Building a Better Normal

iStock: Boana

We are all looking forward to the days when we can see our friends, send the kids to school, and be more deeply engaged in the work we do outside of our homes. We long for our comfortable routines, feeling productive, and the predictable patterns of our lives of just a few months ago.

If weathering this public health crisis has taught me anything, it is that our future will be different. Even when we find a vaccine and effective therapies, the economic shock will change what we’ve been used to. There is no “going back” to some old “normal.” There is only going forward. We can’t know exactly what the future holds. But the best way to predict the future, Peter Drucker reminded us, is to create it. So let’s do that!

Now is our time to build an even better normal.

Sounds daunting, I know. Yet, this challenge is somewhat familiar to us at the Fund: our work has always been to create a better normal. We’ve worked with thousands of leaders who have built—and who are now building—a better future for the Great Lakes, our region, and freshwater globally.

The innovations we’ve launched together have changed our world for the better.

  • Not long ago, we simply didn’t manage the risks of invasive species from shipping. Now we do.
  • Not long ago, we relied on weak, good-faith agreements to manage the export of our shared waters. Now, we have science-based, binding agreements—the most robust protections we’ve ever had.
  • Not long ago, our forested lands were managed for timber or fiber value alone. Now, over 44 million acres are managed for a suite of ecological attributes as well. And managers are paid a premium for doing so.

Normal isn’t what it used to be. And that’s a good thing!

The big challenges are of those of imagination and grit. We need to reimagine as much as we need to plan a return. We need to rebuild as much as (perhaps more than) we need to reopen.  We need to reset and recenter. We need to place what’s important to us at the heart of the future we’re building. And—we need to do all of this in the middle of the worst public health crisis in my lifetime while the economy seems to be unraveling.

Our choices are to get to work or stay on the sidelines. So, let’s get to work! I’m convinced that we’ll succeed if we do it together.

What do we think the new normal will look like? We’ve been asking ourselves some questions that might help us rebuild, reimagine, and reset, even amidst our current limitations. When we focus on our mission, we ask:

  • Rather than cut environmental monitoring because it puts people at risk, how might we use digital technology to increase the frequency, quality, and availability of information about (and drive better actions to protect) our water, air, and land?
  • Rather than look for ways to further subsidize an extractive food system, how might we create ways to capitalize/catalyze a food system that restores lands and waters, better supports farm families, and still feeds the world?
  • Rather than chase declining (if important) returns in “grey” water infrastructure, how might we catalyze a new, “whole system” scheme for managing water that integrates natural and built solutions, provides safe water for all people, and is more affordable?
  • Rather than prop up more than 50,000 water systems that frequently struggle financially and operationally, how might we increase local control, improve the quality of water they deliver, and build new ways for them to work together to take advantage of economies of scale and scope in their collective operations?
  • Rather than lament “distance learning” in the coming academic year (and the expected surge in “gap years”), why not build real-world experiences for university students who can test-drive careers in the water sector?

We don’t pretend to have all of the answers. We are sure we don’t even know all of the right questions! But we do expect that there are concrete actions we can take that drive transformational, systemic changes.

What we do know is that we face a unique opportunity to rethink, reimagine, and create a new version of normal. This is where you can help. Tell us about the opportunities you see.

  • What transformational (systemic) change is more available to us now than a few months ago?
  • What concrete action unlocks that change and who should be involved?

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing some thoughts about how to identify great opportunities, how to build the actions that launch systemic change, and how we can work together. Please watch this space.

These are challenging times. These times are also ripe with opportunity. Join us in making a better future!

Stay safe and well,
David Rankin, Executive Director

One more thing—I recently had the chance to “see” Martin Reeves, head of BCG’s internal think tank on strategy, speak on innovating during this crisis. Here are some of his thoughts on why we need imagination now more than ever. It reminded me that imagination and resilience go hand in hand.



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