They kept the plan so secret that they lost the key – Robert Redford at the Hudson River – What´s a girl like you (doing in a place like this) – The fool on the hill – A Swiss Army Knife in every household
We weren’t ready.
The COVID19 pandemic has shown that most Western countries were not prepared to deal with a major crisis. The President of the Government of Spain himself acknowledged it at his March 21, 2020 appearance before the nation. Emmanuel Macron admitted France was not prepared. We may have not heard the same words form other Presidents but there are many voices in the UK, USA, and elsewhere who demand to know why most of the Western countries were not prepared for this pandemic.
The main role of the State is to protect its citizens from dangers that, although infrequent or even totally unpredictable, have the potential to cause systemic, widespread large losses. Its their duty to prevent “fat tail” risks or “black swans”, a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, even though the COVID is mostly a white swan since it was predicted many years in advance. How could this ever happen?. Wasn´t the government supposed to have a plan?.
To divert resources for the far future rather than use them now in more urgent matters, to use them to avoid a hypothetical disaster when there may be no warning signs on the near horizon, and to take difficult actions when the danger is neither tangible nor imminent, requires leaders who enjoy the trust and respect of a large majority of their fellow citizens. Our societies are experiencing a huge leadership crisis, as well as deep internal division and polarization. This is where we may find the root causes for the absence of contingency plans, and the seed for our own present and future penalties.
All is lost
As in the film after which this section is named, once the crisis struck we had no choice but to try to bail water from the boat in order not to sink. There has been a lack of foresight, but there has been no shortage of initiative, technical and organizational capacity, sacrifice, a sense of duty and a will to help. Starting at the battlefront, nurses, doctors and the healthcare system, cleaning services, firefighters, the food sector, our critical transport, energy and communications infrastructures, our police or our armed forces.
But also, many people at the rearguard have also shone for their human and professional quality and adaptability. Many companies have transformed their production lines or have leveraged on their assets to support the healthcare system. Numerous initiatives have emerged from small businesses to individuals that have sought to help to mitigate the effects of this pandemic to the extent possible.
An unexpected guest
At the rearguard, the maker community has made some headlines. The maker movement is a group of people who share a passion for technology and use it in all kinds of projects, do-it-yourself or collective, large and small, ambitious and idle. It is a community that, although not yet well known to the general public, has already a long tradition in most Western countries and has grown exponentially since the release of personal 3D printers. Who was going to tell us that those kids who we gazed at making plastic figurines would end up spending their weeks finding ways to help us all while on lockdown! .
The reaction of this community to COVID19 represents the best expression of their capabilities and, above all, of their values. Following the declaration of emergency and the news on the risk of lacking medical equipment, various initiatives sprang throughout the world to try to provide solutions for the health system.
Among these initiatives is the Spanish forum A.I.RE created in mid-March to share information on the creation of open respirators and ventilators, which soon resulted in a community oriented to design any type of medical device. This collective, also known as coronavirusmakers, already brings than 15,000 participants together, from all over the world. Across its threads knowledge, ideas, questions, contacts and resources are relentlessly exchanged and various teams are coordinated for the purpose of producing masks, protective glasses, “T” parts to be able to connect several patients to the same respirator or, the most ambitious project of all, the development of a respirator.
The featured items are the protective face shields, at the time of this writing. This is already an indicative of the entrepreneurial, innovative and adaptive skillset embraced by the maker community, because shields were not the obvious need at the beginning of this crisis since everyone focused on respirators and masks. But it was proven, on the fly, that they were useful equipment and that their manufacture was viable by the vast part of the community. A country-wide distributed network capability has been used to design, test, and get user feedback on dozens of different prototypes in a few days.
When one of the designs struck some success, anyone in the community was able to download it from a web platform and become part of a huge factory that had production cells in every neighborhood in the world. From their homes thousands of makers have been melting plastic filament non-stop using their personal 3D printers. Many companies, NGOs and individuals have joined by donating materials. They self-organized into regional teams whose mission was managing the logistics of sourcing and, especially, the distribution of the equipment to health authorities and other users.
Things seen from above
All this maker rush of energy and creativity has come across collaboration, gratefulness and sympathy form healthcare professionals, companies, individuals and administrations. But it also has created several dysfunctions. The health authorities, overwhelmed by the pandemic, have had to face the added problem of having to manage thousands of donations of equipment that could be potentially dangerous because neither the products nor their delivery meet the usual standards of supply. Adapting those standards to an emergency is not something that can be improvised or taken lightly.
Makers have experienced situations of frustration and stupefaction. Some of them have seen their shields denied for use in some health facilities. Some local authorities have sent messages rejecting these shields while nurses at hospitals were desperately asking the maker community for them because they did not have any protection at all.
Without access to expert knowledge it is difficult to navigate through the ambiguities surrounding the use of masks and to understand whether it makes sense to make contributions at the design and production level from the maker perspective or not. Where the face shields designed by makers were approved, production could be scaled up immediately to industrial volumes, but it would never happen if the administration didn´t step in.
In Spain, the Foral Community of Navarra was one of the first to address this situation, but it took them two weeks to do so. That´s a long time in a context like this, and they were pioneers!. The federal and regional governments were just not aware of the maker movement and they did not have a clue of how to interface with it. This shows how vital is to prepare and map all capabilities and resources in the country and nurture key relationships during peacetime, which will enable fast and fluent communication in times of crisis.
Invest in antifragility
If there is one lesson we must learn from this crisis, it is that we must prepare for the next one. The maker movement has proven during this pandemic to be an asset that creates alternatives where there are none, that builds a productive fabric that adds capacity to adapt to the environment and, therefore, that generates resilience. Furthermore, to cultivate this movement is both an assumable investment and a profitable one.
It is assumable because it does not require the use of large sums of money. So far it has been the makers themselves who have invested the most in this movement. For years, they have put their effort, energy, talent and money to create the capacities that have made this spontaneous response possible. Also some private and public entities, foundations and companies through their corporate social responsibility policies have also contributed to the development of this community. A small private and public additional support would multiply the impact of this movement in an order of magnitude.
There is a broad consensus in that we face major challenges in terms of education, innovation, digitization and entrepreneurship. The maker movement is a silver bullet that, based on talent development, has a potential to address each and every one of the above-mentioned challenges. Investing in people is a profitable investment.
The next crisis doesn’t have to be like this one. This time our food production and distribution chains, our logistics, energy, transport and communications infrastructures has not been damaged, but they could collapse in a different scenario. We are bound to live in a world we don’t understand We don’t know who or what the next enemy will be, or how or when or where he’ll hit us. Switzerland has a reputation for being one of the most antifragile countries in the world and has a reputation as impossible to invade because of its compulsory army service and guns owned by civilians. What if our households are equipped with the knowledge and the tools to do (almost) anything instead?.