June 17, 2020 | Insight

The Revolutionary Potential of the Coronavirus Pandemic

June 17, 2020 | Insight

The Revolutionary Potential of the Coronavirus Pandemic

Picture Europe in the mid-15th century. The continent was recovering from the bubonic plague. Elites controlled access to information, with monks laboriously copying books letter by letter. Recovery from the waning disease gave rise to new paper-production techniques. Around 1440, Johannes Gutenberg perfected mechanical print type. Thanks to the availability of paper and an information-starved population, printing houses spread throughout Europe. Over time, access to information altered the dynamics of technology and industry. A reinvigorated populace emerged. Today we call it the Renaissance, or rebirth.

Now let us envision an improved contemporary world. Imagine that citizens, government, and industry equally benefit from the distillation of terabytes of continuously updated health and economic information, displayed in tandem through dashboards and powered by a robust cloud-based architecture. People can assess situations and choose responses to changing conditions with transparency and commonality. We can leverage this technology and related concepts for a modern renaissance.

In this aspirational world, government and industry leaders deploy hospital and industrial capabilities to address longer-term needs. They support emerging innovators and local businesses, repair broken supply chains, and mitigate the virus. The United States applies this capability to aid people internationally, creating a unity of vision, purpose, and cooperation. This is the modern renaissance that we can achieve. Here’s how we can do it.

First, small-batch additive manufacturing efforts can be modern equivalents of Gutenberg printing houses. We can create life-saving masks or personal protective equipment (PPE) locally through networks of volunteers with 3D printers, delivering directly to the point of demand.

Necessity is already the mother of this innovation, with citizen volunteers and crowd-sourced initiatives filling the gap as demand spikes. Additive manufacturing of PPE is occurring worldwide in hospitals, schools, universities, small businesses, and countless other innovation hubs. Using 40 printers, a pilot program in Seattle for the “Maker Mask” 3D printed respirator initiative crafted over 1,000 respirator masks in a week, and its free design has been downloaded over 200,000 times in over 150 countries. Assistance efforts such as the National Institute of Health’s “3D Print Exchange” and “Innovation Works Baltimore” are evidence of government and civic support. This effort has reduced our reliance on long supply chains of foreign-produced goods shipped across oceans and distributed by second or third-party retailers. Local small-batch production, especially when backed by civic groups, can alter traditional manufacturing systems, making them more resilient, sustainable, and agile for the future.

Next, we must harness the information that we can already access. Mountains of data on medical facilities, demographics, COVID-19 testing, recovery capacity, employment conditions, income, and infrastructure are publicly available. Artificial intelligence and cloud-based architecture provide the capability to analyze data quickly, enabling hyper-local leadership decisions unimaginable before now. Commercial marketers have used similar data for decades. We can use the same techniques for the common good of pandemic recovery.

For example, an urban county executive views economic and health information side by side. Seeing that local food processing workers are high-risk for virus spread, he directs increased precautions, including a temporary commercial shutdown. An adjacent county executive views similar information and assesses workers in her county as low-risk. These employees can resume operations to produce food that feeds the neighboring county. As it was with the Gutenberg press, information once reserved for a few becomes available to many. Open and intelligent access puts all parties – government, industry, and citizens – on the same team.

Finally, international partners must acquire the same information and additive manufacturing capabilities. The spread of COVID-19 in the Southern Hemisphere will almost certainly overwhelm resources, impacting global recovery. The region is also the scene of international competition, with China offering virus-recovery aid that is frequently low-quality.

America should apply its better, altruistic traditions while countering ineffective or disingenuous assistance from competitors. The United States can export 3D printing “mini factories” to meet national security goals by helping foreign partners recover from COVID-19. As the Australian academic Salvatore Babones notes, “[T]he most cost-effective form of global leadership is one in which Washington helps those who helps themselves.”

This is an opportunity for the United States to lead the world through grassroots innovation and effort. We can strengthen fragile supply chains while enabling improved quality of life for people worldwide. We can also prepare now for the coronavirus resurgence that many experts predict.

Dante Alighieri, a well-known and brilliant Renaissance poet, illuminated our choices in his book Inferno. Descending into Hell, Dante encounters the Uncommitted, souls of people who in life stood for nothing but themselves. Ultimately, however, Dante’s journey took him to Paradiso, where he found clarity and rebirth after enduring Hell.

Like the bubonic plague, the COVID-19 crisis can wreak havoc but also spur a new information revolution. As our forbearers did, we must leverage this pandemic for positive change. If done, a modern renaissance may follow.

Heather McMahon is a senior executive at the Department of Defense and a member of the National Security Alumni Network at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she contributes to FDD’s Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation (CCTI). In a volunteer capacity, she also manages strategy, direction, and outreach for Maker Mask, supported by the RPrime nonprofit organization. Michael Schellhammer is a senior civilian at the Department of the Army and a graduate of the U.S. Army War College. In a volunteer capacity, he assists Maker Mask with communications and strategy. The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, or the U.S. Army War College. For more analysis from CCTI and FDD, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CCTI. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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