The pandemic has helped make the inadequacy of many existing systems obvious. We now see:

  • How easily regimes uninterested in transparency can stymie international systems for monitoring and sharing data about global health threats
  • How quickly a fast-moving infection can overwhelm health-care systems in supposedly “advanced” societies
  • How relying on global supply chains organized on a just-in-time basis for essential health-care equipment can leave entire countries vulnerable
  • How poorly the United States in particular supports and protects the health care system and essential workers it depends on in times of emergency
  • How safety nets intended to provide the minimum underpinning for crucial social determinants of health—food, housing, and jobs—are deeply fragile and flawed
  • How marginalized populations—people of color, the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and the isolated—are particularly vulnerable when a crisis wreaks havoc on our social and economic structures

Our traditional systems have enabled the spread of COVID-19 and interfered with our ability to address it. But those systems can’t fix themselves, and no organization or person has the capacity or skills to design and put in place a new, top-down system that solves these numerous, complex, and interconnected failures. And while each of the institutions involved in these failures needs its own reform program, we can’t put the COVID-19 challenge on hold until that happens.

Instead, we need to take a systems-level approach that engages “top-around” coordinators, or “orchestrators”—individuals or organizations that foster timely, effective cross-sector partnerships and activate new allies to produce outcomes existing institutions can’t achieve. Rather than telling people what to do, orchestrators build consensus, identify opportunities for collaboration, share best practices, and measure progress; they typically have very little formal power but can unify others around a common agenda.

Read the full article about orchestrating systems-level change in the battle against COVID-19 by Jeff Walker and English Sall at Stanford Social Innovation Review.