An old joke in 2030 goes, “What does the change industry have to offer in a pandemic?”

“Everything! Just a month after it was needed.”

The emails broke in Hokusai-like waves.[2] Bombardments of leadership advice landed on shores lacking leadership. Change champions failed to staunch the austere and populist tides of institution-gutting; promulgated a fascination with eddying narrative at the expense of the lunar tides of systems; created enough TED heroes to stock a surfer movie; published stay-at-home advice after the virus had already spread, issued “how to work from home” blogs after people had figured it out; ushered in Zoom fatigue at the speed of Zoom (another team meeting, yoga or salsa, anyone?); watched the belated beach landing of online retail through binoculars; and applauded from balconies as citizens adapted personal habits to distance.

Those of us in the business of change have questions to ponder about missing the boat. Lacking herd immunity while possessing herd mentality, the change industry veered from topic to topic, paddling not too far behind the edge of chaos.[3] Management consultancies and MBA schools whitecapped us in the salty spray of reassuring reports. At this late hour, three million cases into the pandemic [4], I add to this pile of missed trends my work about change afoot in transforming cities. I thought we might look at:

  1. Cities after the Great Infection
  2. Change models in the works
  3. Useful tools and perspectives

Summary: How will cities respond to the novel coronavirus? In the two-year near-term pandemic rescue and three-to-five-year human and financial disruption recuperation, dramatic changes will come about in cities administering scant resources to resilience, sustainability, and adaptability.

In an environment of constrained budgets and economic dislocation, resilience comes at the expense of creating cities of culture, thereby reducing attention to urban quality of life amenities. [5]

In the medium (2030) to long-term (2050), cities hope to return to existing plans and trajectories, with emphasis on resilience and public health, with re-imagined economies and infrastructure to support it. Still, amid the crisis, public pressure to re-negotiate the social compact is not yet cresting the horizon, from the point of view of entities that drive change in cities.

Cities on the Cusp of Change

Since the 1980s, medium-sized post-industrial cities that had suffered deindustrialization began to come back to Europe and North America.[6] These cities share common characteristics and recovery strategies. The takeaway is that interdependent economic development and quality of life factors catalyzed change. “Eds and meds” and technology drive economic transformation in these cities, while quality of life bundles improvements in city lifestyle, culture, and city functions.

An everyday example exists in recruiting the best scientists to build a world-class College of Computer Science. Carnegie Mellon University shows off the historic city park and greenhouse across the street from campus. To coin an algorithm, technology plus park equals economy and quality of life in sync. Synergies attract talent that leads to spinoffs and tens of thousands of new technology jobs, sometimes in industries that did not exist. [7]

Change Leaders will be familiar with the physics beneath the structural steel, the models underpinning sectoral change: the human side of adaptive change leadership, systems analysis, the structures of power, adaptive leadership models, and participatory methods.

To understand large-scale systemic change such as in cities and nations [8], look back 35 years and ahead thirty-five years; connect a host of broad and deep interdependent factors; facilitate complexity thinking regarding the complex adaptive living systems that comprise all human orders, and lean on the pillar of adaptive leadership. The heart of this work is helping cities envision long-term futures, then building adaptive frameworks to help get work in motion that delivers on vision. The task of cities emerging from Covid19’s human and economic damage is to jujitsu one’s town from infection to inflection.

After Covid19: Resilience Elbows Arts & Culture

In the wake of Covid19, quality of life drivers (nascent city lifestyles of walkable, clean, and green functional cities with excellent transit and downtown cultural attractions) will be de-emphasized while, at the same time, resilience is emphasized [9]as city-development focal points.

Cities will shift gears [10] from creating great cities of culture towards building resilient cities. Resilience means enhancing cities’ ability to withstand shocks. City budgets are getting knocked by about 20% this year at the time of this article. [11] In the short-term, hard choices must be made. Large events, festivals and concerts, and improvements to theater districts are not possible until the waves of Coronavirus recede. This makes for a somewhat rapid shift from arts and culture to resilience. With devastating effects to arts institutions and artists, civic and philanthropic organizations are racing to soften the arts’ landing.

Resilience efforts underway since 2012’s Hurricane Sandy have helped cities respond to Covid19 [12], just as other great cities, like Miami, New Orleans, and Houston, turned to resilience after a disaster, after being shocked into action to survive and thrive. With roots in climate change, research has revealed that cities have to likewise prepare for economic, conflict, human health, and demographic shocks. [13]

City visions to develop arts, culture, and entertainment will contract in the face of higher priorities than food for the foodies, beer for the beery, and constant entertainment for the weary. A sustained contraction in arts and culture, dragging in museums and theaters, is inevitable under weakened financial models, small gatherings spaced more widely, and a shift in focus to essential life and work functions until financials recover in about five years. This is bad news for efforts to make cities cool for youth to remain, and for parks, concerts, and downtown theater districts.

Sustainability shifts to being subsidiary to resilience: lower energy use, more attention to climate change, and more training for people for adaptive careers that may shift more often than desired.

Spending more in one area at a time, budgets have been hammered by 20% or more, leading to the de-emphasis of other efforts, like culture. Models of touristic cities of learning built around large events and iconic destinations, a staple of city transformation since Bilbao’s resurgence under the Guggenheim Museum, will suffer. Big events are going to be difficult to host.

City design shift from amenities (new sports stadium? — not likely) to fundamentals implies transit that is inclusive, multi-functional, and healthy. This suggests nuance and subtlety, with stronger transit links to shifting work patterns in a work-at-home era. Staggered work shifts suggest cramming fewer people into disease containers at rush hours.

The indictment of the density drop is premature [14] and may serve as a distraction from pressing socio-economic factors of poverty, not density. Instead, density will be rethought to give space as well as proximity. Complexity thinking suggests designing for more than single-statistic arguments. Washington (comprehensive, underfunded, unreliable Metro) and New York (serving more passengers than any US city) leave a lot to be desired in cleanliness, peak times, and connection to airports.

What breathes life into these efforts to tackle urban complexity? Systems, power, resources, and policy. City work requires deep dives into the human data of functional systems, citizen sentiment in political and other forms of power, competition for scrambled financial resources, and details of public policy and advocacy. These factors interact to regulate the level of successful response and to cap change.

Cities adjust efforts to build “eds and meds” and technology economies

The health and fates of cities are subject to every change afoot in health, education, new technologies, existing economies, and social change. As such, cities offer a set of lenses to examine and poke multiple, interconnected, non-linear factors associated with complex adaptive living systems, and the adaptive behaviors and leadership actions needed to adjust and thrive. [15] In the complex adaptive living systems that are cities and nations, ripeness leads to over-ripeness for change, which arrives in concentrated or accelerated bursts — rotting fruit and all, to extend the metaphor — as we have seen in New York’s struggle with the Covid19 pandemic.

In US cities, medicine has driven transformation in essential post-industrial cities. In the wake of Covid19, cities that depend on research hospitals will advocate boosting federal medical research. Funded figures will fall off from fatigue and forgetfulness around 2025. [16]

My thirty years working in national and metropolitan regions demonstrate that domestic governance matters in national health; government performance differs dramatically in broad categories that affect medical research and readiness. Part of our work involves helping cities perceive their critical relationships with federal entities. Whatever happens, we will see reshaping international affairs and influence that inevitably shape the fortunes of metropolitan regions. In terms of health transformations, anti-science populists will face a popular and electoral backlash in Washington and abroad. [17] Populists will damage medical research should they endure. National authoritarians will weaken as the case for control weakens [18]; Petro-authoritarian states will emerge with weaker health systems while demand for oil remains low. [19]

The years of living large and easy on campus are in question as “eds” encounter challenges to campus, business, and financial models. US universities built up in the heyday of growth replaced declining numbers of American students by attracting full-fee international students primarily from South and East Asia and the Middle East. Little future planning was done for a restrictive US immigration stance (university presidents spoke up months after plans were known and implemented), and none for a disease that restricts student travel. This convergence of factors prompts uncertain remote learning and financing models. The consolidation underway among weaker, smaller, outlying schools in rural areas will accelerate. “Eds” rely on research largesse in STEM [20], which has been comparatively easy to come by and may see reductions in coming years should anti-science positions endure at the federal level, which provides most research funds.

How to Fail: Short millions of PPE? Crowdfund. Medical systems strained to collapse? Applaud at 7PM. Leadership in crisis? Advise how to “lead in a crisis.”

Murphology,” The Study of Failure, as in a Tolstoy novel, one boring way to succeed is outmatched by unlimited dazzling ways to fail. In the “One-Shot” Olympic Moment, the archer let’s fly: Hit the target or fail after years of training. Some things are an all-or-nothing proposition. While creativity is required in unprecedented times, a pandemic is too fraught to risk failure by flirting with ill-fated ideas.

A Change Agent’s Multiple Lenses

Oxford and HEC Paris Consulting and Coaching for Change Program (CCC) provides multiple lenses to apply to cities facing epochal, dramatic, and sudden change. In selecting from an ecosystem of change paradigms, my projects employ various systems approaches gleaned from my time in CCC, the Change Leaders alumni group, Adaptive Leadership at the Kennedy School, and five specific deep plunges in the experiential ocean since 1985. [21]

Confirmation bias. We are guilty of seeing things the way we’d like to see them. The thoughtful insist climate must be attended while the thoughtless plow ahead. Those who see pent-up demand for change in capitalism are convinced capitalism will depart or be dispatched, never fixed. Vegetarians, meat. Feminists, paternalism. Atheists see god in trouble this time, while the faithful pray harder. Analysts point to factors, post-facto explaining away what just happened to us and why they did not see it coming. The inept point the finger. Those inclined to kindness see kindness rewarded, in the hope of cruelty being banished. Everybody seems to have a bad pet they would abandon on the highway.

Revolution is rapid evolution. Things continue the same, only more so. We see sudden breakthroughs in those things which were long overripe for change: remote medicine and learning, remote work, business, and retail catalyzed. Change processes are accelerated, not altered, unless things fall apart, which countenances consequences of upheaval no responsible person would seek. This meets the true definition of a catalyst, which accelerates but does not alter a chemical reaction.

Systems and organizations. Transformation is a time to think less about ourselves and more about systems. Change still happens in organizations. The organization is the entry point. From the organization, we may strategically work up to assemblages of organizations and systems, and handily work down to individuals in the organization. The change agent seeks out the places where system nodes interact.

Creativity. When doing something over and over the same way, follow a procedure to perfection. When doing something often, with variations, resort to a checklist. When doing something for the first time, be creative. Creative solutions, opening systems, trying new things, asking for ideas, listening to new voices — all are needed in an unprecedented pandemic. Calibrating creativity and failure hang in the balance.

Conflating individual and organizational. Ask people what changes they wish to see, and personal wishes emerge. Ask people what they are doing for those changes, and we see a gap in talents applied to organizations and systems. Organizations — city and state governments, business associations, and the like — are rocketing ahead, planning recovery, priorities, budgets, and projects. The change agent not in those conversations is not in the change. One option is to get political. Politics, after all, is the legitimate art of competing and debating for resources, priorities, and policies. Those in the fray are where it’s at.

Think politically. We are called to be profoundly political and lightly partisan. Agents of change who wish to be at the nodes where change happens, learn how to navigate power and politics. Work in systems implies understanding all of the levers, including power. Moreover, systems that gain higher quantitative and qualitative participation perform better, not least in civic and government spheres, as well as in business.

Plausible futures. The exponential advance of disease is the essence of non-linearity and uncertainty. Proper situational assessment starts with listening, learning, and perceiving. Subject matter expertise matters in recovery. Facing a sheer blank wall of a future, cities are tempted to respond in programmatic mode. Preparing for several plausible futures via scenario development is of value. Variations in drivers of economic upset, public health danger, and scale of potential social disruption suggest at least eight scenarios developed and examined for reasonableness, with preparation for at least three plausible future stories using methods we have learned from the leaders of the Oxford Scenarios Program, generously updated for the time of corona here.

Power analysis. Where does power lie in institutions? Where are the six categories of resources available? Looking at business recovery, for example, I hear no single clue that business wants to move on low-cost labor. The organizational definition of inertia is that the future will continue as the past unless and until acted upon by an organized force. That organized force would be labor, pressing to nudge the giant boulder of business from its downhill path.

Collaboration over go-it-alone leaders. Time to trim the feathers of those who would wing it, tame the biome of the “gut” reflex, and park the moon shot. Complex crises call for collaborative responses that fully acknowledge complexity. To be useful in a pandemic, the individual takes a backseat, and collaboration takes over.

Decision Cats over Data Cowards. City fascination with data and metrics will continue with different emphasis. Purveyors of the Smart City somehow convinced cities that technology is the solution, yet still can’t organize beyond a prosaic Beta traffic light test. The shift towards Big Data sets in health, nutrition, and public access to resources will continue. Data cowards are those who insist on waiting for incontrovertible proof via clear evaluation metrics before making any decision. The Covid19 crisis is likely to demonstrate the benefit of an 80/20 rule, to act once data makes 80% certain, as long as the do-no-harm rule is applied too. Applying gumption, guts, and grit, decision cats get on with it and get to effective action. Here we see health care workers, first responders, dynamic mayors, and governors leading in cities in crisis. Where exponential curves are too steep to surf, these citizens, managers, and leaders revert to what they know best, tried-and-true strategic planning. The difference is rapid iteration and regular adjustment to the updated situation. It is as if decision cats lay short classic linear project-management tangents on the curve. Iterated decisions quickly re-lay a new linear tangent to simulate adaptively surfing the exponential curve of change.

A Change Agent’s Assets

One can’t escape the self-help article without a handy list of tools and to-dos. I succumb.

On the arts. All of the arts are relevant for complex, intractable, and unknown challenges.

Only the poets know it. Who can really know all the dimensions of a city? Only the poets have come close.

Literature. Tom Gilmore shared the unknown through a Salman Rushdie novel at CCC. An architect at work in organizational psychology taught literature of a threatened fiction writer from India, persuasive of the multiplicity of change paradigms required for new, unknown phenomena. A medical doctor’s undergraduate literature and medicine course covers pandemic novels from Ibsen through Camus’ “Le Peste.” [22]

Photography. Without documentary and street photography, we would not understand the city. Photographing the city opens the person to wonder and spirit that can become a form of enlightenment. [23]

The Art of Conversation from two meters away is in resurgence. [24]

The city demands to be walked. To be effective, one must know the city intimately, care for it, love it, over many years, and walk it to know it. Talk with others who love it. See its history in its bones and remnants.

Breakthrough: We are experiencing punctuated equilibrium in complex adaptive natural living systems — our cities.

  • Punctuated equilibrium happens under a unique nexus of change conditions.
  • Punctuated equilibrium happens after a long period of pressure for change.
  • Like fruit too long on the vine, pressure for change without change over a long time implies not only ripeness for change, but over-ripeness for change: things have been too long without change. Good healthcare, decent wages, a stuck minimum wage, a venture-capital system of investing in wants over needs, a concentration of wealth at the top versus the erosion of ownership of companies among those who produce the wealth, an exploitative innovation ecosystem that — by purpose, design, and profit objectives — squeezes the earnings of those who do the work.
  • An over-ripeness example is an overdue comeuppance for irresponsible politics
  • Efficiency starves redundancies needed for resilience
  • Believe in government; pay your taxes (we invest in us)
  • Punctuated equilibrium: the cap on a turbulent system, bursts. POP! That’s where we are now.

If you read this far, you made it over the dune and down the sandy slip-face of the change-agent coast in a community that favors a reread over a quick read. The sweat of your experience and mettle can contribute to cities forging futures for all. Please let me know what you are doing. I invite you to take and use what’s here, and to share your perspectives and tools.

Editor’s Note: We invite you to contribute. Send us your piece on change to



Mike Staresinic

Mike is a leader in international affairs, democratic governance, and organizational development. He helps those advancing change in rapidly changing countries worldwide. Mike studied at Penn State, HEC Paris, Oxford (UK), and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He has a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and Masters of Science in Consulting and Coaching for Change.



[1] Bob Dylan lyric about the pain and agony of change. I wish I coined “The Great Infection,” but unearthed citations for this pandemic, Hookworm, and a 1683 reference to the plague.

[2] Hokusai’s The Wave

[3]With respect to “Surfing the Edge of Chaos” by Pascale, Milleman and Gioja

[4] 3,292,966, according to on April 30, 2020.

[5] Where are our ideas? More than fifty Change Leader members and mentors have written for our community and the public

[6] Among many excellent books on city transformations, Don Carter’s Remaking Post-Industrial Cities offers comparative case studies of Bilbao, Buffalo, Detroit, Liverpool, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Rotterdam, Ruhr Region, Turin. Routledge, 2016.

[7] Prof. Luis Von Ahn was recruited from Guatemala in a worldwide competition for talent. He created ReCaptcha and DuoLingo — tech companies that employ well over 1000 computer scientists.

[8] I founded the City50 Project to help cities in transformation share experiences in planning for adaptive futures. I devise and employ tools from our common backgrounds in complexity, adaptive methods, and civic participation. [9] This is a description of what is occurring, not advocacy for this shift of emphasis.

[10] “Gears” are classic project management topics of people, time, and money: this is how city governments are built to react. Municipal governments keep the public safe, pick up the trash, and pave streets.

[11] Consolidating notes of news articles covering city budgets.

[12] Sandy prompted the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation to launch the Resilient Cities Initiative.

[13] New York has endured recent shocks in each category: conflict, economy, climate, and public health: 9/11, the Great Recession, Hurricane Sandy, and global Covid19 pandemic epicenter, respectively.

[14], among papers defending density, and “coronavirus has caused some to question the validity and safety of population density and transit. But the real culprits lie in crowding, poverty, pollution, and other socioeconomic factors.”

[15] My change practice is in the “breakthrough” of equilibrium in the complex adaptive living systems that are cities and nations. The scope and underpinnings of those concepts are beyond this paper and are limited to the description in this paragraph.

[16] An arguable point. Debate is welcome. When will attention fade? This is my WAG based on work in large systems.

[17] not least Brasilia, Ankara, Budapest, Beijing, Belgrade, London, elsewhere

[18] Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, sad to include the Administration in Washington among authoritarians by behavior, underway at the time of this article. See Freedom House on the erosion of US democratic institutions.

[19] For background on the dynamics of petro-authoritarianism and oil prices, numerous articles at the Journal of Democracy and Foreign Affairs Both sources may be held up to debate: the journal for its unabashed pro-democracy and human rights stance; and Foreign Affairs for a long-standing pro-US editorial policy and a pro-establishment emphasis. Arabian Gulf capitals, Moscow and Caracas, Lagos rose on rising oil prices. Their fortunes decline with the fortunes of oil, although their futures are not linked in a direct time relationship to oil futures.

[20] Science Technology Engineering and Math

[21] Change agent asset “Murphology” was brought to the Change Leaders by Jerry Ravetz circa 2012.



[24] a la Theodore Zeldin who has engaged CCC and the Change Leaders over two decades