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Facing Uncertainty: Considerations for the Progressive Movement in the COVID Era
Updated May 20, 2020
As the weeks turn into months of this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, one thing is becoming more and more clear: We are all operating under an immense amount of uncertainty about what the future holds.
We all still have so much to learn about COVID-19, immunity, and the timeline for returning to a somewhat normal life. This truth is scary. Right now we are all scrambling to plan our lives with an unfinished road map and little ability to fill in the blanks.
At New Media Ventures, we’ve been doing our best to plan for the uncertainties ahead and the ways they will impact our work in the months and years to come. As our team began outlining and responding to these scenarios – influencing our decision to expand our Open Call – I realized that it might be helpful to share our insights with the progressive movement at large, as we all work to adapt to this crisis in a crucial election year.
Times are uncertain, but the more we are prepared, the stronger our movement will be coming out of this pandemic.
Any real-world process like this is of course iterative and messy. But here’s the essence of what we have done so far:
1. Developed a list of assumptions we are operating under about what the world will look like over the next 1-2 years. These assumptions should seem pretty likely right now, although of course it’s possible they could turn out to be wrong.
2. Brainstormed a list of dimensions of uncertainty about the world that are relevant to New Media Ventures – areas where two very different outcomes seem plausible (and often outcomes in the middle are also possible).
3. Selected several of those dimensions of uncertainty that seem the most important for us to explore/are the most uniquely relevant to us as an organization.
4. Paired those dimensions up, to develop several grids with four possible scenarios each, as described here.
5. Explored how each scenario might impact our fundraising, partnerships, portfolio, reputation, the landscape of innovation in our sector, etc.
6. Distilled those explorations into a list of important risks, and a list of opportunities for impact.
7. For each risk, brainstormed what we might want to do now to hedge against that risk. And for each opportunity, brainstormed what bets we might want to place now that would position us to take advantage of that opportunity.
8. Selected the hedges and bets that seemed most sensible/interesting, and discussed with our board where their instincts lay on those.
Below is the full list of assumptions and dimensions of uncertainty we brainstormed. I’ve also included a few examples of the risk -> hedge and the opportunity -> bet mapping we did.
1. We will have at least a severe recession, and there is a strong chance it will become a depression.
2. Because our testing and contact tracing systems are far behind where they need to be, it will be very difficult to relax social distancing measures substantially in the U.S. in the next six months without overwhelming our healthcare system and resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths.
3. Organizations that can do their work remotely will do so for at least another six months, and likely for a year or more.
4. The next few years will see major challenges facing the progressive movement, but also massive innovation as we develop new media and organizing models and technologies to meet the moment.
5. Many nonprofits and campaigning organizations will struggle both to fundraise and to operate effectively throughout 2020 and into 2021.
The following are categorized dimensions of uncertainty that the New Media Ventures team is anticipating in the coming year. In most cases, there is a clear continuum of possible outcomes and I’ve listed only the far ends of the spectrum. Where there is a clear better vs. worse alternative, I’ve listed the worse outcome first.
Note: NMV’s focus is national, and for the purposes of this exercise we didn’t distinguish between different parts of the country (east coast vs. west coast, urban vs. rural, etc.). Considering the U.S.’s regional differences will make this a richer, more complex exercise, and potentially more relevant to your organization’s work.
a. The first round of vaccine testing does not work, and it becomes clear that there won’t be a vaccine for years, or maybe ever.
b. Alternatively, a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available in ~18 months.
a. Immunity in COVID-19 survivors is found to be inconsistent by individual, and lasts a few months at best.
b. Alternatively, we develop reliable antibody testing and survivors are found to maintain immunity for several years or more.
a. There is no effective treatment for COVID-19 available for years.
b. Alternatively, this summer, we find an effective, mass-producible, safe treatment that reduces hospitalization and mortality rates dramatically.
a. Children do not return to full-time in-person schooling en masse this fall, which will affect children’s development and parents’ ability to work, as well as have long-term impacts on education systems.
b. Alternatively, most children return to full-time in-person schooling by the fall.
Reopening the economy
a. Many states choose to reopen and stay open without mass contact tracing or testing in place (likely resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths).
b. Alternatively, most states continue to stay closed for most of the year, to save lives in the absence of contact tracing or testing.
c. Alternatively, contact tracing and testing are ramped up dramatically, and states can reopen while keeping the pandemic under control.
Intrusiveness of testing systems
a. Active-infection testing and/or immunity checking is highly “intrusive” – it is conducted at many checkpoints as people go about what would previously have been a normal day, which marginalizes undocumented communities and black and brown communities who fear interactions with police.
b. Alternatively, COVID-19 testing and checking is either not widely implemented, or implemented in ways that feel safe and trustworthy to marginalized groups.
Travel and immigration
a. Immigration and travel controls stay harsh for the next few years (either for genuine public health reasons, or as an ideological endeavor with public health as a pretext).
b. Alternatively, immigration and travel controls are lifted around the world over the next few months, and flows of people around the country and world resume.
a. The federal surveillance state apparatus massively (and maybe permanently) ramps up under the rationale of public health, e.g. with mandatory contact tracing apps on phones and other forms of tracking and centralizing data about people’s movements, activities, and health information.
b. Alternatively, data about COVID-19 and immunity test results, and people’s movements and contacts with each other, are protected by at least the existing level of privacy practice and law.
a. Trump leverages the crisis to consolidate power, further jeopardizing marginalized communities and the U.S.’s democratic institutions.
b. Alternatively, Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic is widely condemned, leading even his allies to retract their loyalty.
Recession or depression
a. The U.S. experiences a serious economic depression that lasts for many years, with >25% unemployment.
b. Alternatively, we face “only” a bad recession for a few years.
a. Massive increase in inequality: Poor and vulnerable communities are left out of government aid packages, while corporate welfare booms. Mass homelessness and starvation ensues while the economic elite continues to accumulate wealth.
b. Alternatively, governments successfully support poor and vulnerable communities through the economic crash, nationalize failing essential businesses, and reduce economic inequality in the process.
State and local government
a. State and local governments face bankruptcies and cut services dramatically.
b. Alternatively, the federal government bails out state and local governments effectively, allowing education systems, public transportation, and social safety net services to continue to operate with pre-pandemic effectiveness.
a. Misinformation and deceptive political ads continue to proliferate and cause confusion amid the pandemic, election, and economic crash.
b. Alternatively, platforms like Facebook get serious about manipulation and misinformation, resulting both in more widely-shared analysis of important events, and also some communities feeling censored.
a. Already brittle systems (health care, education, food supply chains, government functions, etc.) fail, creating compound disasters and destabilizing society and business long after the pandemic itself is over.
b. Systems are or quickly become adaptive and resilient, dampening the impact of COVID-19 and speeding recovery.
Global supply chains
a. The pandemic and ensuing political fallout continue to disrupt global supply chains, leading to temporary shortages of essential goods from medicines to electronics, and longer-term bounceback of manufacturing industries in countries like the U.S.
b. Alternatively, global supply chains bounce back or re-form so that goods are widely available without major supply chain changes.
a. Trump blames undocumented workers for high unemployment and continues to attack them through both policy and rhetoric.
b. Alternatively, public opinion and policy toward undocumented workers move in a positive direction as the essential functions many of them perform are increasingly recognized and valued.
a. We face massive voter suppression and failure to implement vote by mail in many states in November.
b. Alternatively, vote by mail is widely used in the election and turnout is in the range of what was expected pre-pandemic.
Electoral map and demography
a. Core constituency groups and “safe states” for each party remain stable and reliable.
b. The status quo in terms of which voters and states are reliable for each party fundamentally change.
a. Trump wins the electoral college.
b. Biden wins the electoral college.
Electoral college and popular vote
a. The popular vote and electoral college are split again.
b. The candidate who wins the electoral college also wins the popular vote.
a. Republicans win the Senate with several seats to spare.
b. Republicans win the Senate by a narrow margin.
c. Democrats win the Senate by a narrow margin.
d. Democrats win the Senate with several seats to spare.
a. Republicans win back the House.
b. Democrats hold the House.
State politics and the landscape for redistricting
a. Shift toward Republican control of key chambers and governorships.
b. Shift toward Democratic control of key chambers and governorships.
a. A Supreme Court justice dies before the election.
b. No changes before the election.
a. Trump postpones or cancels the election, or refuses to accept the results.
b. Alternatively, the election happens, and outcomes are widely accepted as legitimate.
The future of our movement depends on our ability to respond effectively and take strategic action during these uncertain times. We at NMV found this scenario planning process helpful for developing our strategy moving forward. We’d love to hear what you’re using in your organization and what you found helpful in this document, so let me know by tweeting at @TarenSK!
For organizational leaders: Remember, though we are all feeling stretched and under capacity right now, it’s critically important to make the time for bigger-picture conversations like these. The world is fundamentally different and much more uncertain than it was just a few months ago. It’s our job to ensure that we have considered all eventualities. It’s easiest to proactively plan for the most likely of those outcomes, but it’s also our jobs to identify longer-shot opportunities for impact and take some of those bets, as well as to ensure we are hedging against existential risks to our work.
Remember, also, that scenario planning is not one-and-done. By the time you're reading this blog post, the assumptions and dimensions of uncertainty we developed will likely already feel outdated. As leaders, it's our responsibility to reassess organizational strategy regularly. After all, the only constant is change.