homes almost never mentions that people can leave if they feel unsafe. So don’t just be distracted by the race for a vaccine because there are many, many problems related to this crisis that you can help solve — and that may be the most valuable use of your time and skills.

As my old high school teacher taught me: You may not change the world, but you can change the world for at least one person.

Good luck!

Thanks for reading. My name’s Adam Rang and I’m a British-Estonian entrepreneur who previously helped develop Estonia’s e-Residency programme. I’m now Communications Director forUnicount, the simplest way to start a paperless EU company, and also exporting Estonian sauna design and technology (and traditions) throughEstonianSaunas.com. Both businesses have been affected by the crisis, but we are learning to adapt, including by pushing for changes that would eliminate the need for Estonia’s e-residents to physically collect their cards and also helping more people build their own Estonian saunas around the world while they can’t visit ours. By the way, if you need another example of how suddenly our world can change then bare in mind that one of my saunas for visitors is inside an abandoned Soviet Army truck!

So good luck to everyone take part in the Global Hack. The world is counting on you to help shape the new normal for future generations.

Sign up at theglobalhack.com.