I visited Shanghai last fall, what now seems like eons ago. What struck me was just how different the city I experienced as a child had really become. The province that my grandparents lived in, before, containing only a few-story mom and pop stores and restaurants, now also housed a multi-story shopping outlet. The street that I frequented to preschool had familiar stalls selling a typical breakfast of 油条[Chinese doughnuts] and 豆浆[soy milk], but they refused to accept cash, holding out instead scanners for your smartphone. Even small restaurants would offer takeout paired with local delivery services, arriving on your doorstep with soup dumplings still steaming hot. Looking back at those times now, in hindsight, it’s apparent just how technological advances have prepared China for the social distancing to come.
China’s tremendous amounts of human capital have greatly simplified labor intensive tasks in this age of cheap labor platforms like Uber and Doordash. Similar services like Didi and 饿了么[Hungry yet?] respectively offer the same types of transportation and delivery. However, even non-perishable deliveries like electronics can often take as little as a few hours thanks to the population density in the large cities. As these services improved, they’ve tended to hit a tipping point in scale. Instead of having to make individual deliveries, a driver could pick up and drop off multiple packages on the way. As we approach similar tipping points in the US due to the virus, it’s interesting to think about why we weren’t able to reach these points earlier.
The greatest barrier to change has always been systems that have been “good enough”. Let’s take the example of how payment systems have evolved. Over the last few years, major cities in China have gone from using cash to using in-app WeChat wallets, akin to Venmo for payments for almost everything. Even street vendors have a smartphone scanner on their carts integrated with WeChat or AliPay. In the States, credit cards fulfill that same role, an electronic secure store of value. Although similar platforms like Google and Apple Pay exist here, there is not the same widespread adoption as there is in major cities like Shanghai and Beijing. Empirically, only tech-centric cities like San Francisco have widely adopted these platforms. There’s a clear gap between where our technologies lie and community adoption of such technologies.
So far, we have been complacent in our current ways of life, and there was no reason not to be. As the virus takes hold of American society, it creates an interesting challenge for us: How can we rapidly innovate and adopt newer technology that help us to cross the physical distance chasm and preserve our daily life?
Over these few weeks, almost every school, store, and restaurant in America is evaluating how to conduct their day-to-day work remotely. Our reactions to COVID-19 have the chance to fundamentally reshape how we live and how we work. There no longer is a “good enough” option because that option will put you and your community at risk. This is the type of disruption that may push us towards adopting new technologies that we may not have been willing to use before.
Universities across the world are switching to using video conferencing platforms like Zoom to conduct classes and hold discussions. Undoubtably, they need to face issues like converting physical blackboards to virtual ones, or the difficulties of having a heated back and forth intellectual discussion between moments of screen lag or awkward silence. I’m excited for how these learnings over this chaotic time can be applied to improve online learning platforms like Coursera and Khan Academy and ultimately to expand access to higher education for those that aren’t able to directly afford it.
Stores and restaurants across the US are closed for browsing. Some are replacing their physical storefronts with digital ones, expanding the availability of their goods through takeout and delivery services. Restaurants are contending with issues like maintaining food quality during a delivery and needing to be creative with limited ingredients and supplies. Others are taking the time to remodel and refurbish their interiors at a time when not many customers are expected to arrive.
At the end of this crisis, we’ll have to face the realities of a tremendous and saddening loss of life. Many people have and will die. However, we will also emerge as a more resilient and capable society. By removing the “good enough” option that enables our complacency, we will be motivated to innovate and improve in a way we wouldn’t have focused on before. At the end of the day, it’s not about how we survive these few months, because, we will undoubtably survive, but rather how can we take this opportunity to expand our technological capabilities.