On riding the corona-coaster

Can you remember when the first lockdown was finally lifted? It’s easy to be so focused on the present and worried about the future that we forget about the times we have passed through, the distance travelled. This is, in part, why I published a framework in the summer to support people to track those changes over time. Reviewing them to try and make sense of what we’re learning is important when the time it right to do so. So I’d like to go back to June in offering a community perspective on the pandemic. Perhaps we can reflect on what we’re learning about the need for flexibility and responsiveness in the face of uncertainty.  

A Community Perspective

I was fortunate enough to be invited by the School of Social Entrepreneurs to run some sessions with a variety of community businesses and groups in the North West of England. I thought I’d take you back to early summer and share their stories. 

Here are some of the voices I heard:

There’s fear, anxiety, worry amongst parents; services and support networks that used to exist now not running. 

Have changed our activities. Adapted to running an emergency food relief project rather than doing our group activities.

Have set up a phone-based befriending service partnering younger and older isolated people. Moving all radio production and contact to phone and web-based learning and outreach. Managed to pivot funding and get some more in to support our project.

With a physical centre being closed, delivery of sessions to adults with disability has been done via video, CD’s and even tapes (yes, remember them!).

For most of our young people home is not home as we know it. Home to them is injurious and chaotic. We have extended support hours and also offer support to family members who have very little parenting skills. 

Our service delivery is now remote, this has meant no working face-to-face, no mentoring in schools etc Sole focus has been to continue engagement and keep children and young people safe.

A look back

To make sense of things we seek these stories and look at the history of how we’ve got here, recognising that we interpret those events through our own filters and experience. 

In the UK, part of the story is the deliberate policy of austerity. Local government has been emasculated through eye-watering budget cuts handed down from central Government over the last decade. This has led to a prefect storm of service cuts, disinvestment in our more deprived communities, and rising demand for critical services. Many people were already living with poor health, lack of opportunity, food poverty, economic insecurity, and so on before the pandemic. 

The net effect is to reduce our resilience, individually and collectively, in homes, communities and organisations. We have marginalised large areas of the UK and left some groups of our population particularly vulnerable. And now we are seeing what happens when a pandemic hits. 

A crisis will serve to accelerate and amplify pre-existing trends, sometimes intensifying fault lines and revealing deep structural challenges; sometimes offering opportunities for change and hope. 

So how might we respond to these challenges and opportunities? 

A linear approach?

We might decide our first step is to stop and revise our vision statement or strategic goals to better reflect these changing circumstances. Having done so, our task becomes to work towards that vision from the present. Yet we will inevitably be partially blinkered to the possibilities of the present as they emerge, by our relentless focus on the new vision. 

We might try to logically plan our way ahead, based on analysis of cause and effect relationships and a review of the literature on good practice responses when faced with a pandemic. By the time we’ve seen what’s going on, diagnosed the challenge, dreamed up some solutions, turned them into a specification, put the brief out to market, evaluated tenders, concluded a contracting process, hosted the kick-off meeting, started to develop the delivery plan… needless to say, such process might work well in ordered environments when you have more certainty. 

But how might we design responses when we’re dealing with complexity and uncertainty? 

A flexible approach?

We need to get comfortable with the emergent nature of the situation and figure out how we can take our next step forward, together. Anne Pendleton-Jullian says “designing for emergence is designing for change in a context or system already in motion”. Every interaction changes the system. 

The community groups in the summer were illustrating the importance of this. They were continuously scanning to see what’s changing and using that feedback to inform their next actions. 

As they said:

It’s amazing what can be achieved when we have to think on our feet.

There’s a real feeling that now is the time to re-evaluate and do things differently.

Now is not a time to be perfect, sometimes raw content and just stepping up in a situation is key.

Not knowing what the future holds and not being able to plan or prepare; exploring new avenues, or possibilities; reacting to keep the business afloat, tapping into funding streams, not allowing for much reflection/strategising

Being flexible to future crises.

These community leaders saw the needs presenting in front of them and they did something. And as those needs have changed, so has their work. They didn’t standardise, they absorbed variety. They reacted to emergence, they didn’t excessively plan and follow fixed delivery models. As opportunities presented themselves, so they responded. They were able to see what works and what doesn’t, and amplify the former and move on from the latter. 

Would they think of themselves as designers? Probably not. Yet they were all, to some extent, designing their service, their business, on the fly, responding as the world and systems and relationships changed around them. 

They were living change

This is what we mean at the RSA when we talk about Living Change. People who can think systemically and act entrepreneurially, like those whose stories I’m sharing, are needed now more than ever. Those who can both see the bigger picture and act when and where it’s needed. 

We are not living through a single crisis. We are living through many. Crises of social and racial justice, climate change, poverty… and crises precipitated by Covid, especially around mental health and employment. I can’t imagine we’ll look back at 2020 as the year of the pandemic. I think we’ll look back at the Twenties as the decade of crises. How well we handle these crises I think depends at least to some extent on how well we learn from the Coronavirus. 

I’ll finish by quoting one community business leader who I thought beautifully summed up the idea that coping with these crises requires learning and resilience:

“It’s the feeling of riding a coronacoaster of wobbles, overwhelming days but then days of great inspiration and of communities working together to tackle the issues”

Oh, and if you – like me – were struggling to answer my opening question, then of course there’s not a simple answer (I had to google it). The first lockdown was lifted on 4th July, dubbed ’super Saturday’, when restaurants, pubs and hairdressers reopened and people could meet with one other household, although some essential shops had reopened in June with relevant measures in place. 

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