Amid good news about flattening curves to the Global COVID-19 pandemic, people are starting to ask what happens next? In a time of uncertainty, we’re now wondering if there’s any way we can arrive at a better world — and if so, what it would look like.
So it’s important to hang onto those stories about positive things that are happening now — and how they just might offer signals of a better world to come. From telecommuting to telemedicine, through digital upgrades and environmental improvements, there are innovations from entrepreneurs and changes from within ourselves.
And mixed in with all the glimmers of hope, maybe there’s also early glimpses of the shape of things to come.
Off the Streets
Using real-time data from the California Highway Patrol, the Road Ecology Center at the University of California at Davis has determined that traffic was down as much as 55% on some highways. But then they took a look at whether car crashes were also going down.
And they were, and in a big way…
Over 22 days, the center calculated there were 658 fewer car accidents just in California compared to the same period the year before. And California also experienced a 50% drop in the number of car crashes that resulted in an injury or fatality — decreasing from about 400 per day to just 200 per day.
“The reduction in crashes works out to about 15,000 fewer collisions per month and 6,000 fewer injury/fatal accidents per month directly or indirectly attributable to the shelter-in-place order,” the researchers wrote. They even went on to quantify the impact in dollars and cents — about $40 million per day, or $1 billion in savings to the public over those 22 days.
They based that figure on the costs of property damage, treating the injuries (including emergency responses), insurance claims, lost time at work, “and the equivalent cost of a life…”
Now that the streets are empty, they can be used for other purposes. Some of them are now being visited by animals. There are coyotes on downtown Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, and by San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, according to the Associated Press.
— Gerald 🎧 (@sedna90377) April 23, 2020
The news agency also reports that one Arizona shopping center has “boar-like javelinas” wandering around outside, while “even New York City birds seem hungrier and bolder.”
And down in kangaroo country, the South Australian police joked about “a suspect wearing a grey fur coat hopping through the heart of the Adelaide commercial business district this morning…”
Protective Security Officers tracked a suspect wearing a grey fur coat hopping through the heart of the #adelaide CBD this morning. He was last seen on foot heading into the West Parklands 🦘🚔👮#animaltakeover #whatsthatskip #kangaroo #cityslicker pic.twitter.com/JPyVXIYQRw
— South Australia Police (@SAPoliceNews) April 19, 2020
Animals occupying the spaces once reserved for humans is one of the magical and unexpected results of the ongoing lockdowns around planet earth. While we humans shelter at home, “Animals are taking advantage by slowly clawing their way back into their former habitats,” reports CBS. Environmental scientists tell say that animals (and people) are starting to enjoy the lower levels of both air and noise pollution. NBC News reported a herd of 100 normally-skittish goats wandered through an abandoned town in Wales, while wild elephants have been spotted roaming through empty streets in India.
— ITV Wales News (@ITVWales) April 21, 2020
“It’s kind of reassuring to think that out there, beyond our own living room, life on planet earth continues,” concluded NBC News correspondent Sarah Harman. “Just maybe with a bit less of us for a while.”
Or, as the Associated Press put it, “An unplanned grand experiment is changing Earth.”
CBS reported that the world’s most endangered sea turtle even had its largest spawn in 20 years on the beaches of Thailand. And David Godfrey, executive director of the Sea Turtle Conservancy, told the Associated Press there’s been better spawns in locations around the world, from Florida to India to Costa Rica. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times reported that the annual survey of Griffith Park found twice as many active nests for falcons, owls, and hawks as there were a year ago.
What if we never went back to the same level of commuting? And what if auto emissions never returned to their earlier levels?
An April 17 report from Bond Capital, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, argued that when Bay Area tech companies began sending their workers home on March 2, “a big experiment started that will likely change the way lots of office work is done.”
Bond informally surveyed the companies they invest in — businesses “generally run in the cloud using cutting-edge technology,” most of them online businesses, and often with 40-50% of their workforce focused on engineering and product development. The early results? “At the margin, productivity is the same or higher.” And its survey respondents also reported that video calls can be efficient and productive, while people who work outside of headquarters actually now feel more included. Plus, “It’s easier to bring outsiders in for quick video discussions.”
If this seems like an unusually focused look at emerging trends, there’s a reason. Axios.com, which republished the report in full, points out that one of the partners at Bond is Mary Meeker, known for her iconic annual Internet Trends Reports, and that this report “shares some structural similarities.”
The most important trend it found may be that workers are really enjoying this break in commuting, as well as the more flexible schedules and eating their meals with their families. And most of the companies surveyed said they’d now be planning to distribute their work forces even more. Some were also thinking about its possible positive effects on corporate recruiting — and one founder predicted nimble startups would be receptive to the idea.
“We are finding, in many ways, there’s a lot to like.”
But it’s not just entrepreneurs who have room for improvement. Bond’s report also expressed a hope we’ll see “long-overdue upgrades and overhauls of government technology/processes.” And they’re also predicting we’ll finally see the culmination of a long-term move toward digital health records. “Healthcare is just beginning to embrace the modern data architecture of interoperability and APIs,” they write. “Despite decades of investments in electronic health records, there remains hundreds of dark, unconnected pools of healthcare data.”
Years of "we'll digitize that process later" is now catching up to enterprises. Based on what we're seeing from customers, we're about to see an onslaught of companies going digital-first wherever possible.
— Aaron Levie (@levie) March 30, 2020
Bond’s report also predicts a continuation if not an acceleration of already-underway trends — including remote medicine. Besides its obvious benefits during a pandemic, telehealth “is faster, and often delivers better quality, and is almost always cheaper…”
“The demand has shifted forever on virtual care,” Jason Gorevic, CEO of Teladoc Health, told CNBC.
Bond’s report ultimately argues that creative innovators, globally and together, “will rise above the virus.” There are already several examples appearing on technology news sites. Raspberry Pi-controlled 3D printers have been used to print face shields, while others are using their printers to generate parts for medical equipment. To help COVID-19 innovators, O’Reilly Media is offering free downloads of its ebook “Prototype to Product,” written by a tinkerer who is now working on an open source ventilator.
Bond believes our current pandemic “creates a moment for the technology sector and its entrepreneurs to shine.”
Of course, they’re not the only ones who are there for the American people, and CNN shared a particularly inspiring story. In eastern Pennsylvania, more than 40 workers spent 28 days living in their factory — and working 12-hour shifts — in order to keep producing polypropylene, the raw material needed by downstream factories to create medical face masks.
It’s all proof of one more positive trend spotted by Sherry Turkle, professor of science and technology social studies at MIT (and the founding director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self). She pointed out a new willingness to give that’s been happening online, from YoYo Ma’s free cello concerts to the entrepreneurs offering their time to listen to pitches. “This is a different life on the screen from disappearing into a video game or polishing one’s avatar. This is breaking open a medium with human generosity and empathy. This is looking within and asking: ‘What can I authentically offer? I have a life, a history. What do people need?’
“If, moving forward, we apply our most human instincts to our devices, that will have been a powerful COVID-19 legacy.”
- How NASA’s engineers are controlling the Curiosity rover on Mars while sheltering at home.
- How the Smithsonian is preserving notebooks from the career of
astronaut and physicist Sally Ride.
- Using a 1930 teletype as a Linux Terminal.
- Will mental health therapists move to virtual or remote sessions?
- How a bookstore and book distributor teamed up to build an Amazon-like e-commerce site that supports independent bookstores.
- How San Francisco’s legendary City Lights Bookstore survived thanks to crowdfunding.
- Formula E racing broadcasts switch to covering online marble races.
- The great Hacker News chess and poker tournaments.
- The world’s chess champion loses to a 16-year-old in “Banter Blitz” chess — and has been livestreaming himself playing recklessly as “DrDrunkenstein”.
- “No, not GoToMeeting. I said Goat to Meeting.”
- Other videocall pranks include deep-faking yourself in real-time so people think you’re Elon Musk.
Feature image: Chris Fitzpatrick, Audrey Jeffers Highway, Trinidad (Creative Commons via Wikipedia)