Suggestions for structuring Australia's new national COVID-19 coordination effort

​Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced today a new COVID-19 coordination commission, populated by senior business and political leaders, and this note suggests a way that might be helpful in structuring their work agenda.

I'm glad to see this being delivered as a public-private, cross-party (?) initiative, rather than keeping this as a political cabal. It recognises the economy-wide nature of the problem and need for private sector involvement. It's early days for this commission, but so far what I see lacking is the voice of technologists and designers (e.g. startups) who will be critical at innovating around road blocks, and international perspectives, as an attempt to create a country-specific response for such a global threat would be folly.

I've spent the last couple of years working with Shapeable, an innovation consultancy and platform, to build The Collective, which is applying their four stage ecosystem building approach to address the global ageing challenge (particularly urgent in today's world). The approach could equally apply to addressing the global COVID-19 crisis, which is as much an information and coordination problem as much as anything. Some of the sharpest commentary I've seen suggests that we don't need to suffer millions of deaths if we take a systems-wide approach and coordinate efforts (which is easier for some countries to say than do). An approach that emphasises private-public coordination and collaboration, individual agency, sharing of relevant information and best practices is more likely to thrive in the West (and avoid negative future scenarios) than more authoritarian, top-down approaches.

This approach aims to build an innovation ecosystem not just solve individual problems. Here are four steps and first thoughts of how they could apply to COVID-19:

ONE: Missions. What are the different missions in response to the COVID-19 response? Each country (and often each state and city) is making their own strategy, but they will largely have common themes:

  • Testing. How to make kits available? Home testing? Drive-through testing. Also, serologic testing - who's had the virus already? How to get everyone tested as many have had it in the past.
  • Tracing. Who's had it, who have you interacted with? Using phone records is a promising avenue here.
  • Quarantine. Places for those to go who have mild cases but don't need hospitals.
  • Isolation. Understanding how to mitigate impact of isolation and loneliness, especially on the most vulnerable and disconnected.
  • Homelessness. Making sure those without homes are taken care of in a 'shelter in place' scenario.
  • Equipment. Building up supplies of masks, swabs and ventilators etc and redistributing supplies.
  • Food & nutrition. Ensuring uninterrupted supply of food and water
  • Energy and essential services. Ensuring stable utilities.
  • Law and order. Minimising scope for public order offences, fraud, hacking.
  • Transport & mobility. Allowing critical care workers to get around safely and with minimum disruption.
  • Health system management. Bending the curve, preventing health system collapse, making beds available (rescheduling non-urgent cases, freeing up private hospitals).
  • Regulations. Freeing up burdensome regulations while preserving safety and effectiveness (such as the rapid freeing up of restrictions in the US of telemedicine and doctors practicing across state lines).
  • Vaccine and treatments. Stimulating private-public sector responses.
  • Productivity. Enabling systems to continue for example helping people work from home.
  • [...]

For each of these missions we'd also like to know how to measure success - what metrics do we feel represents success in terms of each of the missions?

TWO - Mapping: Who are the key players in Australia in each of these areas and what are they doing? Who are the key players globally? We need a set of stakeholder profiles and also individuals' profiles, as they may change organisations but take their ideas with them.

THREE - Modelling: Who's making an outsize impact here? Let's not create our own serologic test when there are hundreds being developed. But Australia's commission will need to know what it prioritises, for example efficacy, speed or cost, and these are metrics that can be assessed and a partnership / supplier decided.

FOUR - Market-making. Once there's a clear sense of what we're trying to solve (mission), who's working on it (mapping) and who's doing it best (modelling) we can then let the market work. This is the most challenging phase moves the beyond the 'academic' (albeit focused on the practical) to the business realm. It fresh thinking in two ways compared to today's market-first approaches. First, information about the impact of the interventions, not just the price, will be transparent. And second, the market will be designed for multiple organisations - public and private- to collaborate to deliver on a public mission, rather than just being a private transaction between two organisations. Are there people who have spare capacity to make ventilators, but with less of the PR presence than Elon Musk? Philanthropists, medical suppliers and innovators could be connected to address bottlenecks (whether it's re-using PPE kit, making ventilators or finding a vaccine) via the platform and crowd-source talent competitions.

There are plenty of platforms that do stage four of the ecosystem, especially around crowd-sourcing solutions, but few platforms other than Shapeable that I've seen do a good job with Phases 1 through 3. The Shapeable team is based between Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Geneva and are closer than anyone I've seen in building 'ecosystem as a service' model that could, with a relatively small amount of funding, scale up this approach to form a major part of a COVID-19 response system. More information and contact details for Shapeable is here.