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Re-imagining its purpose: Why we’re pivoting to become Arizona Science Center 2.0

The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted practically every industry, organization, and community — not just in Arizona, but around the world. But even as the dreadful costs — economic, cultural and, above all, human — continue to mount, we all face the inevitable question: “What next?”

As we try to make sense of what the next normal might be, it’s clear that resuming “business as usual” will be exceptionally difficult, and perhaps not even relevant or desirable.Many leaders have characterized the shutdown and eventual restart in terms of a strategic opportunity, to learn from the sacrifices we collectively have made, to recalibrate the missions of our organizations, and to restate the core values of why we exist in the first place. Organizations that take advantage of this strategic opportunity have a chance of coming back stronger.

But the strategic opportunity frame may not go far enough. The pandemic has made it imperative to fundamentally change how some businesses, nonprofits and civic organizations operate, which for many of us will mean that while we may maintain our brands, we will become essentially new entities. This is especially true for place-based, community-serving institutions and organizations.The pandemic has enabled Arizona Science Center to reimagine what a science center is and can be, during and beyond the pandemic.

First, we had to rethink our purpose. We have existed to provide a dynamic physical space, where visitors interact and engage with science — tactilely and interpersonally. Physical distancing (a need that will persist, perhaps on and off) limited this kind of in-person experience, virtually overnight. So we pivoted immediately to explore how to inspire curiosity and learning while also protecting the health and safety of our community. As we track the use of our digital experiences and adapt to insights from them, we continue to explore what is possible, through innovative virtual and, later, limited in-person experiences. We are actively redefining what’s at the core of a science center.

Second, we put our customers’ and stakeholders’ needs first. We did not embark on this transformative journey alone. Arizona Science Center is, first and foremost, an institution by, for and of our community. We’re listening intently to community members — whether they are parents, educators or first responders — about what they need and how we can provide experiences and resources that they feel safe and confident using. Our 3D printers became sources of personal protective equipment. Our learning team saw parents as teachers and gave them home teaching tools. When teachers went to digital teaching overnight, we not only supported their new lesson plans but we started tracking what they needed to reach diverse students.

Third, we’re over-indexing on agility. Responsiveness demands adaptive leadership, and right now, with uncertainty as the only reliability, we’re practicing adaptive leadership at warp speed. Adaptation requires resiliency. We have learned to embrace a more rapid pattern of failing, falling down, getting back up, trying again. As any other organization, we don’t know the shape of the future. So instead, we are doing our best to shape it, by deliberately planning to be more even more adaptable, and by strengthening and reaffirming an organizational culture that values customers first, and by continuing to provide resources they need to learn and grow.

The macro lesson is that we are indeed all in this together. More than ever before, Arizona Science Center is working with and expanding our partnership base so that we can continue to send consistent messages, understand the collective needs of our community, and offer services that make a contribution.

We may not be able to predict the next normal, but we can work together to create it.

Chevy Humphrey is president and CEO of the Arizona Science Center.

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