We’re at a surreal moment in history where so many sudden changes are being forced on us and an old world is slipping away. We’re at a junction where we can collapse in the face of extreme challenges or embrace changes to create opportunities and herald a more resilient and sustainable society. Welcome to the global telepresence economy.
Crisis as Catalyst
This is not the first time in which a pandemic ushered in a new age—or new opportunities, if we play our cards right. When the flu of 1918 struck, the world had just ended a great conflict that began the deconstruction of the colonial era and ended after a second great World War with the rise of the modern economy. Since then, the world has been dabbling in the information age and a fast-moving globalized economy. The COVID-19 pandemic is, in turn, ushering in a new age for the economies of the future.
We are now forced to reassess the overall impacts of globalization—a process that may be long overdue. The current model of globalization facilitates production specialization in geographical locations where commodity price and marketable quality can be most consistently adhered to. However, this approach also engenders a narrower execution of production in response to global demand. For example, farms in Crete once produced a broad variety of agricultural products, including a wide spectrum of fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, grains, and dairy products that sustained Cretans internally with some rare, yet specific exportable goods. Globalization, facilitated by the Hellenic entrance into the European Union, began to drive a very different production model. Olives and olive oil gradually took over. You might say, “Great”! They made money, and the world happily received an increased quantity of these once rare and expensive products.
However, there’s a dark side to this story. Olive trees happen to be a very water intensive crop on an island with depleting fresh water and growing salinity. Singular crops, like the olives, often drive soil depletion and then require engineered chemical solutions that have negative environmental and health impacts. Cretans of old could grow and eat entirely from the island and surrounding waters—as they did so successfully during the second World War. While the occupying armies may have been dabbling with their own global supply chain model, the occupied people had the social resilience and ancient traditions to feed themselves and weather a cruel and horrific occupation.
COVID-19 has resulted in a shift to closed borders and stay-at-home orders across the nations of Europe. The Greeks must now deploy strategies similar to those used in the Battle of Crete… Can they harness their agricultural resources to feed their people independently? Certainly, the resilient Greeks have shown the ability to do so and perhaps can pave the way for other nations to follow. The worldwide red flag that has gone up will force many countries to ponder the risks of long-term resource interdependence. What is needed here is collaborative economies versus interdependent economies.
Challenges of Globalization in Times of Crisis
The U.S. is often cited as the world’s most robust marketplace. For two centuries, we’ve pioneered invention and production of goods never dreamed of in prior ages. U.S. industries invented and produced devices that would have been considered miraculous only a few centuries ago and that we now call smart phone, automobile, and television, to name a few. Louisiana produces the finest cotton thread and ships it all around the world, where it is woven into cloth that is sewn into garments and then shipped back to the U.S. to be sold. We may be the most richly resourced nation in the world, occupying almost an entire continent and stretching across climatic ecosystems that are so diverse as to reflect an entire planet’s resource portfolio in one country. Yet in the mass sequestration that has occurred in reaction to the deadly threat of COVID-19, the most capable nation on earth struggles to produce enough masks, gowns, gloves, and ventilators (all generally designed in the U.S.), and has been forced to get these products from abroad. Some of these source nations may not have our best interests in mind when pricing or making products available to us. Are we more or less resilient in this model? Is this the best model for globalization moving forward? Clearly, we’re seeing some serious vulnerabilities under this model.
In the Greek and U.S. examples cited above, there are also negative resource consumption, energy use, greenhouse gas production, and environmental impacts caused by addiction to production and a biased perspective toward luxury. We may spend less in this model, because of the use of cheap labor and robo sourcing, but there is a steep environmental price to pay. Resources are consumed to ship products all over the world. Cheap products often translate to disposable products, which means there’s a replacement product on the horizon. While a craftsman from three centuries ago would keep and care for tools for a lifetime, I’m writing this piece on a MacBook encased in a high-embodied energy aluminum casing that is already out of date just a few years after purchase. In the COVID-19 crisis, there has been a massive shut down of production and transportation, limiting activity to food, medicine, and vital systems. And the result will be a drop in greenhouse gas emissions of more than 10 percent for this year. There’s a lesson to be learned in this crisis. A new concept in globalization that supports greater resilience and social equity will put us on course for a more in a more balanced relationship with our living planet and its resources.
Catching up with the Future
The telepresence economy, which has been around for a while, is a key component of this resilience trajectory. Dr. Jay Sanders of Johns Hopkins University has spent a career helping telemedicine grow from its infancy with a vision for an amazing future. That future is now materializing in earnest. Since the 1960s, we’ve been seeing visions of video phones and captains on the starship Enterprise running complex operations with diverse teams through telepresence.
Science fiction has become reality. During the past several weeks of the COVID-19 sequestration, I’ve been interacting with teams across the country on a variety of projects. We’re all using tools that are only now starting to meet their full potential, including Teams, Zoom, Webex, GotoMeeting, and more. Some business teams are even using gamer glasses and platforms to have meetings with avatars; creating a more interactive virtual professional collaboration experience. We’re just starting to really learn how to interact with these tools and think about what more we want from them. But we must use these tools to continue in this crisis. And when the crisis is over, there’s no turning back.
Global Tools for Resilience Based Regional Solutions
Where does telepresence intersect with globalization? Our nations and regions need to rediscover the strength of their traditional contexts while reveling in the information sharing of a global network of thinkers. Pioneering is now a virtual endeavor. Our globalization is going to be increasingly virtual in the time to come, and our production may turn back to more regional or localized models.
Why does a customer in Cincinnati buy a barbie doll on Amazon made half a planet away when we can 3D print it out of recycled plastic in that same city and deliver it in less than a day? How can the most powerful medical system on the planet be crippled by the lack of supplies made of raw materials that can be found throughout the U.S. and in many recycling bins? The answer to these questions may be found in the ability to harvest diverse domestic sources. Gloves, cloth, and paper could easily be produced domestically. Assembly could be done as piece work by a diverse workforce not bound by factory location. Industrial parts can be made on 3D printers. Food may take the shape of the regional agriculture, reflective of a farm-to-table model. This can all happen while knowledge and information sharing take a much more expansive journey so that a surgeon in Sri Lanka can use telemedicine tools and robotics to be part of a procedure in Pittsburgh. If we have a larger workforce trained into a telepresence work habit, they don’t need to be in the same city as the office in which they work. By extension, there’s less need for massive road widening projects to facilitate peak commutes and the ensuing environmental impact.
A Framework for Balance and Resilience
We can arrive at a new more balanced model by…
- Limiting the global transport of products to those that are essential
- Localizing production of needed goods to more regional sources
- Acknowledging that knowledge transports faster and easier than do goods
The global telepresence economy allows information, communication, and expertise to travel virtually and quickly. Allowing it to mature to the production level means we can leverage robo sourcing and a flexible piece workforce to address just-in-time responses of goods. In this way, countries can mature their economies into more balanced and resilient systems where food, products, services, currency, and human capital can thrive. This isn’t to say that global trade of goods stops, but it may offer the impetus to prioritizing production of needed goods with reduced negative impacts on the planetary ecosystems. Supply chains will have to adapt opening up new opportunities for entrepreneurs. Anxiety should be replaced with more productive energy as this economic shift need not last long if we can make the pivot to move to qualitatively productive steady-state telepresence economic model.
Like it or not, the months of sequestration from the COVID-19 crisis will change the way we work, the way we view purchasing, and what we need. It will also change the way the economy of the future takes shape that can be both resilient and sustainable.