Autodesk Technology Centre in Toronto resident, Michael Schwanzer, of ZEITDice, is designing cameras that enable machines to see and understand our world in order to provide humans with new and valuable insights.
The Strategic Foresight team at Autodesk helps identify and articulate long-term forces of change and their implications to reveal insights shaping the future for Autodesk and our customers. Jon Pittman is the Autodesk VP of Strategic Foresight. Jon has also been a Lecturer at the Haas School of Business of the University of California at Berkeley. Jon is also the leader of our global crisis management team. Jon published the following article internally via our Autodesk Point of View newsletter. I obtained permission to share it on my blog as several customers have inquired about Autodesk's thoughts about the future of the industries we serve.
The New Normal
Travel restrictions, office closures, working from home, shelter in place, self-quarantine, social distancing... just what is the world coming to? A month ago, those of us in North America had not heard of these things. Six weeks ago, our colleagues in EMEA hadn't either. But our colleagues in APAC, particularly China, have been living with them since January. Today, they have become the norms for how we all go about living and working.
Are the draconian measures of the present the new normal?
Is this the new normal? Yes, it is, at least for a while. The reason Autodesk and our governments are subjecting us to such draconian measures is to stop the spread of COVID-19, also known as the Coronavirus. Carriers of the virus don't necessarily show symptoms and can transmit it to others without either the carrier or the newly infected person realizing it. This can result in an exponential growth in cases. What these measures do is reduce the transmission rate of the virus, thus flattening the exponential growth curve. The idea is to keep the virus from growing exponentially and overwhelming our ability to deal with it. If you wonder what happens when the transmission rate gets out of control, just watch what is happening in Italy and Iran.
A question many people are asking is, how long will these measures remain in place? In California, our shelter-in-place order lasts indefinitely. California's governor, Gavin Newsom, announced that most schools in California will be closed through the remainder of the school year. We are hearing similar guidance from Europe and other US states. So yes, this is the new normal, at least for a while.
This is a real hardship on employees who have children out of school plus spouses or partners out of work or are working extra shifts because they are in essential roles or are health care workers. There are single people who may be alone, people without work or income, parents having to become home school teachers having forgotten some of those lessons from long ago — all kinds of situations. There are, without a doubt, hardships everybody is suffering. Despite the hardships, people are adapting and coping with the situation.
There are some rays of hope. After more than two months of dramatic restrictions on movement and social contact, about 50% of our Shanghai team is able to come into the office on a rotating basis. Those held in Hubei Provence are now being released. Public transportation is working, and people are taking it. Traffic is starting to come back. Schools in Shanghai and Beijing are still closed indefinitely, and this will continue to impact employees everywhere. We were one of the first companies to close our offices there, and so far, we don't have any reported cases of COVID-19 in our Shanghai employee base. There is still a long way to go until working life in China is back to the way it was in 2019, but they seem to be on the way.
What China has gone through since January is the new normal that the rest of us around the world will be experiencing for the next few weeks or even months. Yes, it is a hardship, but there some bright spots:
Working from home and sheltering in place allows us to reconnect with our partners, children, and pets.
Our commutes are shorter — I've gone from two hours a day commuting, to about two minutes — and our air is getting cleaner.
We save money on gas (or electrons for EV owners), parking, mass transit, dry cleaning, expensive coffee drinks, lunches out, and a host of other expenses.
We spend less time traveling and more time getting stuff done.
We get to master Zoom, Slack, Teams, Mural, and a host of other collaboration tools that were nice to have but are now essential.
Of course, there are downsides too, some of which may emerge after we spend a few more weeks in such conditions.
Let's look at this from a positive perspective, though. This is unprecedented. Nobody on the planet has ever gone through something so cataclysmic and disruptive. We are all in this together. Crisis affords us new opportunities to be better. How do we all get through this together? So far, I've been heartened by everyone's response to this crisis. In general, people have been helpful and supportive and have worked together as One Autodesk. How can we continue and reinforce this positive behavior?
Be kind and tolerant. We are all struggling in one way or another with this. Parents have kids out of school, some workers no longer have work to do, and some are isolated and lonely. Some people have lost their jobs. We need to be understanding and kind to each other. We need to be tolerant with the understanding that we are all doing our best to cope.
Help each other. The corollary to being kind and tolerant is to help each other. None of us can deal with this on our own. Now is not the time to say, "it's not my job" or "you're on your own." Let's all continue to do our best to help each other through this. Now is a great time to exercise our One Autodesk muscles.
Decide. Right now, we all have a lot of decisions to make — both personally and professionally. We have to make those decisions based on limited and often ambiguous information under a lot of uncertainty. It is important to make them, though. In my role, we have a lot of these, and we sometimes struggle — but we do make them and try to make them clearly and quickly. We have to remind ourselves that we need a good decision, not a perfect one.
Lead. Now is the time for leaders at all levels of the company to step up and take the initiative. It is important for us to take the initiative and act, not wait for someone to tell us what to do. That said, we do want local actions to be consistent with global guidance, so always check our internal COVID-19 site for guidance before you act.
Help our customers and partners. Realize that our customers and partners are facing the same things we are. For some of them, they are in even more difficult situations because they are small businesses without the resources that Autodesk has, and their business may be slowing down. Just as we need to help each other, we need to help our partners and customers cope with this unprecedented event. There are signs that as our customers respond to the crisis, they are seeing more value in some of the things we offer, such a cloud, mobile, and subscriptions.
Our culture code has always been important. And it is even more important in times of crisis. I have been heartened by the degree to which everyone is working as One Autodesk. We need to keep doing that and flex many other cultural muscles — such as courage, innovation, accountable, pragmatic, and empowering decision-makers — to make sure we all get through this together.
Sooner or later, we will tame the virus. What will the new normal be then? It is quite possible that it will be quite unlike the old normal, and I am optimistic that it will be a better normal. Some have compared COVID-19 to war, particularly wars that posed an existential threat to the planet, like WWII. In WWII, the world faced an existential threat, as we do now. Entire nations mobilized and reoriented their economies to fight the threat. Nations were all in it together, and people sacrificed for the common good. If you look at how the world emerged from WWII, it was a far better place. We emerged stronger, safer, and more prosperous. I'd like to believe that our new normal, forged by this crisis, will be better.
Here are some possible ways the new normal could reorient society, economies, and even politics:
Virtual collaboration instead of travel. While we have had collaboration tools — such as Zoom, Slack, and Teams, for a while — it was all too easy to hop on a plane (or in a car) and spend a lot of time traveling to meet face-to-face. While we shouldn't underestimate the value of human connection in face-to-face meetings, maybe we will find that we can travel less and collaborate more?
Online shopping and entertainment. As retail outlets, bars, restaurants, and movie theaters close, they are being replaced by online shopping, take-out, and streaming video. This may accelerate societal trends that have been underway for a long time. Years ago, my real estate professor predicted that there would be two kinds of retail: high-volume big box and specialty experiential, like Nike stores. Similarly, for restaurants. There would be no middle ground for run-of-the-mill, undifferentiated retail, and entertainment. He was partially right. The crisis might replace big box retail totally with online shopping and undifferentiated movie theaters with streaming video to the comfort (and safety) of home.
Revolution in learning. We have been sensing for some time now that the traditional model of education is broken. Some have talked about moving learning online, which has its value but does perpetuate "sage on the stage" learning. That will happen, but the crisis may open up learning in new, more fundamental ways. I have been heartened to hear about the struggles parents have had homeschooling their kids. Not because I don't empathize with the challenges. Quite the contrary. It has been heartening to hear parents talk about how hard it is to teach and that we should value teaching more. This crisis will surely disrupt education, which has been sorely needed. What emerges from the disruption might be a richer, more fulfilling, and more useful model of learning.
Rethinking the conference. For the past several years, I've felt that we have reached "peak conference." The traditional conference seems to have lost its value. A bunch of people gathering in a big dark room to hear people speak seems to have lost its potency. Now when we cannot meet, we have to innovate in how we bring people together. We can do that virtually and perhaps with a mix of virtual and physical presence. Like a disruption in learning, we may be able to move some of the "content" of conferences online and make the time we do come together physically rich with human interaction.
Global warming. We are already reducing our use of fossil fuels as air travel stops, commutes dwindle, and we don't have to provide light and HVAC to large buildings. Air quality is already improving in some areas. Will this crisis give us a glimpse of what a green future could be like? And what will it teach us about how to achieve it?
Role of Government. Many governments have a bad reputation in recent times, but governments are who will save us from the COVID-19 crisis. Only governments have the resources and the ability to mobilize society to act as one. I sincerely hope this crisis will show us the value of government as protector of the people and reorient our perspective so we see how government and business can act together to help society and its citizens rather than being seen as adversaries. Perhaps I am naive, but if our political leaders learn that they have to work together for the common good in a crisis, will that carry over into our ongoing political discourse?
Recognition of the value of expertise and leadership. As economist and former Autodesk visiting fellow, Marco Annunciata, has pointed out, a number of countries elected populist politicians who are not particularly effective leaders who both lack leadership acumen and disdain expertise and, in some cases, science. That combination is particularly dysfunctional now that we need strong leaders who can make hard choices, speak with candor and authority, and instill confidence. And, we will not defeat this virus without deep scientific expertise.
Rise of the millennials. Some have criticized the millennial generation for not taking the crisis seriously. But consider this, I am a baby boomer, and my generation had it pretty easy. We were not battle-hardened like my parents' generation, who fought WWII and came out of it stronger and more cohesive and went on to build an incredibly prosperous, egalitarian, and global postwar society. It is entirely possible that the millennials will come through this crucible to emerge as our new leaders, battle-hardened and able to work together to forge a new society. I certainly hope so.
New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, speculates that in a few years we may refer to BC and AC — before Corona and after Corona.
We will view the COVID-19 crisis as a pivotal time — like WWII — where we redefined our notions of society, economics, citizenship, and our relationship with each other.
While this crisis is certainly terrible, it may be the disruption we need to get us all back on track: to create a more just, sustainable, and resilient world.
Thanks, Jon. Insights come from technology as well as foresight.
Jon's article was internal. Autodesk has a set of information available specifically for customers:
The resource center has:
- A message from our CEO
- Remote-work resources
- Guidance for Autodesk products
- Ability to join our Extended Access Program
- Recommendations for maintaining business continuity
- Advice on applying distance learning for education
- Ability to connect with our Autodesk community
Be sure to check it out.
Striving for normalcy is alive in the lab.