Thursday, May 28, 2020


What have you been doing during this global pandemic? For me, I have transitioned to operating my publishing company remotely and staying busy. I am eating better because no more junk food and I am also exercising more by swimming.  I don't think that our world and our society will ever be the same once we eradicate COVID-19. I am not being dismal, just stating how I feel. With any crisis, there is always an aftermath and today's author interview brings that to the forefront.  Meet author Trond Undheim and learn about his book Pandemic Aftermath: How Coronavirus Will Change Global Society. 

Trond Undheim

Tell your readers a little about yourself, where you grew up, where you live now, where you went to school etc. Let them get to know the personal you.

I grew up in a town in Norway called Trondheim, which is interesting to some people since my first name is Trond, which means "happy", and since "heim" means town or home, it makes me happy from Happytown. Pretty upbeat start!

I've lived all over the world. I graduated High School in Branford, Connecticut. I studied in Belgium (I was the only one with an all-weather jacket and a mountain bike in the entire town of Liege back in 1993) and Italy (I was an outsider walking the streets of Naples in the Italian south). I also spent a year at UC Berkeley in California during my Ph.D. during the first Internet heydays, attending roof parties all as part of my research. My work has taken me to the EU in Brussels, to London with Oracle and now to Boston where I worked at MIT for many years. This is all quite strange because I don't particularly like to travel. I do love great conversation, and I love the outdoors. I can drive people nuts talking for hours on end about world issues, plants, music, books, or technology.

What inspired you to author this book?

Pandemic Aftermath was born as I sat in my attic pondering why the WHO didn't call it a pandemic even though it evidently was. I forecasted a much more significant event was about to unfold, dropped everything else for two months, and hunkered down to document the world-shattering event. I think my skill set was a good match for understanding the bigger picture. I'm trained in scenario and foresight methods (popularly called being a futurist), I've worked with technology innovation from public health to pharma to AI and virtual and augmented reality at MIT and in various of my startups. I had just authored a book called Disruption Games (2020) about how to thrive on failure and seek out the kind of deep learning experience that is only possible when working closely with a startup. I was supposed to be writing on my next book, Future Tech (2021), which will be a more systematic study of the forces of disruption surrounding technology, policy, business, and culture. I put that on hold for a bit since I realized that the entire context of technology (medium-term) would now potentially be framed in terms of how it contributed to a post-pandemic future. All of that needed to be digested. Also, I'm not a doctor, and I didn't want to risk exposing my kids by volunteering in hospitals or anything like that. I firmly believe that we all have to contribute. In Norway, there is a term called "dugnad" which is a generalized phenomenon similar to what the Midwest calls a barnraise--we all come together when there is a big task and volunteer to accomplish the task together--without any money changing hands. This is my contribution to the public "dugnad" surrounding coronavirus.

Where did you get the inspiration for your book's cover?

Pandemic Aftermath is the most historically aware of my books so far. I've always been fascinated by the longterm perspective on human history. I had also just read a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci, the book Learning from Leonardo by Fritjof Capra. Mona Lisa's smirk kind of screams secrets. Also, did you know that a Boston physician, Dr. Mandeep Mehra, medical director of the Heart & Vascular Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, has diagnosed Mona Lisa as suffering from thyroid disease? Not that thyroidism is contagious, so she wouldn't have worn a mask. In any case, in the book, I point out that the long term legacy of the Black Death included the onset of the Renaissance. Wouldn't it be great if contemporary society's global issues, be they pandemics or environmental cataclysms, cause use to enter another creative period in human history? I also want to point out that Aftermath literally means "aftergrowth" and refers to the second coming of grass after the harvest -- growth after tragedy. I found it poetic.

Who has been the most significant influence on you personally and as a writer?

I'm indebted to my father, who was a great thinker and academic who taught me near everything I know about science, psychology, learning, and experiments. I worked in his research lab for many years and way before I graduated high school. He was a cognitive psychologist with joint expertise in human intelligence and dyslexia. I suffer from neither but got to learn a lot. In terms of writing, I devour any book I can get hold of. I've assembled a library of about 10,000 books, but I've read many more. My local library ran out of books for me to read. I think Jules Verne's stories have been formative. I've probably read each of his five masterpieces at least five times, Around the World in Eighty Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, The Mysterious Island and From the Earth to the Moon, but so have contemporary authors like F Scott Fitzgerald. In the suspense genre, I actually like Lee Child's Jack Reacher series. Don't get me started on books. I love non-fiction as well, and I read essays and poetry, too. I've recently discovered that I like biographies beyond those of polar explorers, so that has definitely broadened my outlook. Also, I regret very much not having crossed the South Pole on cross country skis when I had the chance. I thought it was done once and for all in 1911 with Roald Amundsen, but then Colin O'Brady did it in 2018. Did I say I love the books of great explorers? Another childhood inspiration was Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl who embarked on the Kon-Tiki expedition where he sailed 8,000 km across the Pacific Ocean in a hand-built raft from South America to the Tuamotu Islands to try to prove that people from South America could have settled Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. The book he wrote is almost a bible to me when it comes to appreciating and uncovering the mysteries of life. My struggle with non-fiction is that most of it is lifeless. In contrast, I'm drawn to authors that share some of their own stories as they are writing about important business, tech, or cultural phenomena.

What were your struggles or obstacles you had to overcome to get this book written?

The first obstacle was that I was constrained to sources I had in my house, books, and literature accessible through the Internet. I also had to write at breakneck speed. The 427 pages, including 40 pages of references was written in just about two months. I also had to block out a lot of the noise coming from a media that was overwhelmed with alarmist storytelling but without a common thread in the narrative beyond constantly creating scapegoats. The reflection level around public health is generally not very sophisticated. It is a field that has largely not innovated its core over the past hundred years, despite enormous societal and technological changes. My desire wasn't to unmask all of that, but it is one of the results of my work.

Tell your readers about your book.

Pandemic Aftermath is the story of what could happen over the next decade. The first portion of the book is non-fiction, and I chart the timeline of the first three months of the pandemic, which I found to be particularly gripping. I also try to put this pandemic into a historical and socio-political perspective with an eye to how it will impact the political economy and geopolitics. The second portion is a scenario-based novel where I've depicted five scenarios. I felt very strongly that since so many others were presenting all kinds of predictions, I wanted to be more measured. We don't know very much. What we do know is that the pandemic has created uncertainty. But rather than quell that uncertainty too early, it is important to delve into it, to try to uncover what our options are and what might happen if this pandemic isn't the only ill that occurs on this planet in the next decade. I also wanted to imagine the possibilities.

In Borderless world, an expert-led world federal state where leaders are able to implement globalization and strategies to fix health systems fully. Yet, the cost is a synthetic world, where nature and the elderly, are both abandoned.

In Nation-state renewal, with enormous virus death tolls, borders close down, and people stop traveling vast distances. This is the decade of intermittency, cycles of opening up society is followed by cycles of closing down, repeatedly and physical distancing is needed throughout the decade. China, Scandinavia, Singapore, Qatar, and Germany thrive, while formerly "great" nations like US, UK, Russia, Brazil, and India struggle.

In Two worlds apart, with a failed vaccine, the top 0.1% of population separates from the 99.9% in entire new walled-off financial districts plus a set of islands purposefully constructed to avoid contagion, filled with the world's most expensive real estate, governed by their own laws.

In Hobbesian chaos, all vaccines fail, no protective state lasts beyond a year, the rule of law ceases to exist, and terrorist groups (Boko Haram, the Mafia, al Qaeda), clans and ideological movements sweep through the earth with constant struggle and fight for scarce resources as a result.

In Status Quo, the vaccine works, the world is still a tri-polar order (US, China, Russia rule in each hemisphere) and after a period of readjustment, society, and the world economy, on most dimensions, will not be significantly altered by this pandemic experience. However, remote work is now a real thing.

Who is your target audience, and why?

I target anybody who has experienced this pandemic at close range but who wants to get out of the short term misery that we have created for ourselves. It is essential to look forward. Typically, pandemic exercises are carried out with government and business decision-makers, so those are definitely my target audience. However, I think that the pandemic affects all of us. Any citizen should have a clear idea of what they feel the pandemic means for their future, for the future of their children, and for the choices we have to make as a society.

What do you consider your greatest success in life?

I thought a lot about that during the pandemic. I think I'm the happiest with having brought three wonderful children into the world. This is also why I'm so deeply worried about the next decades. I feel a strong responsibility to make sure that they have all the resources they need to make good choices and live a life in freedom. I'm quite happy with knowing that I've lived a life where I've explored all the options that have been on the table and then some. I'm a very curious person. I consider myself lucky to be living out that adventurous attitude to life in my myriad of projects. I love learning new things. I love making things. I love reflecting about life, and I love sharing my thoughts with others. I'm quite happy to have published two books this year, and I'm looking forward to perhaps writing even more. It's all about figuring out where your contribution must lie. For me, I'm a passion-driven person. I have my own internal structure, but to the outside world, it might look a bit disjointed. Success is an internal thing, but it is displayed through actions that matter. Bringing that message to more people is part of what I consider successful living.

What one unique thing sets you apart from other writers in your genre?

I'm imaginative, and I have a strong sense of the macro forces that drive society. I've also got an enormous appetite for reading and digesting research reports. I think I must have read thousands of pages of text every day for the past two decades. After a while, something sticks, and it allows you to see patterns and appreciate what's distinctive and what's fleeting about changes you see around you.