Below please find some reflections on the world we currently live in from a strategist point of view. The world is full of drama at the moment but there is certainly also not a lack of analysis and opinion. In this case I start with a bit of analysis, but if you do not have a lot of time: scroll down to the final para on a multisectoral approach by civil society. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for civil society organisations to show what they are worth.
Acting 1: saying yes or saying no
Of course, this is most of all a time to act. Several of the organisations I work with are in the business of providing support to vulnerable groups like the homeless or the undocumented. These organisations are shifting gear remarkably fast in adapting practices (e.g. meal delivery) to make sure it is safe and accessible. For organisations involved in direct support and service delivery in that sense the what is clear and it’s the how that can be challenging, and where innovation and new practice is needed.
For the human rights movement current developments are much more challenging: a risk here is to focus on the ‘don’ts’ and not on the ‘dos’ and to end up in the role of being a mere commentator. The human rights movement has been challenged in the recent past for only playing that commentator role in the refugee crisis, and not coming up with ‘solutions’. Parts of the environmental movement have also struggled to move from a ‘no’ (to fossil fuels) to a ‘yes’ that could practically drive the energy transition forward, the moment the discussion on that transition started to shift from a ‘why’ to a ‘how’. Obviously, the watch dog role is always needed and I have already seen quick and thorough HR analysis and calls for action. It will be interesting to see how the human rights movement will be able to add mobilization to analysis. The good news is that after two decades of security driven politics, more than a decade of ESCR impact of the 2008 crisis and several years of ‘Trump’ there is much less paralysis. Crafting effective, forward looking, positive counter narratives is the next challenge.
We live in a time of experiments that could not have been imagined before. The educational system has shifted to distance learning with remarkable speed (at least in my direct surroundings). This could very well have lasting consequences, though practice oriented education is hit harder than theoretical education. It raises questions about the quality and numbers of teachers -you just need one good explanatory video by the best teacher in her subject- and the amount of face to face time needed. Next to that, in work, face to face meetings and commuter’s travel have basically evaporated. Air travel may face a perfect storm where business travel may go down drastically and for consumers ‘flight shame’ will be accompanied by a fear of flying with a new and totally different meaning.
Some stuff could continue to be very different, regardless almost of political agendas, because it has to do with efficiency, quality, safety and we have seen the new realities and possibilities with our own our eyes. A new form of praxis is simply emerging. This is different from wider expectations around green utopias that we hear about these days (see below) but it makes one curious about the change that is possible.
At a higher level we see authorities (national governments that is, unfortunately, in most cases) probing, taking measures in the face of uncertainty about both the behaviour of the virus and of society. Feedback loops are at least two weeks long. Hard lessons will be learnt everywhere, as data sets are only emerging as we move forward, in the context of a lack of clear multilateral coordination. Moving from crisis strategies to exit strategies will keep us in this mode for long periods of time (> one year in most current models). For those interested in this mode of taking steps forward in times of complexity please have a look at the still relevant https://hbr.org/2007/11/a-leaders-framework-for-decision-making
It has been said that the ruthlessness and speed of steps in China (or to a lesser extent in e.g. Singapore or other Asian settings) could never be copied in the West – ‘it would not fit our political and societal contexts’. I doubt that. Some European countries have not exactly been reluctant using war metaphors, setting up road blocks and putting the military on the streets and the European Commission has already been asking for telecom data to track its citizens. What we also see is a loud call for ‘clear rules’ from society itself and admiration for those politicians that stand up to the challenge
I think the greatest impediment to quick steps has not been political weakness or (perceived) resistance from society. I think what has been key is deeper and, in a sense, more worrying: a lack of imagination. Even on 18 March the Dutch prime minister was ‘pinching his own arm’ and saying ‘It’s all moving so fast, I often think (…) is this a nightmare?’ Imagining a world that is totally different from the one we see around us is a key leadership skill. To be fair: Asian countries moving with decisive moves first had seen SARS.
A nice metaphor: bowl maker David Fisher (http://www.davidffisher.com) works with razor sharp axes. He remarks that before you cut yourself, a small voice in the back of your head already said that you were about to do something clumsy or stupid. That small voice was actually quite loud regarding the risk of a pandemic. Hospitals and health systems have done simulations. But no lessons were learned and systemic forces (austerity, market approaches to health care) have won easily.
The problem with risks is not that you did not know them. The problem is you did not listen to that small voice in the back of your head and cut yourself anyway.
Climate change: Corona as opportunity? Or as a worrying example?
The corona crisis: first it was far away (China); and then it was in a dysfunctional dictatorship that suppressed the truth (China); then it was in Italy, too; and, finally: it’s the elderly that are most vulnerable (not me, says the young man going to the park to have fun).
These are classical examples of denial, distancing and lack of identification that are at work in the climate crisis too, and if we add to that the lack of imagination of our leaders and the slow pace of the climate crisis compared to the corona crisis, that does actually not spell a lot of good. Or can we start referring to this crisis to better manage the other one? An open question.
What happens and what will happen is not just depending on government measures. Deep underlying social trends are becoming visible too. Part of what we have seen (and luckily up till now it’s been a small part) is what I would call the Netflix response to crises. People hoarding food belongs to a (post-)apocalyptic narrative that one can see in the typical Netflix series: the state has disappeared, one grabs his gun and starts protecting one’s family in a Hobbesian battle of all against all. Of course, one can interpret these post-apocalyptic landscapes as neo-liberalism in its most extreme form, and it is not even always clear what drives these narratives: is it fear or, perhaps, a deep longing for a state-less universe? Of course, in the current situation the state is back and more so than ever. But people have been encouraged to take care of themselves for 30 years now, so we should not be surprised. Next to spontaneous solidarity this is one of the faces of the pandemic and a deep underlying current that could very well shape the society that will come after it.
Reflecting: ‘COVID-19 as opportunity’? A scenario approach
We read quite a few opinions these days where the crisis is seen as an opportunity, for a greener and more just world: ‘See, we can have a basic income for all, we can have a world where markets do not rule, we can have a world where we can hear the birds singing again, a world without Ryanair.’ This is a direction of thinking that points to scenarios where the crisis is a driver that speeds up already existing trends or tensions, such as the growing consensus that capitalism should be ‘reset’, as the Financial Times put it.
Unfortunately, some other trends seem to be speeding up too: the further erosion of multilateral networks and a move towards national approaches; the next shameful round of a lack of solidarity and of mounting risks to the EU; the rise of China (yes, a historical re-balancing of geopolitics, but alas also a troublesome human rights record) ; tech as a tool to invade people’s lives and bodies (the ‘coronopticon’ as the Economist labelled it) and security driven political paradigms, to name just a few…
And there’s a lot of continuity too: easy access to power for big corporations; inequality in protection (knowledge workers stay home, supermarket staff cannot, slum dwellers are unable to do ‘social distancing’); inequality in opportunity (higher education can be digitalized more easily than other forms of training; poor kids are simply not connected). And let’s not forget about that big reservoir of anger amongst groups that have been pushed to the margins of our economies and societies already and that will start falling over the edge soon.
At a cultural level: the very public (and eagerly publicized) manifestations of solidarity are of course mostly genuine but can also easily be seen as events – a weird echo from that empty world full of highlights and glamorous Instagram posts that we lived in until history washed up on our shores again recently.
I would say there is at least a lot of potential for continuity and at worst we can imagine scenarios where chaos or systematic oppression would be present. Looking forward, avoid the tendency to pick a few trends that you like (‘Finally an opportunity for a green and just society!’) and be ready for bleaker options too. And remember to do your risk management in that light.
Acting 2: a multisectoral voice from civil society
Many civil society organisations are now better prepared to deal with threats and to grab opportunities. The first year of the Trump administration saw a lot of organisations struggling to simply accept something big was changing. In that sense the level of preparedness may be higher now, to respond to this crisis and also to participate in crafting the post-Corona society.
There is an unprecedented level of urgency. Even as the crisis is still building up momentum at a global level, key decisions about ‘exit strategies’ and about the post corona society will be taken before you know it. Decisions about where to invest and about the conditionalities for support and reconstruction; about the scope of solidarity; about who will later pay back the debts. The ‘state of exception’ (Carl Schmitt) the pandemic has put us in will be used to take some more exceptional decisions in the near future if civil society is not wide awake in its analysis and actions.
This is the moment for a multisectoral approach by civil society organisations (human rights, privacy and tech, environment and climate) to make sure they get a clear voice in the decision-making process. The world has become fluid and it can move in all sorts of directions. Already we see stuff happening: https://stay-grounded.org/savepeoplenotplanes/ Now that particular initiative is targeting the air transportation sector that is lying flat on its back. But when it comes to tech and surveillance it’s a sellers’ market more than ever and things will be much more challenging. Now is the moment to reach out to each other and act together. A once in a lifetime moment of urgency is there when it comes to the role of civil society.