A kaleidoscopic moment shapes a new mosaic, as forces conspire to create a social new order

Many are the debates as the greater Austin area finds itself at the intersection of challenges exacerbated by the pace of rapid population growth and geographic expansion. Where they ultimately converge, however, is in the discussion we are not having -- understanding that collectively we have been pushed to ‘the edge’ of institutional and organizational digital transformation and its physical manifestations

New patterns of live and living await, there is no going back
Photo: Pawel Szvmanski via Unsplash

Children, inescapably, have a fascination with kaleidoscopes. They don’t need to know that the kaleidoscope was invented in 1816 by Sir David Brewster or that the word comes from the Greek words kalos (“beautiful”), eïdos (“form”), and skopeïn (“to view”) to fully absorb the experience.

The wonder of the scope is to observe a spectrum of colors ‘locked’ into a unique and wonderful geometric mosaic. Slowly rotating the outer part of the scope, at first, causes a few tiny colored pieces to shift in very minor ways while the crux of the mosaic remains. But, as the rotation continues, there comes a moment when all the pieces are in motion and the pattern that was, transforms in an instant to a new and different pattern. The old pattern cannot be retrieved or recalled by reversing the direction of rotation; only new patterns are created. To some extent, kaleidoscopes may be viewed as a metaphor, a virtual representation of how humans create patterns out of rigid structures reflected in our organizational, institutional and built environment designs. At some point and under certain conditions, like the kaleidoscope, these pieces are ‘forced’ into re-alignment exposing different interrelationships of social, economic and environmental ‘shards’ and creating an entirely new mosaic. 

Kaleidoscopes continue as an object of fascination for many reasons. But now, there is no better metaphor for how we change, adapt, and shift to new ways of understanding that depart from the old. For on the other side of the pandemic now trapping us in its brutal embrace, a transformation from which old patterns of living and working can never be retrieved awaits us — with one important difference. 

In a kaleidoscope, the pieces ‘fall’ according to forces of gravity. In the human experience, the pieces do not ‘fall’ but are ‘put into place’ to create something new. 

Human beings seek to impose order, assign meaning and predict outcomes to the way the world around us behaves. We structure ‘time’ with our clocks and calendars. We overcome distance with intricate automobile, rail, ship and aviation transportation and transit systems.  And we have long advanced from guttural expressions, sand scrawls and cave wall drawings to lightspeed communications around the globe and into space. We create rules for transacting commerce to instill trust in contracts, currencies and other financial instruments. In our efforts to create these structures, we divide up geography and natural resources. We do this to ‘protect us’ from ‘the unknown’, creating repetitive patterns to reduce risks and produce a sense of security and stability. In order to manifest these outcomes, we establish institutions to guide and govern.

And all of this appears to work for some of the people some of the time but usually not everyone, and certainly not all the time except for a very rare few. It appears to work until something happens and suddenly it doesn’t. It may be the burning embers of revolts against inequality and exclusion. It may be the humanistic response to poverty and starvation.

And it certainly could be horrendous natural disasters or a global pandemic that threatens the very essence of our humanity, the need to connect with one another. And in those moments, much like the kaleidoscope, forces conspire to create a new order.

“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

― Lewis Carroll

Now events have moved us to realign the ‘pieces’ again. COVID-19 is a catalyst to change the order of things. It has made us all, to some extent, ‘different’ people than we were before. It is a reminder of the fragility of human life and society and the ability for ‘one good turn’ to instantly and dramatically alter the patterns of our lives that we previously considered secure, reassuring and predictable. And then there is the part about not being able to go back, back to the way it was. What happens when structures and the organizations that created them need to adapt, need to respond to our current crisis and the numerous organizational and institutional limitations illuminated by the global pandemic?

Throughout history, societies and their organizations and institutions have been created upon some form of ‘social contract,’ an agreement and understanding of the rights and responsibilities of the governed and those who govern. It is a way to help clarify how individual self-interests can be balanced against the needs of a society and are embedded in expressions like ‘there is safety in numbers’ and ‘no man is an island’ as John Donne famously put it. Some form of social contract has inextricably been part of the history of human existence.

Our current understanding of social contracts has evolved through writings of Thomas Hobbs (1588-1679), John Locke (1612-1687), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).  Locke’s arguments for the social contract, and for the right of citizens to revolt against their king were enormously influential on the democratic revolutions that followed, especially on Thomas Jefferson, and the founders of the United States. A historic example of human intent can be found in comparing Locke’s claim of ‘life, liberty and property’ to Jefferson’s ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ more than one hundred years apart. At that specific point in time, under traumatic circumstances, a few individuals (framers of the U.S. Constitution) consciously toiled to move and refine the ‘pieces’ that proclaim our values and codify our way of life.Our constitution embodies our collective commitments to self-govern and to peacefully resolve differences.

In each case, the scholars worked to integrate their fundamental beliefs about human beings and society by realigning and reshaping the institutions and organizations to create new ‘mosaics’. Their writings ‘guided’ the construction of key institutions and organizations at times of great change.

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”  ― Albert Einstein

In many ways, our most recent pandemic crisis has magnified a lengthy list of long festering inequalities in our society. These inequalities have been part of the pre-COVID-19 construct. Access is not equal: access to education, healthcare, nutritious diets and good paying jobs; access to reliable and affordable housing, transportation, and telecommunications; and access to clean air and clean water.

In the recent article opening the Crisis Cities, public symposium on the 2020 crises and their impact on urban life, Preexisting Conditions: What 2020 Reveals about Our Urban Future, Thomas Sugrue writes, “The year 2020 is a moment of crisis, but also a moment ripe with the possibility of radical change. In the past, crises have opened up possibilities for the rethinking of politics, for the reorganization of institutions, for the reimagination of urban space. There is, however, nothing inevitable about the outcomes.”

His colleague Rodrigo Nunes warns that “if there is one thing that the last decade ought to have taught us, it is that strong objective factors do not automatically translate into powerful  movements, let alone into the spontaneous discovery of the ‘correct line’ by the masses.” The arc of the moral universe sometimes bends toward justice, but it just as often veers off course.

In the past, entrenched problems like violent policing have been met by tepid, largely symbolic reforms, as Simon Balto  notes, using the troubled history of the Chicago Police Department as a case study. “What would reform look like,” he asks, “if the institution itself is the problem?”

That is a question applicable not just to law enforcement but to nearly every dimension of urban life: What alternatives will we create to respond to the current crises? And how will we get there?

Balto further writes:

“The 2020 crises have, above all, put a spotlight on the distinctive and often corrosive features of modern urbanism. Just as COVID-19 is particularly dangerous to populations with preexisting conditions, the virus has ferociously swept through urban areas because of their preexisting social conditions: the precarity of work; the unaffordability of housing; the depth of racial, ethnic, and class divides; a profoundly unequal global economy; and the failure of many governments worldwide to rise to the challenges.”

The greater Austin area, like numerous other communities, finds itself at the intersection of many of these challenges which are further exacerbated by the pace of rapid population growth and geographic expansion. Social and economic inequalities have been fixed into our institutions, policies, and infrastructures and, as such, require conscious effort when they re-align.

If there is one way that COVID-19 has twisted the social kaleidoscope most profoundly it is in the way we move ideas vs. the way we move atoms. So much about ‘the way we were’ is reflected by the physical infrastructures we have built to expand access via transportation and transit.They require large commitments of time and resources and many projects have timelines stretching a decade or longer. We need to build transportation and transit solutions but must also recognize their limitations and inefficiencies. Just for the Austin-Round Rock area alone, the Texas Transportation Institute found annual congestion costs (pre-COVID-19) of the delays on Austin area highways paid by drivers in time and wasted gasoline exceeds $1.5 billion! When calculated across all of Texas, time and wasted fuel costs annually balloon to more than $11.5 billion. When combined with the rising costs and diminished availability of housing, lengthening commutes have long become burdensome for many workers and have excluded many others from employment opportunities. But there are other infrastructure tools today that lay virtually unclaimed and unmined.

Today, our lockdown experiences have intensely illuminated — to the surprise of many — that a large percentage of the workforce are knowledge workers and that, for some of those workers, information networks can replace transportation and transit as ways of connecting and ‘getting’ to work. Just as our transportation and transit systems have limitations, the WFH (Work-From-Home) COVID-19 experience has also illuminated the numerous inequities in broadband distribution, capacity, security, and affordability. What is clear is that the power of these distributive technologies are far reaching and are disrupting, at one level, what office space we need and where we need it and, at another level, the fundamental relationships of employers and employees challenging the re-thinking of organizational structure and dynamics in the coming era. Finally, we need to acknowledge that these forces of transformation are simultaneously occurring in urban and regional communities which are fundamentally dependent on the quality of their labor force. We have collectively been pushed to ‘the edge’ of institutional and organizational digital transformation and its physical manifestations. Yes, distributive network technologies provide a timely alternative to moving people but we must consciously engage in developing distributed designs to fully institutionalize this next level of digital transformation.

“It is adaptive rather than allocative efficiency which is the key to long run growth.

 – Douglass C. North, “Economic Performance Through Time,” 1993 Economics Nobel Prize lecture

Post COVID-19 may reinforce our need to design human-centric processes that are more equitable. Optimistically, we now have a unique set of infrastructure tools to do just that. The question is, ‘Are we up to the task of constructing a more integrated distributed design into the fabric of our communities?’

Can we imagine and create how distributed centers will accelerate the research, development and applications of advanced immersive technologies in the workplace as well as telemedicine and distance learning? Employers will continue to support WFH solutions, although there are many whose homes are less suitable as an office. And certainly, there are growing concerns of WFH regarding the twin issues of security and individual privacy. 

While vaccines give us promise for relief from COVID-19, this virus is not the only external force turning the kaleidoscope. There is no world where we profess a commitment to human-centric design where we can ignore the harsh realities of changes in our climate that are producing more volatile storm systems, droughts, floods, changing coastlines and dramatic temperatures. Once again, these distributive technologies are key to quickly shifting some commuters to local centers and immediately and measurably reducing GHG emissions both directly (shorter commuter trips) and indirectly (less congestion). Unlike COVID-19, our climate challenges are not going away soon and there is no vaccine.

When the kaleidoscope turns, there is a moment in time when all the pieces are in motion and the future is unknown. If we are to learn from the past we must embrace and further develop these newly valued technology tools. We can let them ‘fall’ into a new order or, in this defining moment, we can envision and act to create a mosaic of inclusion, equity, and opportunity. In the book “Inventing the Future” written by Dennis Gabor in 1963 (who was later awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in inventing holography in 1947), he writes “”the future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.” 

These new infrastructure tools (information networks) are unique and transformative but they also require us to actively explore, develop and apply them in new ways. As you read these words, tomorrow’s mosaic is in the process of being shaped. Whether we chose to consciously forge our future by taking action or we stand by and allow the pieces to re-align on their own, this moment will never come again.

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