Authors' Spotlight

AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR TROND UNDHEIM | AUTHOR INTERVIEW

Today I’ll be hosting author Trond Arne Undheim on my blog. ‘Pandemic Aftermath: How Coronavirus Changes Global Society ’ is his recent release.

Me: How are you dealing with this pandemic at a personal level?

Trond: Great question, because the whole reason I wrote Pandemic Aftermath was to deal with this crisis in the best way I know, by reflecting my way through it. I’m not a doctor so I couldn’t contribute that way. I have kids, so I didn’t want to expose them by volunteering in hospitals, shelters or anywhere exposed to contagion. So, I started writing. I thought I was pretty resilient but after almost three months in lockdown, first self-imposed then mandated, I’ve found that I was near a breaking point, too, even with all the writing. I’m very fortunate to only have been indirectly affected, things like not being able to finance my startup, Yegii.com as quickly as I had thought (despite us having a very neat solution to the challenge professionals face regarding staying ahead of trends and tracking knowledge and technology), having to worry about my family, and about the state of the world, but not experiencing direct hardship like so many others.

Me: We have seen many contagious disease outbreaks in modern history, like Ebola, MERS, and SARS. How is this coronavirus outbreak different from that?

Trond: The main difference is that, this time, the world’s geopolitical situation was extremely unstable, so the political responses in many countries varied from irresponsible to bad (although countries with female leadership seem to have been somewhat insulated from this trend and many countries in Asia and even the Middle East seem to have taken lessons from past coronaviruses). Also, we’ve had a few flu outbreaks that didn’t pan out the way the public health community worried about, so there was the sense of cry wolf. Most governments’ pandemic scenarios were of a flu pandemic. That’s a very realistic one and still a big threat that we have to great solution to either, but it’s quite different.

MERS and SARS were obviously two other coronavirus outbreaks, and they had a high mortality rate, but they were contained much earlier and only became regional problems. In 2003, SARS caused less than 1,000 deaths and was contained within three months. In 2012, MERS caused (until now) about 800 deaths, but most of them have occurred in Saudi Arabia and is, arguably mostly transmitted by camels to humans, it’s quite different. In fact, I’d argue that the progression of globalization also has reached a feverish level as of 2020, so there was really quite little one could do to stop this pandemic, given its other unique characteristic: asymptomatic transmission. There was a short window in January and February where stringent action would have had to be taken. No multinational public authority exists that could have coordinated such drastic action. Even though better information flow would have improved the situation it likely would not have stopped all transmission. All in all, a plethora of small and large issues conspired to make COVID-19 a particularly stealthy and insidious outbreak that took all of us by surprise, whether public health officials, politicians or the general public.

Me: What are some of the forces of disruption that brought on this according to you?

Trond: This pandemic was brought on by a misplaced faith in (old) science and technology around public health and vaccines, outdated systems, policies and regulationsofthe pharma industry, healthcare organizations (elderly homes in particular), unchecked travel patterns, migration, and workplace issues, as well as a lack of new business models stimulating innovation in government and society. It also exposed the weaknesses inherent in an aging nation state system as well as fear about the future among a struggling working and lower middle class in western democracies. You could say it was a crisis of globalization. I pointed out that things were leading this way already in an article in Fortune magazine back in 2014, which I entitled Ebola: The dark side of globalization. As I said then: “You would think we would have learned to deal with globalization by now. Goods, services, people, and money, and occasionally, diseases, flow across borders at a staggering pace. Little can stop these flows. Not walls. Not presidents. Not health authorities.” Yet, we have learned little. I think learning at a societal level is hard. No teacher is rehearsing it with you. There are too many interpretations. It becomes tough to remember what the real lessons would have been.

Me: Could it have been dealt in a better way?

Trond: This pandemic didn’t have to become a global crisis of this magnitude, bringing the whole world to a halt. That predicament happened because of the tensions between China and the US as well as a Europe and a UK that took the eye off the ball due to Brexit. I also think that public health officials need to make a choice: are they going to speak up or not. Also, they need to let other expertise in. COVID-19 cannot be resolved neither by public health experts nor by economists alone.

Finally, I feel that scenarios in the past didn’t prepare us for this crisis. In Pandemic Aftermath, I studied and presented an analysis of all 15+ of them that have been developed for various governments and think tanks over the past few decades. The reason I wrote Pandemic Aftermath, depicting five quite extreme scenarios, was to remind ourselves that when we think as far ahead as the next decade (or two), we need to use our imagination. We cannot assume we know all the disruptive forces beforehand. However, I fear there will be a regression to the mean. No matter how serious this current pandemic is, there will always be voices saying it could have been worse, and not to worry. Humans also have trouble changing their fundamental habits. Those who now expect major political change and massive changes in healthcare systems, as well as enormous sci-tech progress with vaccines and med-tech innovation may be a bit disappointed. As I write in the book, we cannot expect innovation to help us in this crisis, we have to realize that we are innovating for the next. Improvements take time.

Me: Did you know you wanted to pen down a book exploring the possible scenarios of the world post this pandemic or did your research instigate you to write it down for the world?

Trond: I was sitting in my attic studio pondering things as I often do, when these five scenarios came to me. I realized that I had a quite unique skillset for this particular eventuality. I have previously worked with global public health challenges such as Ebola, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. I am trained as a scenario thinker and futurist, looking ahead as opposed to being focused on the present. I’ve also worked at MIT on tech and innovation, so I was somewhat ready to think about how that picture would impact the situation. As the news from China got to the US where I now live, I realized that the WHO was waiting to declare a pandemic not because it wasn’t one, but for other, more mysterious reasons. I later concluded there were two reasons: one is that they had sounded the alarm too strongly on Avian flu compared to how it ended (without global cataclysm). Two, they were now under a new, appeasement policy which essentially consists of making friends with each of the geopolitical forces that govern (and finance) their existence. This is a good strategy when it works and a catastrophic one when it fails. It failed. 

Having said all that, the scenarios depicted are quite extreme. I don’t truly expect them to pan out in this form in the next decade, I’m just signalling that if things were to escalate, such as vaccines failing or other major catastrophes coinciding with this one (an environmental disaster or yet another pandemic) we have very little to stem the tide with.

Me: How do you see this trade-off between safety and freedom that has emerged as a pivotal debate right at this moment?

Trond: I think that whole debate as it is currently manifesting itself is very superficial. Of course, our freedom has been temporarily restricted (although with ancient quarantine principles not updated since the Middle Ages, which is another matter). The desire to avoid contributing to a world extinction event should be in instinct in all of us. I do, however, recognize that we need to empathize with the anger felt by those who really are pushed into a corner by the pandemic. They are in some ways right to feel angry, but it’s difficult to be angry at earlier civilizations. These trends were set in motion way before the current guard of politicians.

There is no trade-off. You cannot be free without being safe. You cannot be safe without being free. We need both of those in absolute. The amount of risk we are talking about is largely one that’s so unfairly divided that it’s not really a question of where we go as a society. That choice seems to have been already made (unless I’m missing something). It’s relatively clear that the world’s elites (not just the top one percent, but the entire upper middle-class establishment) is prepared to sacrifice the working-class service workers as well as the elderly, if that’s necessary. That is an important ethical debate, and I find it appalling that this is where we are, but it has little to do with safety v. freedom. It might have more to do with updating public health measures to be more reflective of the 21st century’s sensibilities. Again, I want to remind everyone that quarantine is a word that was created during the Black Death in Italy. There must be better ways to deal with things in 2020 and certainly over the next decade. But I think we need to be careful about thinking of technology as a panacea. Many times, very simple things can make a difference, although “wash your hands” or even “wear a mask” or “stay six feet apart” are likely not going to cut it. We need better advice and more flexible approaches that are more socially acceptable. And, what I worry about is the touchless society. This is not a recipe for progress, rather the opposite.

The risks that were inherent in a more mobile, globalized world cannot be regulated by limiting freedom as such. This is the liberal dilemma. I guess the most important distinction is between emergency mandates and regular policy and regulation. Those politicians who have overstepped their boundary on that issue, need to be put in their place. Once the state of emergency is over, all freedom is returned to all of us. The next debate is not about freedom but about finding practical solutions to our continued desire for a lifestyle and densely populated workplaces living in cities. There will be many proposed changes and some things will indeed have to change. Right now, it’s not clear what will change and what will not. It will take years to play out.We will make some changes that simply are not sustainable. We will fail to make other, deeply necessary changes. We will discover the difference and we will have to readjust. I don’t buy for a second that the future of work will be remote and from home. That’s been a long-term trend enabled by technology already two-three decades ago, and it’s a slow process.

Me: Pandemic Aftermath is different from the three other books you have written at a basic level. What will you comment on that?

Trond: This book is essentially an ethical futuristic debate where I seek to involve both experts and the general public in something which typically only happens in closed government circles. The questions we are confronted with are uncomfortable, and very macro—large scale shifts are happening that were perhaps going to take two or three decades. But it won’t take a year. My other books were also about a combination of technological and cultural change. So from that angle, I disagree. There is a thread running through all my books which is about social shaping of technology and about cultural adaption. My first book, Leadership From Below, attempted to chart the course of the first internet generation of new employees entering the workplace. I was far too optimistic about what they could accomplish. I knew I was. In fact, I’m writing a new preface to that book as we speak. I’m comparing and contrasting the changes in a decade. But I’d be eager to know more about what you meant about the previous books being different. Do you mean that pandemics is about public health and the other two were about innovation? I think everything needs to be tied to innovation, there is no path forward without it. Having said that, I use the word as little as possible. It’s a scary word. The moment you say innovation, you typically lose all opportunity for innovation. What I will say is that Pandemic Aftermath is more historical than the other books. I think where we are and where we are going is inextricably linked with where we have been.

Me: Do you think  these political, social or cultural changes that are happening and are about to come are more dangerous than what we are currently going through?

Trond: At least two of my scenarios, two worlds apart and Hobbesian chaos, point to a dangerous future where the vaccines fail and the elite checks out, and in the third, borderless world, the elite dominates even more than now, but at least we have control of the virus and we have massive sci-tech progress. In Hobbesian chaos, no protective state lasts beyond a year, rule of law ceases to exist, and terrorist groups, clans and ideological movements sweep through the earth.In two worlds apart, the elite simply creates their own world and exploits the other one ruthlessly. I don’t think neither is so far-fetched, although it won’t be as clear cut as I depict either option.

Me: Is your book inclusive and does it provide practical strategies even for developing and poor nations?

Trond: First off, I think the answer is similar to what is needed elsewhere, in the so-called developed world (which, as it turns out, is not fully developed, just looked at pockets of the UK and US that have suffered quite badly), it’s just slightly more difficult to accomplish, and one needs outside assistance.

For such a complicated crisis, it surprises me that the answers on how to prevent such a thing in the future is relatively easy to comprehend: slow globalization, build health security, deploy technology to monitor contagion (in a way that protects privacy), innovate for change (but through distributed platforms where all can part-take), develop a sophisticated strategy for long periods of intermittency (know how to quickly lock down and open up countries, regions, cities, and neighborhoods), start mapping risk in terms of its probabilities and consequences, not just as theoretical constructs. But implementing changes that could truly remedy this situation will take us decades. That’s a hard lesson, too.

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I’m very clear about what’s needed, and I write about the need to improve the quality of health systems, for example, and the role of donors to help doing so. But others have covered that, and it’s pretty obvious that it cannot happen only by domestic investment. In fact, I believe that in the borderless world scenario, I point out that upgrading health systems of some 100 countries will be the hardest task together with reducing world famine (and they are of course linked). I also have a big section on superspreading events tied to megacities, which is relevant for many developing and poor nations. I’m fairly negative on the future prospect of megacities. I think they are a quite unrealistic construct in a post-pandemic world, short of massive innovation and true change to the basic infrastructure of those cities. I just don’t think we can solve the proximity issue. How do you socially distance in dense megacities, especially during public transport and considering the enormous number of concurrent mass events (sports, religion, conferences, etc.)?

By the way, I don’t like the term poor nations. Poverty is not just an economic category. I know countries that are morally poor (in segments of their population) and I know countries that are health poor, economically poor or poor innovators. There is complexity. The term is just misleading. Also, I don’t really think that a country is anything. I have stopped believing that the unit of measurement (a country) is very useful. It’s an outdated, territorial dominance strategy. It will either need a major resurgence or it will need to be abolished or subject to a rethink.

Me: Any new projects you are working on?

Trond: I’m hard at work on my next book, Future Tech (2021), a book on the future of technology, which will explore all the forces of disruption that surround it in great detail and aiming to foster a more informed debate about the future and arm professionals with the skills required to predict what’s next and profit from it, too. Technology is generally viewed as the single force that disrupts markets. In contrast, true change only results from the combination the forces of science and technology, policy and regulation, new business models.

I’m also working on a children’s book as well as (separately) a major series involving a complex historical plotline exciting characters that defy their circumstances, a dose of magical realism and based in ancient mythology. Those are the projects at the front of my mind, but I’m sure this year will bring others, as well.


Trond Arne Undheim is a futurist, speaker, entrepreneur and former director of MIT Startup Exchange, based outside of Boston. Trained as a social scientist with a career in technology and innovation, he is the CEO and cofounder of Yegii, a search engine for industry professionals, providing collective intelligence. Trond holds a PhD on the future of work and artificial intelligence and cognition. Undheim is the author of Leadership From Below (2008) and Disruption Games (2020). His next book is Future Tech (2021).


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