On Altering States (Part 4)

Prepare for the future normal

We can’t predict with any certainty the wider impacts of significant social change caused by events such as the Coronavirus pandemic, nor the second- and third-order consequences of actions taken in mitigation.

Consequences may play out in unexpected ways, just as the increase in gas cookers in the 1920s led to a dramatic rise in suicides in the UK; a characteristic of any work in complexity is that it is impossible to predict with any surety the consequences of interventions. And within this turbulence will be those seeking to exploit such uncertainty for their own ends, and in a society inevitably more tolerant of authoritarian leadership .

This leads into the final imperative of preparing for the future normal. The challenge for all of us is to figure out what good looks like in the new world we will emerge into, opening our hearts and minds to the possibility of a different way of organising and doing things, whilst recognising those element of the recent past that we might want to retain. Bill Sharpe’s three horizons model is instructive here. The virus is in many respects the ultimate second horizon disruption, upending some fundamental aspects of our ‘business as usual’ lives and society. We’ve been plunged straight into the innovation and entrepreneurial space as we scrabble around figuring out our responses, and across the globe and the country we are seeing these emerge. Indeed, many RSA fellows are leading this charge.

vThe questions that the three horizons model invites us to ask are around how these innovations are a response to the challenges we face now, do they represent an improvement on the status quo that previously help – and if so how can they have an eye to a longer-term future that harnesses the opportunities that are afforded by these times? It also warns us of the dangers of such innovations being captured by the business as usual model – the aforementioned immune response to change. It is in this space that our thinking sits – and why we talk about ‘bridges to the future’. How do we harness the energy created to really drive sustained, positive change above and beyond our immediate reaction? 

We don’t yet know whether we will look back on this period of time  as a blip in the status quo after which our social, political and economic models reset to the way they were before. I’m sure many of us hope not, feel that an extractive capitalist model that doesn’t adequately account for the ecological cost of doing business was, sooner or later, likely to trigger feedback mechanisms that slow resource use and environmental degradation.

How might this moment – what one RSA Fellow termed ’the great pause’ – lead to a rebalancing of power? How might the power of individual incentives, of societal norms and of hierarchical authority change and align more closely in the aftermath of the Coronavirus? Already we’ve seen solidarity and community grow – from clapping for the NHS to neighbourhood WhatsApp groups, from volunteering to random acts of kindness. More people than ever are recognising that some of the best responses are emergent, local, grounded in community and freed from bureaucracy. 

Might we see the dialling down of the hierarchical power of central government and big business, the dialling up of community and solidarity, and a greater sense of co-operation in which individuals are all enabled to live their version of a good life? Or do we see the typical post-disaster response of authoritarian measures, strong, top-down decisions and power hoarding for the few, at the expense of the individual and the role of solidarity? Indeed, as Michele Geland’s research (link) shows, people are more open to more authoritarian responses and societies develop stricter social norms develop in times of threat and scarcity.

Perhaps the longer this situation lasts, the more likely we are to see – and be able to leverage – lasting change. Ultimately, it is up to us all to figure this out, individually and collectively. The coronavirus creates a unifying mission for us all but one that is not over when it is no longer a threat to our health and wellbeing. It is only really over when we have learned the lessons this has taught us, seen the benefits of new ways of organising and doing things that it has shown us, harnessed the opportunities that it has afforded us. 

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