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Dr. Derek Cabrera on "Life After COVID-19"

Citation: “Dr. Derek Cabrera on Life After COVID-19.” Talk by Derek Cabrera, Global Policy Insights, 29 May 2020, 

The transcript for the talk is below. 

Crisis = Mirror

I’m sure you’ve heard JFKs words that the Chinese word for crisis is made up of danger and opportunity. Or, MLK’s words that the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. 

But what do crises DO for us?  The answer is, they act as a mirror to how we behave… what we value… and who we are.

What’s the Crisis?

Over a decade ago I led a project to survey the entire Cornell Faculty about a single question: what is the crisis?

They collectively identified 116 unique crises. Even back in 2008, epidemics and pandemics were on the list.  Faculty then sorted and rated the crises so we could cluster and analyze them. 

We drilled into the data to identify patterns. In general, we wanted to better understand the nature of crises we faced as humanity. But we were particularly interested in understanding the root crisis—the crisis that lies underneath all the other crises. 

Like peeling an onion, our team gradually began to see that the crisis was one of thinking. Systems thinking. 

Bad news

I have some good news and some bad news.

I’ll give you the bad news first. 

I’m meant to share with you today something profound and avant-garde, even new. 

But alas, all I have is something pedestrian and obvious. 

Here’s the worse-news. When something is obvious (run-of-the-mill, hum-drum, pedestrian) you expect it to be normative... everyday... common. But what do you do when something is obvious and uncommon?

In fact these things I’ll share are the same pedestrian things we teach our grad students at Cornell and to executives and leaders around the world. In our 15 week courses at Cornell, we purposefully try not to teach too many things, instead we teach the same fundamentals over and over again. In other words, in the first week, we teach the fundamentals. Then we teach them again in a different way. So that in 15 weeks we don’t teach 15 things, we teach 1 thing, 15 times. It means students learn 1 thing in our courses. Which, if research into educational retention rates is to believed,  is 10-fold more than what students learn in normative classes.

We do this because timeless truths are always timely. Obvious truths are often overlooked. The commonplace is so often uncommon.

So, the bad news is that what I have to share isn’t avant garde and profound. It’s obvious and uncommon.

Good news 

Here’s the good news

As the COVID-19 crisis has emerged, I admit I’ve been faced with something of an existential crisis. As a “leading expert” in systems thinking, systems scientist, and faculty at Cornell I teach the next generation of policy leaders systems thinking, mapping, and leadership. The question that has crossed my mind, is are we essential workers? Is systems thinking essential?

I’m happy to report that my conclusion—and it wasn’t a foregone conclusion—is yes. That’s the good news. Systems Thinking is valuable, useful, needed. It is essential. 

As I watch the news, there couldn’t be a more in-your-face, real-world, hand-picked, wicked problem that screams for the need for systems thinking. 

Let me give you a few examples…

Systems Thinking Loop

What possible alternative scenario, other than COVID-19, could make a better case for the importance of Systems Thinking? In fact, perhaps the most basic idea in ST is the ST Loop which reminds us that we must conform our mental models to reality rather than conform reality to our mental models. We see confirmation bias—conforming reality to our mental models—playing out daily in our leadership… and the results are deadly real.

The Systems Thinking Loop tells us that we need to align how we think things work with how they actually work in the world. It tells us:

To recognize that everything we believe, think, assume, or conclude is a mental model. That these mental models are not the same as reality. The map is not the territory. Our mental models are only approximations of reality. 

We need to test them against reality in order to assess how good of an approximation they are and  to pay attention to the important informational feedback we receive. This feedback should  inform our mental models to improve them—to form new mental models— and the process incrementally and cyclically begins again. This is because it’s a loop....

“No duh.”

I share this idea a lot and a consistent retort is: “No duh,” “That’s pretty obvious.” 

To which I say: The Systems Thinking Loop has been around for between 70 and 1,400 years (depending on where you start your history)

I get it. It seems too simple, to be profound. Yet, it's curious to me that so few people or organizations follow it. If it is so no-duh obvious then why is it so uncommon?!

Let me give you two examples: The standard product development paradigm happens when  a tech company hires the best folks it can find, gives them a big budget to build a new product and sends them to a special facility. They reappear 12 months later with a product to provide to consumers. Consumers quickly dismiss it as not useful. This could have been learned much quicker by starting with a minimum viable product (MVP). You might say, that’s basically design thinking, we already do that. You’d be right! Design thinking is immensely popular since it appeared on the scene a decade ago. Note that the basic algorithm for design thinking (incremental realism) is no different than the ST Loop, which has been around for 1,400 years! 

The ST Loop is perfectly in play in the COVID-19 crisis. Meaning, the more we align our thinking (mental models) about the virus with what is actually happening with the virus - the better our choices will be. The Virus has its own purpose and we can only act upon the science of what we know from the real world feedback we receive. This feedback manifests in the degree of spread, number of cases, and in the effect of our behavioral changes (social distancing, etc). Because, the virus doesn’t care what your opinion is. Like the Dude, the virus abides. 

SO -- while the virus itself is problematic, of greater importance is how we think about the virus. And here we are. Back to the crisis of thinking. 


What possible alternative scenario, other than COVID-19, could make a better case for the idea that simplicity underlies complexity. That the Micro begets the macro. This comes from the study of Complex Adaptive Systems or CAS, or the idea that a system’s behavior (say, the number of infections and deaths) is an emergent property of the simple rules (social distancing, testing, contact tracing, hand washing, etc) followed locally by autonomous agents. The micro behaviors of millions of individuals to wear a mask or not, self-quarantine or not, practice social distancing and hand-washing leads to the macro -- the emergent statistical patterns of contagion, population spread, death, peaks, curve flattening and unfortunately, resurgences of the disease. 

So applying CAS to COVID--shows that simple rules roll up into the stats. SO, if you DON’T like the stats, then look at the simple rules influencing agent behavior to change them!

If we stayed the course with local behavior changes. We could have stopped it even without a vaccine. We could have saved countless lives.

Systemic Leadership

What possible alternative scenario, other than COVID-19, makes a better case for  systems leadership that takes these important ideas into account. We need leadership that sees the big picture and the tiniest details.

We need leadership that understands human organization, and human organizations, as Complex Adaptive Systems to see that organizations are not clinical, mechanical clockworks that are full of hierarchically controlled people who do everything they’re told to do. 

They are self-organizing, organic, unruly, beasts with a mind of their own that grow and evolve. Such as the spontaneous, self-organization that sent tens of thousands of masks—one at a time—to New York in a time of crisis. That is organization, too.

And COVID 19 spotlights the  lack of systems leadership in the United States (and in many countries) that we are all experiencing. 

Genius of AND/BOTH

What possible alternative scenario, other than COVID-19 could make a better case for Multivalent over Bivalent thinking? I affectionately refer to this as the Tyranny of EITHER/OR over the Genius of AND/BOTH. 

Systems thinking shows us this idea in the distinctions, systems, relationships and perspectives we take.I’ll give you a few examples: 

The distinctions we make are false dichotomies: Should we open OR close? Is it about public health OR the economy? Should schools be all Online OR all on-site? Masks OR no-masks? 

We need to do both. And, if we follow the science and the ST Loop, we would see a middle way between opposites that involves AND/BOTH which offers specific systems of systems such as social distancing, face covers, hand washing and testing, tracing, and containment.

And these choices are driven by the perspectives we take: should we listen to the health professionals OR the economists? Yes - And/both. We fall victim to the Suddenly syndrome - a result of linear causality--where we think cause and effect are neighbors on a timeline and disregard webs of causality. Cause and effect not neighbors on timeline. 

In the early days of the COVID crisis we all struggled with exponential growth. Now we struggle with delay--we can’t seem to see that the effect of our current behaviors are on a two week DELAY;

Suddenly, we get divorced. Suddenly, we have cancer. Suddenly, people are ignorant. Suddenly, we elect a populist demagogue. Suddenly, we need respirators. Suddenly, we are unprepared.

We also have many questions about the future. When asked, for example, what will we be doing in September? Try answering, . “I don’t know.” Say it along with me. It is ok to say WE DON’T KNOW. It is not weak to say We DON’T KNOW. We don’t know. It’s not profound. But it is humble. It shows humility. It shows that we are fallible in the face of dangers. It changes our demeanor to be on the lookout. To be more curious, to pay more attention. To look at what’s going on.

There are countless more examples, but alas, I only have 15 minutes.

Part and parcel of this leadership vacuum has been its binary thinking. The Tyranny of EITHER/OR rather than the Genius of AND/BOTH

Science and Humanism

What possible alternative scenario, other than COVID-19, could make a better case for the immense importance of science-driven humanism. 

In the US, BEFORE COVID, 75% of people didn’t believe in - or were not sure if evolution was true. This is hard to understand  - almost ironic - during a time when we face a crisis caused by a biologically evolved virus.. But it's also near insane just considering that the fruit we buy in the grocery store is genetically modified. 

How is that possible? It speaks to a system that does not believe in science. That happened BEFORE COVID.

A poll yesterday showed that 51% of Americans would take a vaccine if there was one -- which means 49% would NOT! This is shocking, flummoxing, and sad. 

And how is that possible? It speaks to a system that has failed to educate its citizenry. Who does not believe in science. Who is easily manipulated by fake news and conspiracy theories. That happened BEFORE COVID.

We must go with science: follow the loop - and observe the world and test against reality with reason, facts, evidence, and data-driven decisions over superstition, religiosity, authority, myth, innuendo, charisma, and gut feelings;

We must go with humanism: An ethic that--although we are not yet perfect and may never be perfect--that we can form a more perfect union. A more perfect world. 

After COVID-19

So, I want to say a few things about what happens after COVID. 

There is no after COVID. COVID is just another crisis. There will be more crises--maybe worse ones. 

It's not really about what happens AFTER COVID. Because what happened during COVID-19 has a lot more to do with what did and didn’t happen BEFORE COVID-19. 

We have neglected our educational, mental health, urban, rural, agricultural, and environmental systems for a very long time. It didn’t happen suddenly.

We have allowed massive, naturally-occurring hub-effects to create a fractal winner take all society that has decimated the middle class. It didn’t happen suddenly.

We have ignored science, and miseducated people about science, clung to religion and superstition and in turn created a susceptible voting populace. It didn’t happen suddenly.

We have thought in binary and reactive ways for a long time. Leading us to be unprepared, unsustainable and unresilient to crises. Our current condition of unpreparedness didn’t happen suddenly.

And that’s just to name a few.


What I’m going to say is a bit of a paradox. While mathematics is a powerful language, it is not the language of nature. 

The language of nature is the reconciliation of paradox. Nature has had many many years to find systemic solutions that - to us appear conflicting or paradoxical.

So here goes. 

Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that I am a sky-is-falling kind of person. I’m not. I’m a data driven kind of person and the data tells us that 

Society, writ large, is better than it's ever been. Less people are affected by war, poverty, and crime than ever before in human history.  So, we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We want to keep what's working. But…

That doesn’t mean it can’t be and shouldn’t be improved. We can always form a more perfect union. A more perfect world.

And to improve it, I think what COVID is mirroring for us, is that we don’t need to simply change it here and there, we need to overhaul it; to radically redesign it. 

A Four Legged Stool

And that redesign needs to look very different--maybe in a way that at first glance looks absurd but takes 4 things into account.

And I surely can’t give it justice in 15m, but I offer four things to focus on -- that make up the four legs of a policy table: Science, Hub Effects, Defense, and Education

And we might think very basically in terms of splitting the national or global budget in terms of these 4 things. So in the case of the US budget, something on the order of $1.1T per leg.

I don’t mean that we do things the same, for example, in education. I mean we must radically change the way we educate. The funding for education. The pay for teachers. We must challenge our assumptions about what schools are and follow the science of how people learn. And then fund that learning. People learn their whole lives. School could be a lot more like real life. And a truly educated citizenry will make different local decisions and behave differently. As we often see in complex adaptive systems, we will get a lot of our concerns (like the environment, equality, etc) for “free” if we change education.  In other words, many of our concerns are symptoms of the cause, they are not the disease. 

Hub effects, for example, aren’t merely monopolization regulations. Hub effects are seen across society, fractally. They are naturally occurring, so we must explicitly and formally combat them.

There is much more to discuss regarding this proposal, but I will say this. What we are talking about is redesigning for robustness and resilience, adaptability and sustainability.  If we design for those systemic functions and qualities, then we will be prepared for whatever crisis comes next.