COVID can be our Apollo 13- We gotta figure out how to put a square peg in a round hole

Apollo 13

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At the end of yet another news week that delivered new challenges and opportunities for improvement and growth in the COVID-era, there are three ideas bouncing in my brain that I wanted to share. I’d appreciate your feedback. COVID can be our Apollo 13!

First, there is a constant tension between capitalism and socialism in the headlines. And we’re seeing a dangerous – and misleading – rise of Open the Economy vs Shelter in Place arguments. This is a false choice largely driven by political interest and ceding the most important decision that this generation will ever make to emotion not science and data. It completely discounts the uniquely human ability to imagine, design, and build a better path forward. It’s not either or, but a thoughtful blend of the two.

Secondly, we have the opportunity for us (and our leaders) to reconsider how the public – and the individual – is best served and re-empowered as we move down that path. In this time of unprecedented disruption, human networks are rapidly evolving and the digital work and social space is more vital than ever.

Citizen relationships with the global companies who are – more than ever – collecting our data and filling our screens should evolve, too. In the most recent episode of Make Me Smart, Molly Wood and her guest, Andy Uhler discuss Google, Facebook, and other global behemoths, explore when big becomes too big, and propose the need to reevaluate the exchange rate between our data and their free services. Just as we examined the role of railroad, oil and steel monopolies over a hundred years ago.

In a recent podcast of Econ Talk, economist, author, and CUNY educator Branko Milanovic talks about his book, Capitalism, Alone. He discusses the roots of inequality, the challenge of corruption in the Chinese system (as well as other countries like Russia, Singapore and the United States), and the impact that technology has had on globalization.

Though the interview occurred pre-COVID, it examines what we value in moving towards a totally commoditized economy. In other words, cheaper is certainly not always better. Going forward we have a chance to strike a better balance between business and policy that reflects the fact that we are all in this together.

And finally, there is a real need for us (and our leaders) to unpack the “where we are” and put everything out on the table. All of our past political turf battles, as former Senator Kirk Watson, (now the inaugural Dean of the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs) points out in “A Playbook for Resiliency” with LBJ School Professor Steve Pedigo, this is our chance to leave old political battles – formulated and fought in times of perceived prosperity – behind.

But in this new era of uncertainty and potential scarcity, it’s a chance for us to pause, rethink, and redo. As Kirk Watson says, it’s a chance to better define what we consider to be key and essential in our economy. And when that examination takes place (whether its people or physical infrastructure) we have a chance to better align our values and our policy.

This moment in time reminds me of the movie Apollo 13, where Ed Harris plays Flight Director Gene Kranz. There is a scene where Kranz declares that failure is not an option. Later the engineering team dumps all the parts found inside of an Apollo capsule onto a table to figure out ways to reconnect pieces and parts to bring the Astronauts home safely. They had to figure out how to put a square peg in a round hole. As a state, a nation and a planet, we are having to figure out how to put a square peg in a round hole.

This is our Gene Kranz moment and we’re all engineers now.  And everything should be on the table to discuss better ways of moving forward.

Our future – of work, relationships, economics – requires us to examine all the assumptions that underlie the leadership, strategy, budgets, and planning we made as recently as two months ago. We have been provided the opportunity to think about what we value and how we align priorities to follow those values.

I often tell audiences:you always get what you pay for and there’s always a day when that bill comes due if you buy it on credit.. COVID has exposed for many of us that we have long been living on a different form of credit.  One where we don’t actually give credit to how things actually do work.  

Our challenge is: do we go back to models and divisions that weren’t working? Or do we move forward, reexamining and improving upon systems – economic, medical, scientific, diplomatic, the list goes on – working for a more perfect union and the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness?


Joseph co-founded a company, built it from scratch, then sold it to Mercedes. He stayed on with them to advise their senior leadership and assist in their evolution as a mobility company. From those experiences, he and Bret Boyd wrote the book, Catalyst, chronicling the opportunities and challenges in the 21st Century economy for business and policy makers. He’s an active investor and mentor to dozens of companies.

After running for Congress, he’s now an Executive-in-Residence at the McCombs School of Business at UT-Austin. Today, Joseph is using those experiences as well as his own 20 years of service in the Army (including time as a Special Assistant to the CEO of the Army) to build the next generation of leaders in some of the most exciting companies and public entities in America.

In addition, Kopser is a public speaker, technology entrepreneur and expert in transportation, smart cities, urban mobility, energy, national security issues as well as an Army combat veteran. He joined the consulting company Grayline where we work with people and companies to bring together experts, data, and solutions to help companies and public institutions manage disruptive change.

He served in the U.S. Army for 20 years earning the Combat Action Badge, Army Ranger Tab and Bronze Star. He’s a graduate of West Point with a BS in Aerospace Engineering and also received a Masters from the Harvard Kennedy School in 2002. In 2013, Kopser was recognized as a White House Champion of Change for my efforts in Energy and Transportation.

In 2014, our company, RideScout, won the U.S. Department of Transportation Data Innovation Award. In his free time, Kopser works with The Bunker, an organization dedicated to supporting veteran entrepreneurs. In 2019, he became the inaugural Chairman of the Board of Advisors for the CleanTX Foundation, an economic development and professional association for clean tech companies. He’s been married to Amy for over 25 years living in Austin and together they are extremely proud of their three adult daughters.

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