Post-lockdown: stop the simplistic scenarios, be more curious and less binary
In the emerging plethora of predictions about the near future of a world recovering from the corona-pandemic, many people seem to be very certain how this near future will unfold. I am not so sure. Especially if I see how their predictions seem to imply certainties that are not there, or ignore important implications that they did not seem to consider.
Limitations of binary predictions, and alternatives
Local vs Global. For example, scenarios from left to right use the current situation to stress what they “…said all along: the globalised society is evil, and we should stop it and start deglobalisation immediately.”. Meaning: go local all the way, support local farmers, stop importing. Call it the move to a circular, sustainable society with lots of employment for the ‘own’ citizens. Or (!) call it finally getting rid of the dependence of other nations. Self-reliance and nearonomics. All good and well. But don’t forget: it also means: a big push for nationalistic movements and political parties, and abandonment of any sense of international solidarity because it distracts from the national priority. Just look at the nascent discussion about distributions of a vaccin, once it exists…. And: whereas food might easily come from nearby, where do you think the components of your smartphone can be harvested nearby? Waiting until your neighbour is done with his? My alternative: rightshoring. Simple is often simplistic with all the consequences attached to it. Just think a little bit harder about what to source from where and accept that it will be a mix.
Remote work Next, the evolution of work. Now we were forced to crash-test what a world of massive remote work looks like, many predict that we may not move back to our offices because all this remote work is much more convenient, so they claim. They seem to ignore the downsides of such a strategy that have painfully materialised as well: endless video chats demonstrably tire us out in many ways (a neurological health hazard if you will), combining work and private life full-time causes stress rather than relief, every single video-meeting app has security flaws of greater and lesser consequence (and therefore poses a security threat in some shape or form), less business related travel has collateral benefits (fewer jams, less pollution and greenhouse gasses) but pushing people to work from home also nudges them towards not getting much movement/ exercise anymore leaving us with a working population which becomes homely obese. But most importantly, one of the factors that is hugely underestimated (and consistently so by remote-work messiahs) is the social value of work and the value we attache to face-to-face contact with just air instead of screens in between. People crave proximity, even if it is at first sight not the most ‘efficient’ way of communicating. Guess what, communication between people is more than the sum of their efficiencies… Again, make use of the unplanned learning experience to make a shift, but do not go over the top. Go for the sensible mix: strongly reduce frequent and mostly prestige-oriented (air) travel, allow working remotely one or two days a week as a default in a coordinated way if possible in particular for people with home care tasks, and be creative with work forms to increase (remote) access when people choose to not because they are forced. Use the learning experience for the good but don’t turn a crisis-induced #stayhome rule into an unwarranted dogma.
Air lines and the like Sectors like airlines (and therefore airports), tourism and international travel stand to become the big losers in a world that has grown suspicious of all international movement of people. They very well might be, if they continue their current way of operation. So the current choice of scenarios seems to be: let them go down versus bail them out, possibly on condition to accelerate their pathway to more sustainable flying operations. What a boring and unimaginative discussion, Alternatively, the energy might be put more on re-imagining such companies. What if an airline would become a mobility packaging services company, working together with among others airport locations and renewables-powered transport companies to put together distributed unconference-events preventing massive air travel while enabling an equally massive international gathering, in several locations in the world simultaneously, thereby combining the benefits of local gatherings with global connections. Imagine the boost in development of useful VR, coworking and distance-participation applications. Isn’t that a more exciting prospect to contemplate than a bail out discussion? Care to apply that type of thinking to tourism?
There are many many more examples of the much more interesting discussions and analyses that can be held if we stop thinking in terms of simplistic “this will happen”- predictions. That powers a richer imagination and range of options and prepares us better if a next crisis turns out to be different than this one.
Planning, not plans
Because, to me the interesting question is not so much what will the near future bring in response to this particular crisis. The far more thought-inspiring question to try and come to grips with is how to create a resilient society that allows us to quickly play into any (contagion) crisis that might occur. We have some idea now how to respond (more) effectively to the next corona outbreak, even if we would not have a vaccin yet. But what if the next health crisis has different characteristics? For example children are a main vulnerable group that time around, or it is water borne, or moving turns out to be the thing that fights the virus instead of staying put. Or it’s a cyber-virus, disabling all ATMs and digital payment machines in shops? And so on.
This pandemic is a wake up call that we need to “build back better” to become the ultimate resilient society, being able to bounce back, or forward, from a range of arbitrary crises, not a particular one. That’s optimising backwards. Some might call bouncing forward “anti-fragile” but that’s mostly marketing.
Resilience depends on relations, not end points
While it would take a (series of) articles to dig deeper into this, some key features of the Ultimate Resilient society would logically be derived from systems thinking: redundancy (= not being crucially dependent on a particular person, node, piece of expertise), interconnections (= even in times of a virus, the solutions can also be found in people being able to confer and respond in coordinated fashion), adaptiveness on all scales (= response capacity on all levels), no regret arsenal (= measures that make sense in any scenario).
The ultimate response to this particular crisis is to organise ourselves into a way that respects the non-binary nature of reality: becoming resilient to deal with different crises by putting the greatest gift that humanity has once again proven to be good at on a pedestal and put it to work with a vengeance: built-in adaptiveness.