In brief

In the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, David asks the question: What do we need to do now to be able to look back on 2020 as the year when we not only helped one another in a crisis but as the year when we changed for good?

What do we need to do now to be able to look back on 2020 as the year when we not only helped one another in a crisis but as the year when we changed for good?  

In my blog last week I talked about how the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus is changing social behaviour. I suggested that disruption in itself is neither good nor bad, what matters is what we make of it. I have rarely written anything that has attracted a more immediate response. I want to build on that response today and think about how we absorb and embed the positive changes.

The objectives

Securing the safety and comfort of the sick and housebound is the immediate priority but thinking about the urgent doesn’t mean that we can’t also think about the important. Working now in ways which develop our support networks and permanently strengthen our communities will also prepare us to cope better with future crises, either societal and exceptional, like the virus, or individual and inevitable, like other illnesses, loss or bereavement. 

The precedents

Crisis and disruption doesn’t inevitably lead to long term change. Sometimes the pieces reform in similar patterns.

Think, for instance of the global financial collapse in 2008.  

Even a sense of national pain or empathy can be short lived. Think of Grenfell or the refugees on the beaches in 2015.

And the effects of positive disruption can be equally transitory. The 2012 Olympics did change behaviours, certainly here in east London, but not for long.

The difference

However, the virus may have a deeper and more long lasting effect than any of the above because: 

  • It will directly affect more people
  • It lands at a time when the country is struggling to emerge from a period of division. There is already an ambition to “bring the country together” in the national discourse if very little idea how to do it
  • Prevailing political and economic orthodoxies which focus on individualism, scale and the triumph of the market rather than on meaningful relationships and the common good were already losing a little of their grip in business and in government. Relationship-centred development, deep value, kindness even love have begun to enter the public vocabulary, not as frilly extras but, potentially at least, as operating principles.
  • We have the technology to bring people together, to communicate and network but social behaviour still lags way behind. An enforced catch up in the coming weeks will never be unlearnt.

Embedding the positives

Hundreds of local support groups have emerged in response to the virus and these are just the ones we know about. Almost certainly at least as much is going on informally.  Mass re-neighbouring is the pragmatic reaction to an emergency but there are also the makings in this response of a more fundamental shift towards a kinder, less divided society. New ways of working and behaving are being developed and trialed with unprecedented speed. Not every trial will be successful, that’s the point of trials, but some will be.  They are inventing the future. 

Our ability to grip the momentum, move beyond the short term and absorb and embed these positive developments will depend on how we act now.

Watch, Catch, Sustain

Suppose we set out to not only meet need in the coming months but also to build the foundations for a better society by helping to build sustainable relationship?

As this is essentially about relationships between people, rather than between people and the state or people and the market we would need to focus on three or four questions, all about enabling.  

  • What can the organised voluntary sector do to help to build sustainable relationships? (And by extension what are the best roles for the engaged funder?)
  • What are the actions of an enabling state, local and national?
  • What are the best and most inclusive uses of technology?

We might expect to find the answers in the activity that is developing so widely now

But if we wait and look back at the learning it will already be too late. We need to learn in real time, share the lessons and adapt in ways which enable us to sustain the progress as the crisis passes.

Suppose we establish a simple platform for running a short term mass observatory and for utilising the findings with three activities…

Watching: Citizen reporting

Enabling an open cohort of contributors to gather and post local stories

Catching: Distilling the evidence

Synthesising this material into models and methods that share learning

Sustaining: Pushing out the messages

Both promoting the learning openly and also targeting specifically

Would that work? Would it be useful? How could these ideas be improved or developed? Please do let us know what you think