A fictional piece from our IDB Executive Fellow, Mike Dana, of what the world will look like in 2041:
25 May 2041
Nuevo Tucson, Southwest Territory
United States of New America
I hope this letter finds you safe and well. I haven’t written my favorite granddaughter a letter in years, so I wanted to use this timeless method of communication to convey my best wishes to you on your 20th birthday. As part of “Generation COVID” or “Generation C” I thought you would find the following COVID-19 recollections useful.
It is hard to believe that twenty years has passed since the pandemic’s end. This wasn’t the deadliest pandemic in the history of the United States, but it certainly was the most disruptive. COVID-19 blended the worst of the 1918 pandemic and the 1929 Great Depression. In hindsight, you think we would have taken the lessons from the 1918 Spanish Flu to better prepare for COVID-19. It took the Spanish Flu four months to circumvent the globe in 1918. It infected one third of the earth’s population and killed upwards of 50 million worldwide, to include at least 500,000 in the USA. Thankfully, we did not have these high mortality rates in 2020-2021, but, tragically, over 160,000 perished. The parallels between 1918 and 2020 are striking. In 2020, the lack of pandemic preparedness and uneven performance of underfunded federal and state health agencies was the same as in 1918, but was perhaps more shocking because we had suffered through the 1918 pandemic. The heroic efforts of nurses, doctors, and care givers was as important and as evident in 2020 as it was in 1918. Our 21st century globalized economy was one of our greatest strengths before the pandemic, but ironically turned out to be our greatest weakness during the crisis. Our lean, interdependent supply chains were not resilient enough to weather the storm. Shortages in medical supplies and food were common during the pandemic. Tourism, airline travel, cruise lines, hotels, restaurants, and food processing industries also took a direct hit from COVID-19. Well- intentioned Federal relief packages did not have the desired economic impact, yet they increased our national debt to unsustainable levels. Baby Boomer receipt of Social Security benefits peaked in 2029 and this literally broke the financial back of the US government. This led to the Second American Revolution of 2030. The revolution was peaceful, driven by state and regional governments, who were seen as closer to the electorate. They organized themselves into smaller blocks and took back the authority previously delegated to the Federal government. These strong regional alignments led some states with geographical and regional commonalities to become more tightly integrated locally, and improved the delivery of services to their populations. The Federal Government was downsized, restructured, and made solvent after declaring bankruptcy in 2030. It forfeited its central role in governing the lives of our citizens, as the states reclaimed authority to govern their citizens and pushed it down to local levels. We learned an important lesson and applied it—services must be delivered locally, planned regionally, and integrated nationally.
I know you are studying COVID-19 at the Virtual University of Arizona. These take-aways on COVID’s impact on the US and global communities over the past twenty years are meant to inform your studies.
Unlike in 1918-1919 where we put the pandemic behind us, COVID made a searing and enduring impact on all aspects of our 21st century lives. The ramifications of these changes should be discussed by you and your classmates, because their full impact has yet to be realized. These impacts follow:
– Legal tender in the form of paper and coin was eliminated. This took longer than I thought it would because skilled hackers, especially in Russia and Iran wreaked havoc on E-currencies. When China’s renminbi replaced the US dollar as the global currency in 2030, it delayed the final conversion from physical to electronic currency, but the conversion occurred anyway in 2032.
– The rise of unmanned platforms and the decline of manned platforms. The Chinese outpaced us in this new and highly successful field of autonomous transportation. It started with AutoX in Shanghai in 2020, where unmanned taxi’s transported concerned customers reluctant to ride on mass transit. Shortly thereafter, China fielded fleets of Ehang 184 autonomous air taxis that could bypass crowded city streets and fly customers to their destinations in minutes, vice hours. This initiative also led to the redesign of mass transit in major cities throughout the world; unmanned buses, light rail, and seaborne ferries equipped with individual, sanitized pods assured riders they would move safely and reliably to their point-of-destination. A start-up company, Breathe Safe, made a fortune by developing a nearly transparent, ergonomic, user-friendly mask that customers wore to travel safely on airplanes, trains, and other forms of mass transit.
– An increase in the use of renewable and green energy. Governments around the world slowly, but steadily embraced the environmental movement ignited by Greta Thunberg in Sweden. In 2027, Super Storm Sedna inundated Miami with a Category 5 storm and killed 14,234 residents, and forever changed the landscape of southern Florida. In the 2020s, global warming led to droughts across the west and mid- western US that decimated our food supply. This combination of cataclysmic events leads to unified action at the state level in countering climate change. States forged environmental pacts with each other and with other countries to reverse decades of environmental neglect. By 2040, breakthroughs in solar and hydrogen power capabilities reduced greenhouse emissions in the US by 60%.
– A rise in smart cities and a decline in urbanization. In the early 21st century, migration to major urban areas leveled out and a return to suburban and rural living occurred. Cities large and small adopted a Smart Cities 2.0 design which incorporated the latest in technology to make cities and homes energy efficient, pedestrian friendly, and most importantly safer from disease. In the top ten most populated cities in New America, a mandate to transition 40% of vehicle thoroughfares to pedestrian traffic was implemented. Due to the effects of global warming, a migration from submerging coastal areas to villages, towns, and cities in states along the Canadian border rose. In these areas, a zero-emissions mandate ensured compliance with climate change prevention laws.
– A redesign of American public spaces occurred. Sparsely filled classrooms probably seem normal to you, but they are an innovation. The office buildings of the 20th century were forever changed by COVID-19. Working remotely and working in social distance-enabled work spaces in corporate offices, factories, and universities became socially acceptable, and part of public life. One side benefit of this transition was a reduction in traffic and commuting times for the US work force. Workers working remotely also benefited from being able to live in a location of their choice, vice being co-located in the same city as their employer. Companies like WeWork that were faltering before COVID-19, found themselves on the vanguard of offering clean, safe, and flexible work locations for the labor force.
– An acceleration of the shift to online learning. In the early 21st century, we witnessed a transition from crowded in-person classrooms to technology enabled online learning. In 2020, online learning was two-dimensional, enabled by Zoom, Google Meet, Skype, or Online Town. These tools were used to facilitate working remotely, but each had its limitations. In 2024, two students from Carnegie Mellon designed an immersive, interactive three-dimensional online venue for human interaction and collaboration. This system used life-like avatars to replicate human physical interaction, though the participants were not physically co-located. Chat rooms were taken to a whole new, more advanced and integrated level, as participants were immersed in life-like meeting places that satisfied our five senses and made the interaction nearly identical to physical interaction.
– A rise in man-machine teaming. As envisioned by Gary Kasparov in his book Deep Thinking man- machine teaming flourished in the first half of the 21st century. Advances in autonomous manufacturing, additive manufacturing, and materials science disrupted traditional industries. Human presence in factories and food processing plants was reduced by 50% as robots and machines took the place of humans. Productivity increased because machines worked around the clock without rest. Costs were reduced in the construction industry because many buildings could be 3D printed and new material science breakthroughs made these buildings more energy efficient and “smart city” capable. Skilled professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, government officials, and teachers benefited from pairing with Artificial Intelligence (AI) to make better and more informed decisions and policies. AI became the driving force in creating “Digital Twin 2.0,” making real-time analysis and predictive repair of vehicles, aircraft, buildings, electric grids, water treatment plants, and infra-structure possible.
– A strengthening of global supply chains. In the early 21st century, globalization and the inter- connected and interdependent nature of supply chains yielded tremendous economic benefits to global consumers. Skilled supply chain experts designed and ran incredibly efficient, if not resilient, logistic networks. Due to their efforts, consumers had ready access to inexpensive, readily available, and numerous types of assorted products. COVID-19 drove a reassessment of supply chain design, one which led to the incorporation of useful redundancies to increase resiliency and system reliability under duress. Businesses also examined the production of their products through a more rigorous lens spanning the supply, assembly, and distribution systems. Single points of potential failure were reinforced with back up capability so no single nodal failure could crash the logistics network. Though these steps increased costs, they proved to be a critical “fail safe” warranty for the supply chain eco-system. We learned that assurance was something consumers were counting on and willing to pay for.
These impactful and significant events accelerated our entry into the 4th Industrial Revolution. If you trace the lineage of the first three industrial revolutions, they are driven by coal, steam, electricity, oil, iron, steel, internal combustion engines, and inter-changeable parts. Science and technology drive improvements to mass production in a conventional, measured, and metered way. COVID-19 turned the practices and performance of the 3rd Industrial Revolution on its traditional head and demanded new ways of living, learning, socializing, and working. 4th Industrial Revolution science and technology were taken to new levels of hastened development to ensure future pandemics are not as disruptive as COVID-19. In this developmental process, we leveraged advancements in biology and technology to improve the human experience, even if that experience is subject to pandemics or other natural disasters.
In closing Maggie, post-COVID life is very different than the life I lived during my first 60 years in the US and overseas. Though some reminisce about life before COVID-19, the fact is life today is just as rich, rewarding, and satisfying. Life is all about attitude and if you keep a positive attitude anything is possible. Though we mourn the loss of life from the 21st century’s first pandemic, that pandemic energized the 4th Industrial Revolution and made our planet a better place to live. Your parents and their generation enabled this success. Your generation will build upon their accomplishments and ensure your children and grandchildren thrive in the “new normal” of this post- COVID world.