On altering states (part 3)

Harness the potential for change

Thus we can see a disaster “much like a revolution, when it comes to disruption and improvisation, to new roles and an unnerving or exhilarating sense that now anything is possible”. 

We are giving through what we at the RSA call a ’social moment’ in which change becomes more possible. The Greeks recognised that in the midst of ordinary time (kronos) extraordinary time happens (kairos) (markfreier.files.wordpress.com).  Kairos is the notion of time as a moment of opportunity, a critical window within which to act that aligns with our thinking of ‘social moments’ as crucial points in time in which energy is released in a given context and in which change becomes more likely. Other concepts are relevant here, too; the ‘Overton window’ in which policy ideas become palatable to a mainstream audience (such as enabled smoking to be banned in public spaces), or the Policy Window theory which states that change happens when the problem, possible policies and political opportunity come together. The notion of harnessing the possibility of change is central to our idea of ‘acting like an entrepreneur’ and the nimbleness to respond to the opportunity when it emerges. For example Steve Jobs, on returning to Apple, 

“didn’t pretend that pushing on various levers would somehow magically restore Apple to market leadership in personal computers. Instead, he was actually focused on the sources of and barriers to success in his industry—recognizing the next window of opportunity, the next set of forces he could harness to his advantage, and then having the quickness and cleverness to pounce on it quickly like a perfect predator”.

I’ve written before about the notion of ‘energy for change’ and how it exists as a countervailing force to the immunity to change that seeks to preserve the status quo. Such energy can arise from a myriad of sources – individual action, funding, leadership, hardship – yet nothing releases energy more dramatically and immediately than a disaster or global crisis, a searing moment of change. The tragedy that was the fire at Grenfell Tower; the 1918 influenza pandemic, the 2008 Tsunami. These moments tend to ‘unfreeze’ the existing paradigm, to borrow a phrase from Lewin’s change theory. What disaster scholars show us is that, in reality, the ’social moment’ emerging in the aftermath of a disaster is one characterised by solidarity and togetherness; reducing division and increasing cohesion around a common purpose and new norms:

“In disaster people come together, and though some fear this gathering as a mob, many cherish it as an experience of civil society that is close enough to paradise. This is a paradise of rising to the occasion that points out by contrast how the rest of the time most of us fall down from the heights of possibility, down into diminished selves and dismal societies. Others recognise it, grasp it, and make something of it, and long-term social and political transformations, both good and bad, arise from the wreckage” p9

However, the immune response kicks in. The see those in authority – the ‘power elite’ – seek to recapture the power that the disaster, in its ubiquitousness, has rendered ineffective. Their use of the military or police is an attempt to reclaim power under the pretext of dealing with threat and restoring ‘order’ – by which they mean their power:

“In the moment of disaster, the old order no longer exists, and people improvise… Thereafter a struggle takes place over whether the old order with all its shortcomings and injustices will be reimposed or a new one, perhaps more oppressive or perhaps more just and free, like the disaster utopia, will arise.” Rebecca Solnit p16

Our approach to change helps us understand these dynamics and ask some fundamental questions about the balance of power in any given scenario. Simply put, we look at the authority of institutions, the incentives of individuals and the norms of society. In the above example, the disaster equalises the balance between the individual the hierarchy and the community, and anything is possible. The hierarchies instinct is to battle to reinsert their power, thus undermining community solidarity and individual power. What might it look like instead if – as perhaps we are starting to see – the solidaristic response and community values grow stronger over coming weeks and months? There will be lots of people writing about not letting a crisis go to waste, but this is often in the context of pushing forwards with pre-existing ideas or policy-prescriptions. Meanwhile, the world in which they were developed, and the issues they were designed to address, have now fundamentally shifted beyond all recognition. Rather, we see that the very conditions of change lead us to a very different place in which new ideas will be necessary for the new context we arrive in. We talk instead of harnessing this energy to bridge to the future and prepare for a time when things start to get back to normal. 

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