Marina Kim

Marina co-founded and leads Ashoka U, working with campuses to embed social innovation as an educational focus and core value of the university culture.

Old Normal to New Normal: Our opportunity for equitable innovation and resilience

Making sense of our changing reality

The past few weeks and months have become a blur for many of us – reading news articles, grieving the lives lost, and making sense of what COVID-19 means for our families, organizations, and communities. In this survival mode, our physical, emotional, and organizational systems are on overload. Not only is the pandemic affecting our health and economy, but it’s also bringing unprecedented levels of change, including change to our societal norms.

It can feel overwhelming. Fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and mass suffering on a scale we haven’t collectively experienced in generations. It gets even more upsetting when we realize how the suffering is greatest for those who are already the most vulnerable, and how a crisis like this exacerbates existing inequalities.

There are those who can’t afford to stay quarantined and not go to work, who don’t have internet access to work or learn from home, who can’t afford not to take public transportation, who can’t afford medical care when they get sick. And those most likely to die are those who are older, frail, or have underlying health conditions of some kind.

In times of crisis, our minds and hearts crave security. We are all struggling with questions like: How and where should I get food? How will I afford to pay my bills? How will I keep my business running? When will this end? Will life ever go back to normal?

But what is “normal” anyway?* The normal we are so desperately craving a return to wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. While the US and global economy was in a decade of growth after recovering from the last recession, inequality was growing in record levels, mental health problems were also on the rise, and climate change is still imminently threatening our planetary existence within the next few decades.

An opportunity for creativity and innovation

Alongside the bleakness and tragedy around us, we can see that there is also hope, opportunity, and potential in the turmoil. Crisis can also plant seeds for new beginnings and greater opportunity than what was there before.

People are coming together (virtually) at extraordinary rates and in exceptional ways. Folks are able to connect deeply, care meaningfully, and engage with our collective humanity: Spanish citizens cheering for medical professionals on the streets; neighborhoods self-organizing to provide mutual aid for those around the block in need; professors hosting “pet show-and-tell” during their virtual classes; and colleges hosting well-being breaks for anyone from staff to students to senior-level administrators.

Born out of necessity, creativity is flourishing. People are designing low-cost ventilators, organizing community drives for medical supplies, ensuring more affordable internet access for students, developing a COVID-19 vaccine, and even uncovering new, fun ways to build community through technology.

A Story of Hope

It is exactly when there is fear, anxiety, and turmoil that leadership is needed. We can play into that fear, create more polarization, and blame others. Or, we can play into a brighter vision of the future that is full of empathy and love, where we call on the best of our human nature to take collective responsibility for a better future for all.

Take New Orleans, Louisiana-based Tulane University, one of approximately 45 Ashoka U Changemaker Campuses. New Orleans was devastated when 80% of the city flooded after levee failures in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. This threatened entire swathes of the city in late August and September of 2005. Significant portions of Tulane’s campus were flooded and entirely evacuated. It wasn’t certain that the doors would reopen, unless there was a deliberate and concerted effort.

Give up and cede defeat to the powerful storm that destroyed thousands of lives and entire neighborhoods? No. Instead, the university’s leadership rose up and insisted on rebuilding the entire university not just physically and financially, but in terms of the mission and values it stood for.  As the city’s largest anchor institution, Tulane’s commitment and recovery had many implications for the community as a whole.

When students returned to campus several months later, Tulane firmly sought to become even more engaged with the New Orleans community. They aimed to combine a commitment to local community-building with a passion for creative and impactful social change. It was in this redesign that social innovation programs and campus-wide student offerings became a bedrock of the institution’s identity and character. The most recent of many campus-wide initiatives dating back to January 2006 is the cross-disciplinary Phyllis M. Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design.

In the 2010 MIT Press article, “Innovation Amidst Crisis” co-authored by then-President Scott Cowen and Amanda Cowen, they described this experience. One paragraph in the final section stood out as wisdom that seems particularly relevant now:

“When ideals meet catastrophe, one of two things can occur: either ideals are abandoned in the struggle for survival, or they take root and help drive and shape recovery. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina provided Tulane University with these two options. Five years later, we are a far different university, thanks to the trustees, administrators, faculty, staff, alumni, friends, and students who were able to look past the chaos of the moment and see an opportunity not only to help our city recover but to reshape our university into an institution that incorporates its ideals into every aspect of its mission.”

Caring for immediate concerns first, then reinventing new norms

We are still in the thick of the crisis management phase. It is okay and important to focus on our own personal, familial, and organizational survival in the coming weeks and months.

Amidst this unique moment, we all need to be gentle on ourselves. Slow down, allow time to process grief and sadness, and allow space for emotions that are likely emerging.

When we feel more grounded, then we can spend time and energy on our desire to take a step back and reflect on what we’ve learned, what values need reexamining, and what systems need rewiring to align with what is truly important.

We believe, through this time in history, our communities can emerge stronger, more connected, and more resilient. We believe our organizations can also become more resilient, more empathetic, more connected, more innovative, and more inclusive.

Imagine a few years from now. Once the immediate crisis phase passes, what if we take time to envision, design, and rethink a “better normal” that is more equitable and cares for our most vulnerable? What should our family systems look like? Our neighborhood systems? Our healthcare system? Our education systems? This is exactly the moment where we, as changemakers from around the world, can step in to explore – and address – these questions.

*Thanks to Canadian Ashoka Fellow Ilona Dougherty for the concept of the “old normal” being broken and insufficient, which helped spark this article framing. Ilona currently leads the Youth & Innovation Project at the University of Waterloo.