Applying Third Space Thinking to the Crisis

covid19 (1)

The global outbreak and rapid diffusion of COVID-19 is an example of the kind of unexpected, and indeed unlikely “Black Swan’ condition that, when it does happen, requires fast and comprehensive adaptability informed by emotional empathy for people, and cognitive knowledge of the values different societies. We need natural inquisitiveness about what it is, and what it does, deeply based in the intellectual modesty that curiosity brings, knowing that we don’t have all the answers and there are more answers, and indeed more questions that we need to know.

Lacking these competencies can be a matter of life and death.   You can get them through a behavioral communication-based model that we have developed over the past decade. It’s called Third Space Thinking. It’s based on five ACE-IT characteristics. We are convinced that the virus spread could have been much better managed if authorities had been more thoughtful from the first visible signs and applied these attributes. The Third Space model could have contributed in the following ways:

  • Adaptability and the Crisis. All the relevant systems would have benefitted if they had shown greater adaptability, from national units to local. The rates at which countries, and sub-national units, adjusted to the threats and realities of the pandemic varied substantially. But the starting point should be the certainty that responders know they cannot just carry forward their standard operating procedures – our legacy approaches cannot work under the new circumstances. But certainly at the most general level not all countries adapted as well as others. Those responsible must learn from others, and be prepared to adapt, and punish those who fail to try hard to adapt.


  • Cultural competence. Responders must be familiar with the values and traditional behaviors of those in the affected territories. We must be aware that top down instructions of how best to respond to a crisis like COVID-19 probably won’t work in countries with a strong locally-oriented culture. A strongly bottom up approach is unlikely to do well in centralized nations. CC should also make us skeptical that we can automatically borrow tactics from one national context and apply them elsewhere.


  • Designing and carrying out new interventions medical, social or technological, should be deeply informed by sympathy and empathy for the people most affected. There are ethical reasons, as well as effectiveness reasons. When we are empathetic, we are more likely pay attention to what the affected populations say they need. We are then better able to prescribe more accurately what they actually need. We also need empathy for the individuals and teams responsible for delivering help.


  • When those responsible for finding effective solutions in trying circumstances are curious about what steps/actions might improve undesirable outcomes and circumstances, and which may not, then they are likely to be more successful because they keep an open mind. Otherwise there is the risk of accepting proposals that may not work, and holding on to the wrong answers for too long. If first responders had been very curious they might have been more inclined to act sooner. The hallmark of an effective ‘leader’ is one who is curious about their options under different circumstances.


  • Understanding the risks of negative consequences of a virus’s spread can be enhanced by looking through a wide-angled lens. Pursuing a 360 degree view can literally become a matter of life and death. Under circumstances that are unfamiliar we seek situations that may be analogous or comparable. The wider the analyst is willing to apply her review, the more likely she is able to find a good fit.  Narrow ideologies and limited belief systems can constrain wide consideration of options. The results can be catastrophic.

Let’s be prepared for the unexpected by mastering the Third Space Thinking approach to future crises.

~ Dr. Ernest J. Wilson III

Founder & Director of USC Center for Third Space Thinking

About The Center for Third Space Thinking

To learn more about the USC Annenberg Center for Third Space Thinking, click here.