I returned a book to the Chinn Library a couple of weeks ago using its outside book drop. The sidewalk to the book drop from where I parked required an unnecessarily circuitous walk. I followed the well-beaten shorter path across the grass made by many others choosing the shortest route to return a book.
As I walked that path, I remembered a story about Frank Lloyd Wright and sidewalks. He didn’t particularly like them. Wright presented a design for construction to a university board that didn’t include sidewalks. When asked where they were, Wright responded that he wasn’t going to build any sidewalks until after classes had been in session for a year. The students will tell him with their foot traffic where the sidewalks need to go.
COVID-19 is forcing people in Prince William County and elsewhere to take “shortcuts.” People who work with knowledge, do things with data and process stuff on a computer are discovering they really can work at home.
Because non-essential retail establishments are closed and shopping at essential businesses poses a risk to one’s health and life, people are discovering how easy it is to order things online. Doctors, lawyers, therapists, consultants, and anyone else in the diagnostic or advice business are discovering they can help patients and clients using video conference tools or the phone.
The roles of teachers and professors have changed. Schools, colleges and universities are delivering education online. The Prince William school system is giving laptops to all high school students.
These “shortcuts” are really a picture of how the 21st century will probably play out. Any competent government executive or businessperson will quickly recognize the economics of this new normal. I am sure some are already trying to define exactly what the future should look like. I suggest the wisest amongst them will simply observe what people think it should be as they take “shortcuts” to carry on with their jobs, families and life.
Anyone who has ventured to the grocery store or still drives to an essential job has probably noticed roads are clear and traffic is moving freely. Most obvious should be a new way of thinking about transportation. Perhaps it’s time to stop thinking about how to put more people on roads, buses, trains and carpools and start thinking about how to take people out of the transportation system.
While many see chaos and the end, I see a blank sheet of paper and the beginning. Entrepreneurial spirts, whether out of predisposition or simple survival, will quickly recognize the business opportunities presented by crafting a world that operates within the new normal.
Legislators and government executives will notice that telework and online solutions really do work. The wisest among them will notice the empty office spaces, unnecessary infrastructure, and needless overhead that once supported those now working remotely. Businesses that are planning to operate based on the way things were will be disappointed. Those who think about what could be might just plant the seeds for a couple of Fortune 500 companies, and the jobs they create.
COVID-19 forced Prince William, the state and the country to redefine everything. As Frank Lloyd Wright counseled, we should see what people actually do to take the shortest path and build future public policy based on this experience. A return to 20th-century thinking and business practices should not be an option.
See where the paths people are taking to get through this pandemic lead us.
Al Alborn is a political and social activist in Prince William County. His column appears every other week. You can learn more about Al at www.alborn.net.