The global jolt toward creative thinking

The coronavirus shock has forced fresh approaches to almost all aspects of life. Why not celebrate it – and keep innovating?

Residents in Jeaumont, France, use vending machines to buy protective face masks and other anti-coronavirus gear.

Right now around the world one of the largest creative exercises of the 21st century is taking place: Thousands of political leaders are deciding when to reopen their economies as the COVID-19 threat fades. To balance the difficult trade-offs in ending a lockdown, they must challenge old ways of thinking and invent new approaches.

But they are not alone. In their isolation at home, families are shedding habits and learning to solve problems posed by the pandemic. With classrooms closed, schools are testing their assumptions about how students learn.

Retailers are trying new ways to keep customers. With their workers returning soon, manufacturers are experimenting with new workplace techniques and supply chains for a post-pandemic world. In the rush to invent a vaccine, thousands of researchers are breaking new ground in scientific thinking.

The coronavirus may have weakened much of society. But the great weakening has stirred a great awakening. People are digging deeper for inspiration and breaking mental chains. Trends like digitization and online learning have been fast-forwarded.

Peter Coleman, a Columbia University professor who studies the impact of societal shocks, writes that people coming out of a major crisis “are more open and their thinking is more flexible than it was before.” They listen to alternative ideas and discard old realities. Over many shocks, they can attain an irreversible innovation in thought.

They also see the utility of unity where once they reveled in playing up differences with others.

“The extraordinary shock to our system that the coronavirus pandemic is bringing has the potential to break America out of the 50-plus year pattern of escalating political and cultural polarization we have been trapped in, and help us to change course toward greater national solidarity and functionality,” Dr. Coleman writes. “The time for change is clearly ripening.”

Even in the midst of the crisis, it is time to celebrate the shift toward creativity and unity.

One example is “The Call to Unite,” a 24-hour global streamathon that starts May 1 at 8 p.m. Eastern time. The event has pulled together dozens of global leaders and celebrities to reflect on the long-term meaning of the crisis. The goal: “to help you turn the pain of this moment into possibility for tomorrow ... and inspire you to pay it forward.”

Much of daily life – shopping, working, worshipping, governing – has been turned inside out but also has been given an overdue review. The exercise in fresh thinking, while unwelcome at first, could be here to last. Parts of life may eventually return to the prior normal. The ability to envision a new life may not.

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