Pandemic learnings: New Non-State Actors

The coronavirus pandemic has been a global stress test. And as stress tests go, this one has shown us which systems have been working and where we have break points. Where the cracks are in our infrastructure.

One of the lessons of 2020 is this: There is exactly one non-state actor — maybe only one actor, period — that has the capacity to provide both physical and digital infrastructure at near-global scale: Amazon, with it’s dual offering of delivery infrastructure and cloud computing.

We see states providing physical and logistical infrastructure, but largely they lack digital infrastructure, or wouldn’t necessarily offer it to other organizations.

We see corporations that offer digital infrastructure, but largely lack the physical and logistical infrastructure, or wouldn’t necessarily offer it to other organizations.

Now, Amazon has issues that I want to very emphatically not gloss over, ranging from labor issues to an enormous carbon footprint that they should be doing much more about. Amazon has been doing extremely poorly on those front given their profits: With great power comes great responsibility, and Amazon with its size and impact should be best of class here.

That said, it’s fascinating to see a non-state actor wielding that kind of dual infrastructure where no one else seems to be able to pull this off. It’s true infrastructure and utility at a scale I don’t think we’ve seen ever before, anywhere.

In a pandemic year where stay-at-home orders and virtual meetings reigned supreme, these building blocks of physical and digital infrastructure have proven essential to keep things running. This has provided some level of resilience where all the other systems in place would have failed in a cascade.

I personally don’t think this level of infrastructure should be left to private enterprises with so little oversight, and I hope governments will step in: What Amazon delivers here falls squarely into the responsibility of tax-funded, government-run services. But while that’s not happening, there’s a lot to study here.

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