To imagine a different future we need to see our present through different eyes...

Updated: May 1, 2020

I was given the opportunity to record a short podcast with FuturePod about the COVID-19 pandemic. Here is what I planned to say - listen to the podcast to find out what actually turned up...

To go forward any good futurist looks back - so what did I see as COVD-19 emerged? From December 2019 onwards there were rumblings on social media and in the news of a virus in China. Some people saw these and recognised what was possible - either through training or previous pattern -making and they started to move and respond. I first took notice in early January when I saw something come through on twitter from a colleague in the US, I then did some digging and kept following the story as it unfolded. By mid - late Jan we were starting to stock up slowly - buying a bit more of our staples and making sure we had enough food for 14 days in the house. In late Jan, I called family and suggested they do the same thing. What I didn’t do was speak to the people I worked with at that point - not because I wanted to keep a secret but because we had no way of discussing this that made sense - there were no social hooks to hang the conversation on. Taiwan took measures early on, including inspecting plane passengers coming from Wuhan starting Dec. 31, banning Wuhan residents on Jan. 23, suspending tours to China on Jan. 25, and eventually banning all Chinese visitors on Feb. 6.

During February more people started seeing more concrete activity in China and other countries, such as Taiwan, and then they started thinking and reacting. I have heard stories of Australian suppliers starting to order more supplies at this point. The great toilet paper buy up started in Australia, people also started stealing toilet paper from companies and shopping centres. Many leaders were still downplaying the severity and impact of the pandemic - they were unable to ‘see’ what was coming or could not imagine life was about to change so radically. Organisations were operating normally, the next project and set of reporting timelines still the most important thing on the horizon. 

By early March, I was self-isolating. The crisis was starting to emerge - as a colleague puts it - our underpants went on the outside. In Australia, mid March was busy - lots of decisions were made very quickly. People were thrown out of jobs and funding was put in place for increased support from the government. Press conferences were held at night, with announcements being made that could not be implemented until the next day ending to confusion and frustration - a working rhythm needed to be created to be sustainable. Politicians were saying that ideology was put to one side to ensure the country’s interests were front and centre. Organisations all over the country scrambled to get people working from home quickly and many had to start from scratch (or 15 years behind scratch) in some instances. Businesses fell over, traumatic times as people watched a life’s work disappear. There were high levels of fear which people responded to with hard work - clear purpose - camaraderie - decision-making then a new normal started to emerge. Most people showed their love for those they will never meet by agreeing to do what was asked and in many cases, taking a personal hit. 

In April, things started to solidify. The overseas experience was very different to Australia and and New Zealand, so we were able to see where we could have been. People started to learn that 8 hours of video conferencing was way more exhausting than face to face. Home schooling turned up and is VERY difficult for many parents. It became obvious that people have been left behind - temporary visa holders, international students have no way of making income, no help from the government and are struggling. Prisoners are locked up in the equivalent of petrie dishes. Family violence, mental health issues, illness are all happening behind closed doors - literally. There was also an explosion of community solidarity - teddy bear hunts for Easter, neighbours helping each  other, families having gatherings via zoom. Our family started to find a normal rhythm - work, no work, projects, connection, cooking and exercise. We are grateful to be housed and with one income. 

So, moving forward - what does that look like? 

The only thing I know for sure is that it doesn’t look like February 2020. We will not be going back. There have been some wonderful pieces written during the past couple of months by people who are seeing and reflecting. A number of people have suggested that the pandemic heightens our ability to see where we are most vulnerable - either in the inequality capitalism has baked into our world, the lack of local resilience which seems to be a by-product of 2000s capitalism, the class, power and race cracks in our societies, the planetary damage we have been doing. Theses are not givens - we have shown in the past 3 months that we can radically change our trajectory and so we know it is possible to be different in the areas that we have seen problems. 

This pandemic is not as bad as it will get - we still have the climate emergency having over us as a species - 2020 is on track already to be the hottest year ever. I am interested to see what we can learn from the COVID-19 experience to take forward into our next opportunity. The good news is that we have everything we need already to be different - but to imagine a different future we need to see our present through different eyes. 

Our normal was not great for billions of people or the biosphere we inhabit. Where I think we failed to lead well during this pandemic - there was a lack of imagination on the part of many of our leaders. This led to crisis leadership coming to the fore, to my mind that is failure. We need to develop leaders who have many patterns in their thinking, so they can recognise threats and opportunities before they arise. This is done through the cultivation of foresight - and has been successfully delivered for over 50 years. 

This experience has also highlighted who is able to lead and who are people in leadership roles. This needs to change - having people nominated by their level in a hierarchy as leaders is not an effective way of organising ourselves. In Australia, we have seen political leaders listen to medical experts and make decisions based on their advice rather than ideology, vote gaining or political point scoring. This model would be useful for the climate emergency. 

I have heard appeals to people’s better nature rather than fear or hatred. I have heard clear purpose statements - ‘if we do this then we aim to get that’. I have heard leaders say that we don’t have all the information, we need to find out, context is important, no-one knows the answer so we will make a best guess using the evidence to hand - all good starting points for dealing with the complexity in the future. Leaders starting with their experience, listening to others and empathising have also been valued. 

When I joined local government in 2013, many people who had worked in the sector during the horrific early 2009 summer heatwave and bushfires in Victoria were telling meteorites about how their organisations pulled together during the crisis. People ignored their roles, instead working together to deliver the outcomes that were required.  By the end of 2009, things had started  going back to normal, and these people told me how much they wished a new normal had turned up instead. They felt they had lost something, let’s try to capture what we have learned from this crisis and take it into a new normal, building up our imagination and ways of working to give us half a chance of coming through the climate emergency with a functioning civilisation on a healthy biosphere. 

I have been going to writers, artists and indigenous ways of knowing to try and find new patterns for my thinking. I am using this period to consciously unlearn (there has to be an upside of no work) to allow for re-learning. What is emerging for me is a need for us to build our society and organisations based on circular dynamics, reciprocity and regeneration. I will continue to push for processes and organisational cultures that allow for and support mutual flourishing. I am finding the people who are thinking broadly about humans and our role in the systems on this biosphere and how we might weave ourselves into the environment in ways that mean we all flourish, not just some of one species. I seek out those who start from the inside out, knowing how they turn up and do the work they do, is central to the outcomes they want to create. I look for love - love of self, love of others, love of the world, I practice curiosity and compassion to bring forth those qualities. 

Let’s have at it xx

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