Black swans, dragon kings and winged monkeys
They say that necessity is the mother of invention. Yet while 2020 has proved particularly needy even by post-millennial standards, we have failed to rise to the occasion, think further ahead, and plan for the future.
Controversial? Perhaps. Yes, I am aware that the finest minds around the world are hard at work on a vaccine for a virus that was unknown to humanity only 12 months ago. I realise that most schools and colleges moved online overnight when the pandemic struck, and I appreciate that restaurants reinvented themselves as groceries to keep the lights on and the stock turning over. Here in the UK, many firms switched production lines to manufacture PPE such as facemasks, visors and gloves, with great speed and success.
But initial pivoting and the odd newspaper editorial aside, precious little thinking seems to be taking place around what next year will look like, let alone the world ten years hence. Indeed, in the apparent absence of any strategic thinking, the priorities at present seem to be getting to Christmas, getting over the US Presidential Elections, and getting out to see friends and family before another lockdown.
Reading the tea leaves
Looking forward, I think we can all agree that working from home will be a thing for some time. Even then, will everyone move out to the country and work from home, leaving city centres to the rats and pigeons? I doubt it. The clue is in the name: working effectively from home will largely remain the preserve of well-paid knowledge workers and not those working from a bread-crumbed kitchen table or perched on the end of a bed in a shared flat. For some, there’s no place like home. For others, an office is preferable.
Will we all jump on bikes and use the additional cycle lanes being built in Central London? Perhaps. But road traffic around London is already at greater levels than last year: on Monday 7 September it was a frankly stupendous 153% of 2019 levels. Air traffic is down, but the ships that transport 90% of the world’s trade plough on, creating between 2% and 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Will technology continue to change the way we work, study and keep ourselves entertained? Of course, but that was already the case; COVID-19 simply accelerated the adoption of new technology. Even then, don’t expect robot doctors and flying cars any time soon. It’s taken Zoom much of 2020 to introduce a button that asks someone to unmute themselves. While this is one of the few genuine advances in technology to have emerged from lockdown, its introduction has taken ages.
So, while some things may be set to change, I fear we shouldn’t expect many ripples beyond those created by the toss of the working from home pebble in what should, by all rights, be an ocean of social change.
Mister Blue Sky
While cloudless skies were certainly clearer during lockdown, there is now precious little evidence of any significant blue-sky thinking about the world beyond COVID-19.
It certainly isn’t happening in the corridors of power: the UK’s Government hasn’t provided any meat to the post-COVID “build back better” bones it has thrown to the dogs. Even the International Monetary Fund, which sets the tone for economic policy around the world, doesn’t seem to have spent too many late nights with the post-it notes, sharpies and bags of Haribo when it predicted, er, a greater reliance on public investment in the future.
I know what you’re thinking. There’s a pandemic on, and everyone’s efforts are rightly focused on managing rising infections and preparing health services for the inevitable fall-out. But a crisis like COVID-19 is too good an opportunity to waste and, quite frankly, if authorities, institutions and individuals don’t treat a global pandemic as a catalyst for bigger thinking then it’s hard to see what will. An epoch-ending asteroid strike on Planet Earth?
COVID-19 could be a classic ‘Black Swan’ event; the name given to a surprising occurrence that has a significant impact and which is then rationalised afterwards. Basically, a Black Swan event is the “THIS IS FINE” meme of a cartoon dog in a burning room. Or Covey could be a so-called ‘Dragon King’; an event both large in size and impact (the ‘king’ bit, apparently), but born out of unique circumstances (the ‘dragon’ element).
For all I know, COVID-19 could be a Winged Monkey — admittedly, an invention of my own that encapsulates an offence to nature, a drag on the space and time continuum, a call to arms for home bakers, and the Technicolor stuff of millions of children’s nightmares. Come to think of it, COVID-19 is definitely a Winged Monkey.
Whatever it is, I do know that the pandemic presents a unique opportunity to look anew at politics, the economy, the environment and society. It should spurn new ways of thinking, or, at the very least, force the reassessment of policies, many of which had already revealed themselves to be inadequate for a changing world.
Indeed, it was the very lack of this type of thinking and any resulting planning that made COVID-19 inevitable and most national responses to its arrival inexcusable. Previous estimates suggested that a repeat of the 1989 Spanish Flu would result in 71 million deaths worldwide and a 5% hit to GDP. COVID-19 has resulted in fewer deaths (so far), but a far larger 8% drop in GDP is expected by the end of the year.
So disastrous has been the global response to this virus that, even where thought was given to the impact of a pandemic, it didn’t help. In the UK, the opportunity to plan for a pandemic was missed when 2016’s Cygnus exercise wasn’t acted upon: in this case, the thinking having been done, the doing seemed to prove too taxing.
What’s more, we are going to have plenty of time to do some thinking. In the second quarter of 2020 one-sixth of young people around the world lost their jobs. In the same period, hours worked in Europe and Central Asia declined by 17% or 55 million full-time equivalent jobs. While attention has been paid to the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on the health of the elderly, it has hit the young particularly badly in terms of lost jobs, interrupted education and lowered life prospects.
Wake up call
Do we really think these young people, whose environmental, social and cultural agenda is so different from the elderly, are not going to take the opportunity created by COVID-19 to reimagine the world around them? They come in for a lot of unfair criticism for being ‘woke’, but by 2030 young people will have as many votes as older citizens in G7 countries, so other generations may need to wake up, also. Will there be a political party brave enough to ignore their demand for change?
Yes, the problems we face may seem insurmountable. But, pockets of idiocy aside, there is growing consensus on the need to address climate change, to name one of the biggest challenges faced. There is a wider acceptance of the need to address inequality, even among the 1% who have benefited most from the financial asymmetry. There is also the faintest suggestion that populism has reached its high mark, the tide is turning, and that experts are coming back in fashion.
Some of the challenges we face are fiendishly complicated. Others offer up apparently impossible contradictions: witness a Culture Secretary recently warning publicly-funded British museums not to remove objects of contested cultural heritage, while a commercial gallery pulled its own paintings by Philip Guston from display for fear of offending.
Most, if not all, of the challenges we face will affect future generations more than the elderly. It’s only right therefore that they get to shape the debates that thinking beyond our immediate need will provoke. They need to manage the debate around the role of technology, and to what extent it replaces human activity, for example. Regardless, none of these challenges will be met if we don’t look further ahead than Christmas 2020, virus or no virus.
It’s time to put our thinking caps on.