On Friday March 13, we started this journey of a W42ST daily newsletter. I wrote the initial post and committed to being a “friend dropping in” at around 9am every day. It was a leap of faith.
Later that day, Kate O’Neill sent a short email to me: “Thanks for this lovely reflection and for taking the initiative to send a daily newsletter.”
We’ve written before about being seen, being acknowledged. Whether it’s a Venmo Tip to a now unemployed waiter, or taking the time to order direct from a restaurant rather than via Seamless, it’s about the human connection. Thank you, Kate. It meant a lot.
There was another tweet. Kate told her crowd. She shared ideas. I dug deeper. I remembered: this was Kate who we followed on Instagram. She’s at Inc.com conferences and has been interviewed by AP. She’s known for something. What?
My research (stalking) revealed that Kate is an “optimistic futurist.” Who doesn’t need to listen to one of those now?
We talked for an hour yesterday, and as I listened back to the recording, I was struck by how she really IS an optimist. I think I’m a positive person, but I sounded like a miserable fuck!
Kate’s been in isolation on W57th St since March 18. She had a virtual urgent care appointment at the end of March: “It’s such a bizarre scenario to have a doctor talking with you over FaceTime and be like, ‘Well, all right, that’s symptoms consistent with Coronavirus. Just stay home for a few weeks
‘This pandemic has really shown me that the economy is people. When we say that the economy has collapsed, or that the economy is in chaos, it’s because people are in chaos.’
“I need to go at least a few days without a temperature, but then it comes back and I reset. But I did take the trash out with my husband last week and that was very exciting.”
So how’s the optimism business these days? “I always say I don’t feel like optimism is about not acknowledging that bad things can happen. It’s more about recognizing the bad things that can happen and doing your best to make sure that good things are also happening, or that you’re counteracting the bad things as much as possible.”
What about the futuristic part then? “I don’t traffic in prediction, that isn’t my job. I help to create human experiences. There’s a bit of prediction that goes on within that realm. But when you have a context that has changed so dramatically, as we’ve seen with the pandemic, it changes everything that you can remotely think about for the next few years. You start thinking, ‘What do the stages look like ahead of us instead of normalcy?” Forget normalcy – now we’ve got to think about the new stages that we’re going to evolve through.”
What does that look like day-to-day though? “How do we do this kind of blended reality of recognizing that there’s still a pandemic afoot, but that we have to begin to figure out what the socially distanced version of normal events looks like. How do we go to restaurants? Do we have plexiglass dividers between us?”
Kate referred me to her book Pixels and Place: “I’ve spent the last 25 years in and around technology, but my focus has already always been on the human experience. So it happens to deal in the realm of technology more often than not, but human experience is human experience, whether that’s happening mostly through digital platforms, or happening in a restaurant or through Zoom or whatever.”
Being a futurist means you look at the world through a wide lens. I asked how much Kate had considered health in the past. She quipped: “I don’t think that matters of global public health were as much on my radar as they are now.” But as this crisis developed, the researcher and curator kicked in. “It has definitely taken some disciplined research to follow the public health experts as closely as possible to understand what their lens is. So I curated a list on Twitter of COVID-19 knowledgeable experts, ranging from epidemiology to infectious disease, to public health, to a number of related subjects.” (You should follow Kate on Twitter – she’s a generous curator.)
She says: “Then we began talking a lot more about the economy and the financial markets. And I was like, “OK, now I have to curate an entirely new list of people who are really good at labor markets.” And I really want to specifically focus on labor markets, examining the financial crisis and the economic crisis – and this pandemic has really shown me that the economy is people. When we say that the economy has collapsed, or that the economy is in chaos, it’s because people are in chaos. And the only way we can right the economy, whether we’re talking about it on a local neighborhood level or on a global level, is by focusing on people and making sure people are OK.”
We turned our attention locally. “The human experience is very much a localized one. We are what’s within our boundaries, even as we transact and interact with people globally. A lot of my focus is on neighborhoods and smart cities. So it is very much within my mindset or my philosophy to think about local experiences and I very much want to be part of my neighborhood.
“It’s been hardest to be cut off physically because of quarantine; not being able to even go out and do things like walk around the neighborhood. That’s something that really makes me empathetic to other people who are in quarantine situations and are cut off. And not to mention people who are in long-term disability situations and are in that way cut off and have always been before this.”
What can we do? “I think about the resources of the neighborhood,” she says. “A friend of mine, Bennett Bennett, just tweeted something that I thought was a brilliant observation: “Feed the block first.” I think this is a much more important philosophy than the famous ‘It’s the economy, stupid’. If we could distill economic policy or labor markets down to focus on your block, or metaphorically your block – your neighborhood, the few blocks in which you have most of your spending decisions – I think that would go a long way toward rebuilding. An awful lot.”
We talked about the future of Broadway, and our consumption of content. “I think Saturday Night Live has been very creative with the way they’ve brought these last two episodes back – hit or miss in terms of humor quality, but it’s always been that way. And it’s also interesting to me, from the cultural strategy lens, thinking about why a show like Tiger King has gained such a robust following and it’s just so absurd. That’s kind of what people need right now. It seems also why Ozark has done well. You need a really escapist premise, or something that’s going to tear you away from the surreality.
“I think back to the night of the power out, when all the Broadway show casts came out and performed for crowds that were gathered around. I don’t think any of those are long-term solutions. I’m certainly not under any illusions and they don’t necessarily make money. But I think there are ways to begin to message audiences that there’s an innovative approach to bringing those institutions back to the people.”
I shared Governor Cuomo’s tweet with Kate
Her thoughts: “It’s a good quote for now. But I don’t think that anyone imagines, I hope, that we’re really seeing a world in which we never go to a theater or to a restaurant again. I think we all imagine that, given a number of years or a period of time, that we’ll be back in theaters and restaurants. So we do have to think about what holds over those institutions until then.
“The best way I’ve seen it put is by one economist. What businesses like that need right now is a time machine. They need to be able to get ahead in the future to when people are coming back and able to support that business with money. So that’s what I think the loan programs and grants and things like that are supposed to be doing – helping build a time machine to allow these businesses to get past this next stage, when it’s not going to be remotely profitable for them to be operating.”
Does she still want to live here? “It’s not a single time occurred to me that I would ever want to be anywhere besides New York – as challenging as it is to be in what is the epicenter of this. We have so much that’s within walkable access, that we don’t have to get in our cars and risk endangering other people in other neighborhoods. We’re just here. We have within our boundaries so much that we can access.
“I’ve been seeing a lot of great momentum from people who want to reclaim streets and make sure that they’re more pedestrian friendly, more bike friendly. I absolutely want to be here, I want to be part of helping influence those changes and the discussion that keeps people focused on what good can come from the difficult situation that we have.”
What does Kate miss? “Robbie and I are big burrito and Mexican people. So we’re always big on Burrito Box and La Esquina. We’ve been doing a lot of our own versions of burritos and bowls, and we can’t wait to sit at the counter at La Esquina and drink a Modelo and watch people go by.
“I realized a couple weeks ago that what I missed most of all was people watching. Where I live, I’m very close to Central Park. So, pre-quarantine, I’d take advantage of that and sit on a bench and watch people. I was really missing that. I managed to find a video on YouTube where a photographer had set up a camera on a tripod and filmed a bunch of people just walking by. I’m like, “Oh, show me, show me, show me. Show me New Yorkers walking by.'”
Stay in touch with W42ST and be first to read stories like this when you subscribe to our daily newsletter at w42st.com