To Solve COVID-19, We Need to See It for What It Is: A Configuration Crisis

COVID-19 has disrupted the usually unnoticed chunks into which the world is organized. Take, for example, the uneasy start of the new school year. All of the familiar ways in which schools segment and structure life—the self-contained classrooms, the contiguous time blocks spent at school, the on-site lunches and after-school activities—have been scrambled or scrapped. Students, teachers, and parents are struggling to adjust.

Adapting successfully to the pandemic means more than reorganizing people and tasks in space and time, difficult as that can be. It also, and foundationally, requires aggregating the cooperation of many individuals, both within and across domains (school, work, home, play), to construct viable new ways of ordering daily life. 

The pandemic presents more than a formidable public health crisis; it also exposes and exacerbates a crisis of societal configuration. We face enormous challenges, but the primary problem is not that we lack the necessary resources and skills to address them. The hitch, instead, is that we have tremendous difficulty putting what we have into the combinations we need. The result is a palpable sense of scarcity, which Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir define ashaving less than you feel you need.”

Mullainathan and Shafir use a packing metaphor to illustrate the way that configuration interacts with scarcity—as they observe, jelly beans fit far more easily into a small container than does an equal volume of whole fruit. COVID-19 has imposed new constraints on societal arrangements that come in lumpy, hard-to-divide units. Recutting those societal arrangements to meet present conditions is an essential and urgent task. 

The problem is not that we lack the necessary resources and skills to address the challenges we face. The hitch is that we have tremendous difficulty putting what we have into the combinations we need.

How does a configuration crisis play out on the ground? Consider again the return to school. Existing classrooms aren’t big enough to carry out physical distancing without splitting the students into smaller-than-usual groups, for instance. Rooms cannot be expanded or contracted at will, nor can excess square footage from one room be magically shifted to another. Teachers cannot be split into two or three to preside over multiple classrooms at the same time. A teacher can be divided into innumerable Zoom screens beamed into the homes of students, but that means breaking up something else that has been traditionally fused: the teaching itself and all of the supports surrounding its delivery, including, notably, the daytime supervision of children.

Splitting the educational atom in this way carries its own fallout. Students who depend on services delivered in schools, from nutrition to counseling, become disconnected from these resources. Working parents (especially women) are whipsawed between their own often-precarious job situations and the demands that their children’s remote learning now places on them, compounding the unbalanced allocation of unpaid household labor. And the social and developmental aspects of attending school in person with one’s peers are put on ice during what may be especially formative periods in young lives.

None of this means that remote learning is the wrong call in a particular context, only that it addresses one configuration problem while creating new ones. Pressure comes both from developments that make our past arrangements unworkable, and from attempted realignments that inadvertently upend what was useful about those arrangements. Here we see how a configuration crisis can build from two directions: failing to rearrange what isn’t working, and rearranging what is.     

Similar issues surface in nearly every domain. Restaurants with business models based on indoor dining and full capacity must figure out how to meet their expenses while serving fewer customers spaced further apart. The job-sized increments into which employment was previously segmented may no longer mesh with the available flow of work. Even the households into which people sorted themselves before the pandemic may prove too crowded or too isolated for pandemic conditions. And because so much of what we do depends on coordinating and collaborating with other people, changes in one arena or sector have ripple effects across society.   

A configuration crisis can build from two directions: failing to rearrange what isn’t working, and rearranging what is.

To navigate a world where bringing people together is both desirable and dangerous, we need to cultivate configuration entrepreneurship. Although the term is new, the idea isn’t. New and emerging business models already slice and dice consumption and production in novel ways, allowing us to consume increments of transportation rather than an entire car, gigs of work rather than entire jobs, slivers of housing rather than full lease terms, individual songs rather than albums, and so on.

These models are not perfect. Like remote education, they sometimes address one configuration problem at the expense of disrupting other valuable arrangements: consider the way that the gig economy has both freed people from strict schedules and simultaneously severed them from key regulatory protections and benefits like group insurance. The answer is not to give up on reconfiguration, however, but to do it more thoughtfully. 

Innovation can help us restructure ways of living and working through—and beyond—a pandemic. That means two things. First, identifying approaches that account for the deeply interconnected nature of human behavior, both within and across spheres of activity. Second, creating the kinds of platforms and mechanisms that can put together resources and cooperation in combinations best suited to these conditions. 

In the education context, teaching physically distanced students might require finding more or different spaces in which to hold class. One idea would involve repurposing now-vacant spaces, such as office buildings, for student instruction. Instead, or additionally, different pieces of now-disaggregated educational services might be addressed separately. Consider the idea of “microschools” (aka “pandemic pods”) that is now gaining traction. Under this model, a teacher can provide instruction remotely while supervision is provided in appropriately distanced group settings by responsible adults who need not be professional educators. Finding ways to scale up and equalize access to this model—or others like it—is a pressing need.    

Other reconfiguration ideas are beginning to receive attention as well. There is new interest in job-sharing arrangements that reallocate work into a larger number of smaller buckets. Venues like zoos that used to be open to the public now experiment with timed ticketing. New experiments in outdoor dining are cropping up everywhere, and the city of Chicago recently partnered with the open innovation platform OpenIDEO, BMO Harris Bank, and the Illinois Restaurant Association to launch a design challenge for outdoorwinter dining and entertainment.

We have the raw materials necessary to cope with COVID-19, but this does no good unless we know how to put our contributions together in useful ways.

As these examples suggest, we have the raw materials necessary to cope with COVID-19, including a great deal of human ingenuity and a widespread willingness to pitch in and help out. Almost everyone is in a position to contribute something, whether excess space, new ideas, time, expertise, information, or even just a willingness to stay in or go out at particular times. But this does no good unless we know how to put our contributions together in useful ways.

In short, we face a series of assembly problems. Ultimately, the crucial element that must be put together is not space or people or even information, but rather cooperation. This point extends beyond rearranging economic and household activity during the pandemic to formulating and carrying out large-scale plans to end it—from testing and tracing to vaccination.   

The tools for coordinating behavior—and successfully reconfiguring our lives—lie well within our grasp. Platforms like Airbnb have already demonstrated the power of transacting over excess capacity (as have more informal arrangements, like carpooling to facilitate use of HOV lanes). And we have already seen modern mechanisms for putting together a critical mass of participants, whether for consuming (Groupon) or funding (Kickstarter). Adapting these approaches to current circumstances requires coordination mechanisms that can bring people together around shared goals and that clearly delineate how their individual choices and cooperation can combine to achieve them.

Reframing COVID-19 as a configuration crisis gives us fresh traction on the current and coming challenges by emphasizing interactivity and indivisibility—the ways in which individual decisions, actions, and social arrangements fit together and affect each other. Seeing the problem in these terms calls for intensive investments across society to develop technologies and strategies that can put together resources and cooperation—investments that will pay returns long after we have configured our way through the pandemic.