On Altering States (Part 1)

The coronavirus, in precipitating a response unparalleled in modern times, is stripping away the rhetoric that covers up structural flaws in society, is exposing our shared norms and revealing our latent solidarity, whist causing us to re-evaluate what is actually important in our lives and communities. Everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, will feel COVID-19s force as it destroys our previously-held expectations and assumptions for our way of life. Many will be exposed for the first time to economic insecurity; others will have felt the exacerbation of already stringent circumstances . What will this experience, individually and collectively, reveal about the world we live in now and the kind of society we might want for the future?

Few issues will be bigger nor have wider repercussions on our social, economic, political and environmental life as the current coronavirus pandemic. In chaotic times such as those we live in, the immediate requirement is to try and exert some degree of control over the situation. We’ve seen measures intended to achieve this ramp up over recent weeks, with social distancing, the closure of most services and businesses, economic stimulus packages and the creation of brand new hospital facilities. How do we support this transition of society – local, national, global – towards a safer, more secure future, whilst being aware of the second- and third-order consequences that will play out in as a result our decisions? Yuval Noah Harari elaborates: “when choosing between alternatives, we should ask ourselves not only how to overcome the immediate threat, but also what kind of world we will inhabit once the storm passes. Yes, the storm will pass, humankind will survive, most of us will still be alive — but we will inhabit a different world” .  

It is exactly this kind of challenge that illustrates why we must ‘think like a system, act like an entrepreneur’. Our approach to change helps us work through the strategic imperative to meet the immediate requirements of today within the longer-term context of tomorrow. Malcolm X said that the future belongs to those who prepare for it; such preparation is now critical. Indeed, the RSA recently published initial thoughts on some fundamental policy areas that, exposed by coronavirus, are in need of a ‘bridge to the future’. This raises the crucial question: how does our approach to change help us with the collective task of building these bridges to the future? Four imperatives underpin our approach; in these testing times they are not only amplified in importance but, taken together, they offer some guidance on how we might go about this important task.   

First we must recognise that our biggest challenges are complex, emergent, and systemic. The world is interconnected, fast changing and unpredictable, as Covid-19 proves. To really understand what’s going on we need to see the system as a whole and not just a single part of it. How we bring the present into focus is crucial. Systems that were already creaking under the weight of a decade of austerity, rising demand, complexity of caseload and an operating model designed for a world that no longer exists are now crashing under the prefect storm of a global pandemic.  

Living and working in conditions of volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity requires a different set of approaches and leadership. Traditional deterministic, reductionist thinking is not fit for emergent settings, where unpredictable change occurs through the interaction of inter-connected parts. In other words, we are in a situation for which there is no template response, no agreed-upon approach, no right answer to be uncovered by clever brains. We must see, and work, in systems, learning from what the coronavirus reveals about what works and what doesn’t, identifying the most promising elements of a new system, a new way of operating, that is more suited to our current societal needs and challenges. 

Next, identifying elements of a new system is backed by the need to seek the potential for change, opportunities where new ways of working and organising can be tested and the system conditions shifted in a more favourable direction. It is crucial to identify energy in the system, such as determined individuals, movements, new funding, the aggregation of hope. Yet it is through major life events, institutional failings and community disasters that the potential for change is most dramatically revealed. Indeed, the power of coronavirus to impact society is that it combines all three perspectives at a local, national and global scales, requiring responses at different scales too. 

These all form moments in time understood by the Greeks through their notion of Kairos, moments in time that present themselves with possibility and opportunity . No-one articulates this more poetically than Rebecca Solnit: “in these moments of rupture, people find themselves members of a “we” that did not until then exist, at least not as an entity and identity and potency; new possibilities suddenly emerge, or that old dream of a just society remerges and – at last for a little while – shines”.  We must approach change in a way that is both opportunistic and allows us to experiment and learn quickly, to change course when things don’t work and accelerate when they do. 

Optimism across a longer-term time horizon helps us to prepare for the future normal, for a world in which we have started to seek answers to the questions exposed by the current crisis. Will it be one in which we collectively live within planetary resource boundaries and individually live our own version of a good life? What is the appropriate balance between the individual exercising agency, the family and community coming together in solidarity and the institution exercising authority?  How would we want to respond to a similar challenge in the future? 

There are a number of possible futures, argues Simon Mair, “all dependent on how governments and society respond to coronavirus and its economic aftermath. Hopefully we will use this crisis to rebuild, produce something better and more humane. But we may slide into something worse”. He continues, “if we want to be more resilient to pandemics in the future (and to avoid the worst of climate change) we need a system capable of scaling back production in a way that doesn’t mean loss of livelihood. So what we need is a different economic mindset.”

Finally, even through this short synopsis, the need to bear witness to the change shines through as a vital social task. Coronavirus will irrevocably change the world, however abstruse those changes may appear today. Some of the emergency responses will inevitably become part of the new normal, as Yuval Noah Harari warns, whether by design or accident: “Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours. Immature and even dangerous technologies are pressed into service, because the risks of doing nothing are bigger. Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments. In normal times, governments, businesses and educational boards would never agree to conduct such experiments. But these aren’t normal times.” 

The turbulence and disruption caused by the pandemic will offer an increased sense of opportunity not only for positive change but also for those seeking to exploit such uncertainty for their own ends. Are we collectively acting in our collective long-term, as well as short term interests? History teaches us that threats to society inevitably lead to a tightening of social norms and increased tolerance of authoritarian leadership . It’s vital that we develop and put in place mechanisms through which to collectively identify, make sense of, and learn from, what happens through this period. 

Taken together these four imperatives underpin our approach to change and help us start to make sense of things as we look to bridge to an uncertain future. They characterise the philosophy we express in our call to think systemically and act entrepreneurially. In this way we are always working with change, always seeking the possibility of better, always committed to impact. 

The following articles explore these imperatives in a little more detail.

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