Ginni Rometty: 3 steps we must take now to prepare for the next national crisis

February 11, 2021, 12:00 AM UTC
Three steps commentary
Christina Pagan, 7, does her schoolwork at the Olivet Boys & Girls Club in Reading, Pa.
Ben Hasty—MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

As we continue to confront the devastating toll of COVID-19, it’s hard to contemplate the next national crisis. But if we want any chance at beating it, we have to do more than contemplate it. 

When COVID struck last March, states were clamoring for help in securing urgently needed equipment to stem the rapidly spreading virus. That was difficult enough, but imagine how much worse things could have been had the virus been even more lethal or transmissible.

This week, a new report examining America’s collective response capabilities from Business Executives for National Security, for which I served as a commissioner, concluded that while some components of an integrated national response are in place, significant execution challenges remain. This is particularly troubling when a crisis affects multiple states and countries simultaneously, with limited time to acquire supplies and other resources. 

The federal government must take the lead in defining and establishing clear lines of communication and coordination during crises, creating a network of state-of-the-art command centers for national emergency response and surge and supply efforts, and better leveraging technology, data, and analytics to power our response.

So where do we start? In order to put us on better footing for responding to the next emergency, we need to focus first on equalizing access to opportunity, revitalizing digital infrastructure, and restoring trust in technology. America’s collective experience since the pandemic began underscores that crisis-ready capabilities in each of these areas are vital to our country’s national and economic security.

We must expand opportunity and devise a system that avoids further disenfranchisement of citizens when crises erupt. While COVID did not create the digital divide, it revealed its enormity and cost. We saw during the emergence of the pandemic that millions of people were left out of solutions because they lacked broadband access, inhibiting small businesses, entrepreneurs, and families.

An alarming 16.9 million children, many of whom are students of color and come from low-income or rural communities, lack high-speed home Internet access, and 7.3 million children do not own a computer. Right now, when kids aren’t connected, they aren’t learning. We are failing to prepare a new generation of talented individuals from all backgrounds whose dedication and expertise could prove critical to future crisis response.

The pandemic has reinforced the importance of STEM education in preparing the next generation of medical innovators, mathematicians to design predictive models, and engineers to design and deploy critical infrastructure. But STEM learning has not been accessible to all—there is a stunning lack of diversity in the field of professional STEM. 

While Black and Hispanic workers make up 11% and 16% of the total U.S. workforce, they are underrepresented in STEM. According to the Pew Research Center, “among employed adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, blacks are just 7% and Hispanics are 6% of the STEM workforce.” Closing the STEM education gap is crucial to fostering the diverse expertise and ideas needed to respond effectively to multifaceted national emergencies.

In order to protect our national security, we also need to get smart about data. In any crisis, there is data that needs to be shared and data that should not be shared across both the public and private sectors. We need a secure, robust digital infrastructure that maximizes the value and power of data as an emergency response tool, while ensuring that organizations aren’t worried that collaboration around data will threaten their survival or create unacceptable risk. 

Further, as local governments carry great responsibility for ground-level emergency response, there must be a system to share information and coordinate processes across distributed centers. This should involve a decentralized, cloud-based approach that manages data across multiple sources securely.

Finally, our ability to confront the next crisis depends on addressing faltering trust in technology. Citizens have found sufficient reasons during the pandemic to question whether supply chains will work for them when needed. That, coupled with concerns over privacy in health tracking systems and the rapid spread of questionable and misleading information, makes technology look like part of the problem, not the solution. 

This view cannot persist. We need to build trust in the models and simulations we use for national emergencies. The experts who specifically model disease progression and extreme weather events—and accurately inform the public on how to respond in such scenarios—are essential for future preparedness. Society deserves to understand how these models reach their conclusions. That understanding will in turn strengthen trust.

COVID-19 has shown that emergency shocks can significantly stress our national response. We have learned painful lessons during this crisis, and we have an obligation to act on them. Preparing for the next national crisis must begin now.

Ginni Rometty is the former chairman, president, and CEO of IBM and served as a Business Executives for National Security commissioner during the development of this report.

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