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  • Ben

Contagion Junction

In the final blog of this contagion series, I ponder where we go from here.

Most of us can appreciate that life, work, and everything else won’t quite go back to normal, but how will it change?  

According to the American economist Milton Friedman “Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

Whilst it’s too early to say how many will lose their lives from Covid-19, or suffer long-term ill health, an economic view from JP Morgan estimates the UK GDP could drop an eye-watering 30% in Q2.  These forecasts come with caveats though - an expectation our economy will roar back from Q3 onwards.

But what if this is wishful thinking?  It’s too early to determine how this pandemic will play out.  We also don’t know how long it will take for people, government, and industry to adapt.  The memory of 2008 is still fresh, and what followed that was a spluttering economy propped up on cheap debt.  What will be different this time?

What about the ideas lying around?  A crisis provides the space for the 'overton window' to shift, and political ideas which were once toxic suddenly become palatable. For a government so against the ‘nanny state’, it’s amazing how quickly many of Corbyn’s policy ideas were thrust into action.  

We can’t ignore the legacy of Brexit which still hangs over us, we are all too aware of our divisive politics and unequal society.  We’re also recognising our many fault lines - in vs out, young vs old, educated vs uneducated, left vs right, north vs south. But, I believe, these distract us from the key battleground of the 21st Century - humans vs machines.  

We all think about a utopian or dystopian future from a different viewpoint, but the decisions we take from here will speed up this realisation, one way or the other.

Before marching into the future, do we first need to consider these fundamental questions?

-What is it to be a human being? 

-How do we live and relate to others?

-What is our relationship with the natural world? 

-What problems should technology solve?

-What is intelligence? 

-How do we create a culture of continuous learning? -

-How do we make work meaningful?  -

-Who decides what a good life in the 21st century looks and feels like?

I explore two possible scenarios.

The race towards scarcity and irrelevancy

We ignore warnings from history; the mistakes which followed the 2008 crash, the conditions that precede wars, or the reasons empires collapse.  The cost of this pandemic is passed on to the weak and vulnerable as inequality and insecurity soars.  In doing this, we whistle as we march confidently towards the abyss.  

We don’t connect the dots that large groups of the population are waking up, because it doesn’t fit with our model of understanding the world.  As a consequence we ignore the rise of veganism, meditation, Extinction Rebellion, the mental health crisis, and the me-too movement.   

We are glued to compelling orators explaining how we’re building a hopeful future together, but we never question why this doesn’t materialise. We find ourselves taken in and distracted by spin, nonsense slogans, and clickbait.  

The Covid-19 crisis created the space for the government to take on extraordinary executive powers, in order to protect our health.  We accepted the risks it posed to our freedoms, privacy and autonomy. It’s only with a rear view mirror that we realise nobody unlearns these capabilities.  Intrusive surveillance - once derided in the context of China - creeps ever further into society, our workplaces, our homes, squashing dissent, and eventually becoming normalised.  Our judgement, decisions, and sense-making capabilities are outsourced to algorithmic black boxes, riddled with bias.  

This is amplified by problems in our economy with the low hanging economic fruit picked.  We’ve extracted every resource in sight; from the planet, online world, our bodies, and minds.  

We still have faith in Capitalism though, and anyway, more debt won’t harm?

Greed, competition, and coercion rule in this dog-eat-dog world.  We double down on metrics, obedience and discipline, and turn to no nonsense leaders who exude dominance and certainty.  As the economy contracts, we feel increasingly paranoid, spending inordinate amounts of time and money managing, controlling, and protecting a dwindling market share.

We return to nostalgia and war rhetoric to rally the citizens against illusional enemies.  

When the next crisis rolls into town, we notice that we’ve forgotten to reform our public services again, or invest in developing our people. It finally dawns on us, we have a nation of passive production line workers, but no factories.  Everything is about the short term so that rules out retraining the workforce. Thankfully intelligent machines have arrived, they work all day and all night, and don’t push back. Engineers continue to solve problems faster and faster, but failing to recognise trade offs, unintended consequences, or the big picture.  

Nothing has meaning anymore, but it’s okay, everything is so ‘smart’.

The race to the bottom is almost complete with just a handful of people on earth controlling 99% of all resources.  They pursue god-like capabilities, cyborgs, immortality, building bunkers, and colonising mars.  

And what about the rest of us?  We’re irrelevant. 

Creating an abundant life for all

I have faith in humanity, so I'll end with a positive scenario.

We all have choices.  We can’t put the technology genie back in the bottle, but how we use it is up to us. The same goes for our response to environmental destruction.

In this scenario, our leaders will learn from past mistakes, be brave and provide the catalyst for a revolution.     

In doing so we will change our mental framing of the world.  We move on from thinking about news and political cycles, and build for the long term.  We focus on integration and holistic solutions, and recognise that societal inequities are unsustainable.  We restructure citizen’s lives around security, wellbeing, and hope. 

Before it destroys us, we dig deep and find ways to reconfigure the economic model.  We develop a win-win mindset, and ask what elements we should keep from both capitalism and socialism.

We launch something similar to the ‘Green New Deal’ and recognise it’s more complicated than simply reforming our institutions around STEM qualifications.  We simultaneously reform public services, invest in infrastructure and people, whilst tackling poverty, inequality, and discrimination.  

Working remotely for several months has made people realise work doesn’t have to be like it is today.  Personalisation will become all the rage. We all get from A-to-B differently and workplaces, learning, and health outcomes will be configured around what makes us unique.  

We move on from one-size-fits-all solutions and scientifically managing people.  The simplification of systems and procedures opens up the space for human complexity.  Our uniquely human senses and traits come sharply into focus - sociability, storytelling, intuition, imagination, and so on.  

And what about leaders in the 21st Century?  They will inspire us to grow as individuals, creators, and carers, and stop encouraging us to be mindless consumers consumers. They will mentor and coach us, be open, collaborative, generous, and compassionate. 

Against this backdrop, diversity moves from being a tick box exercise, to one which is normal and necessary.  The challenges we face are too complex for an individual or hierarchy to respond to appropriately. We will think about diversity in a more nuanced way, discovering value in everyone.  Reframing problems into strengths, and harnessing our experiences, stories, outlooks, and thinking styles to solve meaningful problems.

Top down system change will be complemented by the swell of ground up innovation.  We will develop an entrepreneurial mindset focusing on autonomy, purpose, and mastery.  Human beings form close knit bonds in small tribes, in other words, we don't scale well.  Decentralisation will help shift our attention to ‘local’; rebuilding communities, developing local supply chains, and forming cooperatives.  

A final word on technology - it could be a wonderful servant but we have to look beyond email, spreadsheets, and surveillance. What value are these creating? Wouldn't we be better off playing games instead? Technology is often deployed in a way which uses and manipulates us, and it’s mitigating human potential. An abundant life where we’re productive, creative, and social, requires us to flip this relationship.  First of all, we must give up our need to control others, and secondly put trust in the masses to design their own futures.

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