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2020’s disruptions will spark 2021’s innovations

Glimpses of America’s future will be most clearly seen in the parts of our society most devastated by the pandemic.

Audra Quisenberry, left, whispers in the ear of her classmate Logan Bowhay, both 6, as they wait to meet other schoolmates via Zoom at Premier Martial Arts Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Wildwood, Mo. The first graders’ school has gone to online learning due to the COVID-19 outbreak forcing the children to find an alternative place to spend their school day while their parents work.
Jeff Roberson, Associated Press

As 2021 arrived, tens of millions of Americans gave thanks that 2020 was finally over.

And yet, as the new year begins to unfold, the news and storylines seem depressingly familiar. Just as it was in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic remains the dominant event and news story of 2021. That will be the case all year long. In the political realm, there will also be a sense of a 2020 rerun. While their roles have changed, the political world is still and will continue to be obsessed by the actions and sayings of Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

As pandemic fatigue sets in and political stalemate continues, however, there will also be signs of hope for America’s future. The key is knowing where to look. For that, it’s helpful to look back at early American history.

Thomas Jefferson, in addition to drafting the Declaration of Independence, was America’s third president. He had a vision of our nation as an agrarian society dominated by small farmers. He strongly opposed manufacturing: “Let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work bench … for the general operations of manufacture, let our workshops remain in Europe.” Jefferson, who served as president from 1801 to 1809, wanted Europe to do the manufacturing. Our country would simply trade agricultural commodities for whatever we needed.

However, Samuel Slater had other ideas. He’s not a legendary founding father like Jefferson and never held public office. Most Americans today have never heard of him, though he was once known as the father of the American Industrial Revolution. Rather than getting involved in politics, Slater changed America by meeting the needs of everyday Americans. To provide high-quality, affordable cotton, he created the first factories in America, an innovation that fundamentally changed life in America.

Ironically, during the years Jefferson was president and hoping to preserve the U.S. as an agrarian nation, Slater’s system took off and reorganized just about every aspect of American society. While Jefferson looked to the past, Slater created the future. Of course, he did not act alone. Slater’s success capitalized on changing attitudes and technologies that have been developing for decades.

That’s the way change always takes place in America.

In 1980, a presidential commission published a national agenda for the coming decade. In a nine-page section on science and technology, the word “computer” never came up. The idea of personal computers was simply not on the minds of our famous national leaders. Instead, they were concerned with preventing the decentralization of power.

But two young men who were completely unknown at the time — Steve Jobs and Bill Gates — had a different idea. While the politicians debated their agenda, these young entrepreneurs created the future by using new technology to meet the needs of the American people. Not only that, but their innovations also led to the decentralization of American society, precisely the opposite of what the political leaders were trying to accomplish.

Today, as we prepare to emerge from an unprecedented pandemic, we sense that the world after 2020 and 2021 will be different from the world that came before. After decades of gradually adapting to the digital revolution, the pandemic has turbocharged the pace of change. Cultural changes that would have normally taken place over a generation or so will now take place in just a few years.

Some of those changes will become more visible as 2021 unfolds. But you won’t see them in the agendas of our political leaders.

Instead, glimpses of America’s future will be most clearly seen in the parts of our society most devastated by the pandemic. In the wake of the pandemic’s societal disruption, unknown innovators will emerge to meet people’s new needs.

One great example of such disruption is in the education of our children. In the years leading up to 2020, public schools grudgingly incorporated new technologies into their routines. But the inertia of the status quo was powerful. Schools remained much the same as they had been for decades.

Then the pandemic struck, and the education world was turned upside down. The status quo of the traditional school year simply collapsed. Millions of parents had to grapple with the realities of home schooling and finding new ways for their kids to hang out with other kids. This presents a previously unimaginable opportunity for innovative teachers and others to show how they can meet the needs of parents and students. Those who succeed will create the future of American education. The nation’s political leaders will try to protect the old approaches for a while, but eventually they will catch up.

The same phenomenon will take place in all other aspects of life disrupted by the pandemic. Innovators will create a better future for our children and grandchildren by meeting the newly exposed needs of people today.

Scott Rasmussen is an American political analyst and digital media entrepreneur. He is the author of “The Sun is Still Rising: Politics Has Failed But America Will Not.”