John G. Singer examines why technological solutions are not a quick fix to overcoming the COVID-19 crisis and how a systems shift is crucial to securing better health outcomes in the long-term.


Strategic failure begins when you turn things over to technologists.


“My 18-year-old daughter, Caroline, responded quickly when I told her that she’d soon be able to download an app to alert her when she had been in risky proximity to someone with COVID-19, and that public health officials hoped to fight the pandemic with such apps,” wrote Bernard Wolfson, Managing Editor, California Healthline, in a piece last week (COVID-Tracking Apps Proliferate, But Will They Really Help?).


“Yeah, but nobody will use them,” she replied.


My young smartphone addict’s dismissal sums up a burning question facing technologists around the country as they seek to develop and roll out apps to track the newly resurgent pandemic….”


Caroline’s insight speaks to the ‘ground truth’ of life in the real world: Technology is a means, not an end.


“Digital” is now an incessant peripherality, a commodity input demanding inordinate attention and investment, but never Big Enough as a solution to a system problem.


With the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark…that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back…for “digital” as the star in a story of value was the era that ended with a hard stop in the first half of 2020 with the total collapse caused by corona.


We are getting pummelled by weird blasts from all corners. There is a universal sense that whatever we are doing is wrong, that we are losing.


Technology is yesterday’s idea. What’s needed now is a different approach, a new narrative to create new concepts from which to guide and give a new context of significance.


The production of health happens at a system level: never just one thing, but many things simultaneously and interactively over time. If you buy the logic, then the entire global economy can be seen as contributing to outcomes – everything is in the ‘production boundary’ for health.


The space of opportunity then is for a new orbit for creative leadership by industry and government working collaboratively on market innovation to reframe and reorient economies into systems of health production. The design point is mutual transformation and mutual engagement.


The American way of healthcare is ‘administratively encircled’ — its failure to function as expected is to be expected. The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing people that a $4 trillion system of markets is organized to enable the production of health.


It’s not. It doesn’t.


Instead, its misalignment is the natural state, rewarding value and sustaining a brutal odyssey into the heart of dysfunctional economics. A tragic comedy that has devolved into the insane, the “fix” is not more digital (or telehealth) to make the dysfunction more efficient to experience. It’s strategy to claim leadership at a system level.


“Companies are playing a central role in the transformation,” say a team from McKinsey in Harvard Business Review. Writing on the link between the production of health and economic development, they frame the space of opportunity for new system vision:


“Health care providers, pharmaceutical companies, and the med-tech industry are at the heart of the pandemic response. They could build on recent innovations to help shape how nations remake health systems, including how collaboration and alignment of incentives can help advance broad-based health and prosperity.”


A new approach is long overdue.


The next healthcare (+ life sciences) transcends with market innovation. Outcomes become markets. “Value” becomes system vision that aligns the social, political and economic determinants of health.


It’s a storyline for New Strategy born from systems thinking.


/ jgs


John G. Singer advises business and government on health system vision and value innovation. He leads Blue Spoon Consulting (, the pioneer of ‘big design’ as a methodology to drive large-scale system change.