How the Virus is Helping Us Find a Better Social Stack

Alternative Institutions are Rising

Joe Edelman
14 min readMar 24, 2020


New social systems, collective intelligences, and coordination mechanisms are forming to address COVID-19. This post can be read as a guide to making them even better, or as an evolving index of the best things going on.

The WHO, the CDC, the media, the economy — many traditional institutions are performing poorly. But while these institutions fail, new social systems like are kicking ass. The virus is bringing new social systems to the fore. Innovations are popping up across the entire social stack (see fig 1). Today I’ll explore how to judge these new systems, and where they might be superior to entrenched systems.

Social Systems

But first, a word about our social systems, in general.

In this post, lots of things will be called social systems. When I use this term, I mean the kind of things in black text in figure 1: systems made of people, who have codified and mutually understood roles and responsibilities. If you mention that you’re part of one, and what your role is, people will understand.

When talking about the pre-crisis social systems we’re all used to, I’ll call them ‘entrenched systems’. Almost all entrenched systems are built on goals: NGOs are built on campaigns and fundraising targets; companies and product teams are built on metrics; individual jobs are all about clear responsibilities, deliverables; etc.

When a new goal arises, such as “getting food to isolated elderly people during corona”, service providers sprout up to serve it. Volunteer corps arise. People transition from other jobs into jobs that serve the new goal. This goal just came into being, but many local groups are organizing around it, and even Jeff Bezos is helping out. Managers are figuring out how to measure progress on the goal.

This handling of goals is a great accomplishment!

But it is only a partial success: in these same systems, values² fall on deaf ears. Imagine being an employee at a…



Joe Edelman

Building economies of meaning, and leading the School for Social Design