If there’s one technological lesson buried in the history of the last thousand years, it’s that times of crisis are often followed by times of innovation and transformation. In the 19th century, the devastating Civil War in the United States was followed by profound innovation in medicine and industrial design, along with a transformation of the landscape and economy as railroads opened up travel to the West. In the same way, both the World Wars of the 20th century ushered in extraordinary technological advances, many of which were wartime developments converted to civilian benefit.

In the same way, pandemics from the Plague to the Coronavirus drive significant scientific, business and societal changes. In the 14th Century, the plague in Europe was followed by the printing press, access to all the books and knowledge of antiquity, the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration. In the 1600s, the plague in London was followed by the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Reason and the rise of modern democracy. Just a century ago, the Spanish flu was followed by the Roaring 20s, when radio connected every home in America to culture and news, when airlines made it possible to cross this country in a single day, and when powerful social changes led to new ways of understanding society.

This history was on our minds last year as we helped clients address the economic and societal effects of COVID-19 and look ahead to what might be coming next. It doesn’t mean that crisis is good or that we should celebrate pandemics. But it does mean we can learn from history to fast forward into a new decade of transformation.

What drives transformation?

At Reservoir, we identify four drivers of transformation, drivers that showed up in all the advances we identified coming out of previous pandemics. In each case, from the printing press to the radio broadcast, these four factors had to be present.

Transformation is driven by:

  • THE INTERSECTION of new tools, technologies or systems you can use in a new way.
  • MATCHED to a new need or way of looking at the world.
  • COMBINED with new relationships and ways of working.
  • DRIVEN by a powerful purpose.

To illustrate, let’s take an extraordinary technological advancement that followed the plagues of the 14th century and use it as a lens to look at how to create lasting transformation: reading glasses.

Why did anyone need glasses?

As early as the 11th Century CE, the scientist Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, was experimenting with lenses in Cairo, developing the foundations of the modern science of optics. Soon, wealthy Europeans were playing with lenses they called “reading stones,” but the technology stopped there. Apart from a few sequestered monks copying manuscripts, no one thought they needed glasses.

Then came an intersection of new technologies. The invention of the Gutenberg printing press meant that after 1450 there are lots of new books to read. Because paper, printing and shipping books is expensive, the type was small. And that revealed a new need and a new way of looking at things.

Suddenly people realized their vision isn’t all that good. If they wanted to read these books, they needed help. What if they put those toy lenses to work for reading? Suddenly, optical technology became important and reading glasses were born. Within a single generation, eyeglasses spread across Europe, through the Middle East and all the way to India.

From all that reading, there arose a period of new relationships and new ways of working. As people read more, they discovered there were vast libraries filled with the knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman scientists and scholars. There were also lots of maps to read because people began sailing all over the world and bringing back new knowledge and new ways of thinking about our world.

And one more thing no one saw coming: coffee, from Arabia. Until the end of the 15th C., it was hard to get clean water in cities like London and Paris. So people drank beer or wine. For breakfast, lunch and dinner. They also fell asleep at their desks. And then comes coffee: and suddenly, people are sitting in coffee houses and talking to scientists, scholars and explorers, their brains bursting with new ideas.

From those drivers, people found a powerful purpose in studying the natural world. You could make the case that from the convergence of the printing press, eyeglasses and coffee houses, our modern technologies – and democracies – were born.

We are at a similar turning point today.

Just look at the headlines. A photograph produced in the form of an NFT (a non-fungible token) sold at auction for $69 million. Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin are roiling financial markets. And mRNA technology helped us produce two of the major COVID vaccines in record time.

We’ve been interested in watching the wave of manufacturers announcing their entry into the battery-electric vehicle market. Over the winter months, we produced a study for the Port of Los Angeles – the largest port in the Western Hemisphere – to accelerate the adoption of zero-emission drayage trucks in the Ports. The current goal is to reach 100% zero-emissions for the fleet of 15,000 trucks by 2035. The question we were asked to examine was whether they could get there faster.

Based on the framework above, we designed a program we called Operation ZED (or OZED, for Zero Emission Drayage) that predicted that they might reach the goal as soon as the summer of 2028, in time for the Los Angeles Olympics.

We predicted that a powerful intersection of new tools technologies and systems will accelerate both the production and acceptance of zero-emissions trucks. At the time, five manufacturers said they would have Class 8 trucks on the road in 2021. By April, another four or five had announced their plans. At the same time, battery manufacturers announced breakthroughs in solid state batteries, which are not only safer and use fewer resources, but extend range while shortening charging times, two vital factors in the viability of a truck fleet. In addition, emerging trends in AI are making it possible to streamline fleet activities, reducing the number of trucks needed by as much as 15%.

Those trends were matched to new needs and new ways of looking at the world. The terrifying fires of the past few years in California make it clear that change needs to come faster. The surge of cargo into the Port of Los Angeles increased the miles driven and the emissions from the current diesel fleet. Even worse, in the heat wave of the 2020 summer, the ports had to disconnect ships from the power grid so the city could survive. That meant that ships, without the option to connect to shore-side electricity, had to run their diesel auxiliary engines in port.

Those factors were combined with new relationships and ways of working in which public and private partnerships were looking for ways to combine funds to reduce emissions. And there was another factor: the economics of truck ownership and driver income was reaching a crisis point. Drivers often had $50,000 invested in their trucks, plus the cost of fuel and repairs, but were only bringing home and average of $1200 per week. And fewer and fewer drivers were interested in the economics of that business.

And with that, our OZED acceleration study became part of a powerful purpose: beyond zero-emissions, the plan will improve the economic and environmental quality of life of the communities around the port, while facilitating a more efficient and effective system of moving cargo around the world. It is no surprise that President Biden’s proposed $2 trillion infrastructure plan includes substantial funding for ports and their clean air programs. According to a recent article in the New York Times, the single most effective use of the infrastructure funds in California would be to replace the aging Port of Los Angeles drayage truck fleets with zero emissions trucks.

Can America Lead this Change?

Last week’s global environmental summit marked a possible milestone America surprised the world’s leaders by setting a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030. To make that happen, we’ll need to move ports and trucks to the front of the zero-emissions line.

We’ll find support from major American companies. We’ve spent the last few years pointing out to clients that while the United States could pull out of the Paris Agreement, UPS, American Airlines, and other global companies could not, because they do business in all the countries who continue to respect the agreement. And we will also find support from the military. It may surprise many people to learn that the U.S. military invests heavily in clean energy technology, investments that will have important side effects in the civilian world.

This is feels like a unique moment in history, but maybe not so different from what we’ve seen before. So put on your reading glasses, pour another cup of coffee, and let’s get to work on what comes next. As Sam Cooke sang, a change is gonna come.