The first virtual VISION New Thinking event took place on Thursday, 2 December with 150 leaders from multiple industries and public sector bodies from Ireland, the UK, USA and Mexico joining thought leaders, government and private sector leaders to consider the challenges and lessons learned from Ireland and the wider world’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Read on for highlights from the event or click through to watch the playback here.
VISION’s CEO Billy Glennon opened the event by putting the pandemic into the broadest historical context. He asked participants to consider we had entered the Anthropocene, an era when “human activity and its effect on nature is starting to blow back on us as human beings”. Billy raised the question of whether it is “the way we’ve organised ourselves, the way that we communicate, the way that we travel, the way that our supply chains exist, that puts us at enormous risk”.
Billy went on to welcome Adam Tooze as a historical thinker of crisis, who is pointing out to his readers that “the rules, and the standards and the processes of the past are not useful”. We need even to look beyond the immediate mechanisms for coping apparent from our immediate response to the pandemic. Yes, we need to learn from good examples of rapid mobilisation – like China’s ability to react very quickly to the crisis, the pharmaceutical sector’s responses to develop new vaccines, and central bankers’ quantitative easing – but Billy also argued that we need what he described as anticipation, finding new voices like Adam’s, that “point us in a direction that could help us anticipate what’s happening”.
This set the scene for the address by Adam Tooze, the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis chair at Columbia University in New York and director of the European Institute, who looked to re-conceive of the pandemic response not as an example of smoothly coping with radical uncertainty but as forced coping with a grey rhino, a well-forecast crisis hiding in plain sight.
Facing the Grey Rhinos
Adam Tooze began his talk by highlighting a basic assumption about the pandemic that had been influential in the ways that global leaders sought to cope with it. That assumption was that the pandemic belonged to a class of radically uncertain risks that could not be foreseen and whose probability and impact was incalculable. Planners and analysts are well-used to the idea that there are risks that can be anticipated and there are others, the unknown unknowns, that cannot be calculated and must be met with rapid and vigorous mobilisation. The financial crisis of 2008 was assumed to be radically uncertain and the pandemic was assumed, simply, to be an even more dramatic example of such radical uncertainty. As such, leaders in politics, finance and business could not have foreseen it or planned for it but needed to mobilise brilliantly to cope with it. And mobilise brilliantly, they did.
The twin threats of financial and unemployment crises were contained. A Eurozone crisis was averted. Countries got much better at lockdowns. And new vaccines were developed and rolled out in record time.
However, Adam went on to call this assumption into question. First, he noted how “too much of this response has about it the quality of forced reaction. … What it largely was was a scrambled gigantic effort to repeat what was done in 2008, namely, to stabilise private finance.” It was, “more like a sorcerer’s apprentice-type situation in which you are harnessed to the growth and expansion of a private financial system that exposes you to these kinds of risks to which you then must respond.”
He said: “And the fundamental point, which we really have to wrestle with, is that none of this should have happened. Because the starting point that I started us off with was, in a sense, a kind of trompe d’oeil, it was leading us in the wrong direction. Because this never was a matter of radical uncertainty. It’s not true to say that the Covid crisis was something that was a black swan outside the ken of our imagination. beyond compare. It’s simply not true. It wasn’t a black swan at all. It was a grey rhino. It was the sort of risk that we knew was there really, but somehow managed not to take seriously.
There’s a perceptual issue here that I think haunts all our talk about anticipating and mobilising: are we actually even capable of living in the moment, let alone anticipating the future? That may sound like a kind of yoga instructor’s mantra about trying to be in the moment, but indeed, that is the challenge: how can we actually stay with the problems that we have, rather than moving on immediately to face new ones, though, we have to do that too. And this, I think, captures the sort of deep, deep challenge of this event.”
He recommended that policy-makers and leaders become apocalyptic realists who could take seriously the soft denial; in other words, to acknowledge and then move on from, financial instability, antibiotic resistance, climate change, biodiversity collapse, desertification, pollution, and so on as really existing, systemic risks of modernity.
He invited panellists and listeners to consider four lessons for policy analysts when dealing with these grey rhino, existential risks. The first two are well-known: making difficult choices when faced with powerful vested interests, and making difficult choices when facing long-term gains and short-term costs.
However, the pandemic has taught us two new lessons: the failure to assert general interest over particular interests; and the failure of imagination that does not grasp how these existential risks are here now and must be dealt with now in an interconnected way if they are to be averted.
Challenges of Mobilising Ireland
The conversation continued with a government and industry leader panel discussion, which considered the implications of Adam’s talk for how to prepare Ireland to deal not only with the pandemic but with a range of existential risks and opportunities facing the country and the wider world.
Moderated by journalist Matt Cooper, the discussion gathered around three key topics: facing up to reality; the role, size, and style of government; and the imagination to think big including the changing nature of work.
Billy kicked off the conversation by bringing home the interconnectedness of the current crisis. He said, “I’m thinking about a couple of restaurants I know in the main street in Longford. And the idea that whether they’re open or not, they were actually impacted by Omicron in South Africa. So, when I talk about anticipation. You can’t kind of localise where you are now and say, “Well, look, I know my customers locally, I know my business.” You have to find a way to at least be in touch and figure out, also, what are the voices you need to listen to? Because I’m sure, a week and a half ago, restaurants in Longford did not know about Omicron, or did not know that this was coming to them.”
Secondly, Billy raised the question of how changes to everyday reality happen. Building on Adam’s theme he asked, “How can these impending massive challenges be in front of us, and we’re not facing up to them?” It’s how reality changes for people. This is a whole new reality from two years ago, it’s a different world, different things make sense, a different common sense. And that’s been forced upon us. One of the things that we’ve got to learn to do is to see how reality changes and actually understand that better. We can wish for a different situation but there is a new reality. And we need to move with that new reality. And I think we need to learn an awful lot more about how reality changes for us. And that sounds like a philosophical question but it’s actually now, with the way the world is moving, a very practical question, because values change.”
Thirdly, the role of ethics: “The world was mobilised because of an ethical concern. People said, ‘I don’t want my neighbours dying of Covid. I don’t want people lying in hospital trolleys dying of Covid. And actually, I don’t want people in India dying of Covid’. And people were willing to subject themselves to huge constraints on their personal liberty for the sake of a global goal. And that’s one of the really fantastic things to come out of this. That, if you appeal to people on ethical concerns and what really matters, you can produce the kind of rapid pace that we’ve seen in parts of the pandemic. “
Anne Heraty, founder and CEO of Cpl Resources, picked up the theme of how Ireland had mobilised to avert an unemployment crisis – but that this itself raised questions about the future of work. She said, “One of the criticisms we see of neoliberalism and free-market forces is the impact that it has on unemployment, particularly on the lower paid. I think, yes, we have to look at universal basic income and our social welfare systems and transition from lower-skilled to higher-skilled jobs. I wonder is there another vision of the world where, with automation, we can work four days a week and have better productivity, better incomes, and better lifestyles for people.”
Louise Phelan, Director at Ryanair and CEO and Deputy Chair of Phelan Energy, picked up the theme of thinking big. She said, “What we did before is not going to work going forward. It’s going to be much bigger than Covid. And I don’t think people understand the magnitude of the impact that that’s going to have on the world. It’s a bit like the three-legged stool, I think government is one, I think employers is number two, but also, I think it’s employees as much as it is employers. I think everybody has a part to play across Ireland Inc. What we’re doing right now, it’s not going to be enough unless we put a percentage of GDP behind it to actually make it happen. And I think that’s the opportunity that we have to say, we’ve got to do the big bang theory, we have got to do something big.”
Robert Watt, Secretary General from the Department of Health, explored the question of style of government in the future. He said, “The state, in all its manifestations or many of its manifestations, needs to be bigger, and we need to act globally. So how do we structure this state? How do we finance the state? What does the state actually do? How do we deal with issues around preparedness? How do we deal with the great challenge of climate change, which is an enormous market failure? So a lot of it does speak for the need for the state to be very different and act in a different way. But I will be optimistic about the future. If we can learn from the mistakes, if we focus much more on risk and prepare, and ultimately, if we’re more strategic, I think this is the big challenge for governments – to deal with these bigger challenges in a strategic way. Often we’re pushed around by today’s events, or tomorrow’s event, [we need] to be more strategic about how we can plan societies to deal with many of the risks.”
He returned to Billy’s point about how reality changes and considered whether people were emotionally ready to embrace the type of change and the difference to living standards in Ireland that might be involved in all of that change. “I think there is the reality of the world, the reality that we faced with the uncertainty and trade-offs that exist. And sometimes that pushes up against the unreality of people’s expectations maybe, in part, fed by the political debate, by the media debate, by the Twitter debate, and part of the conflict between those two things is generating a lot of mistrust in government, a lot of disappointed expectations. So I think how do we calibrate people’s expectations to what the future might look like accepting the uncertainty and trade-offs that exist? So I don’t know the answer to your question.”
If you would like to explore any of the topics or themes from VISION’s New Thinking Forum in greater detail, don’t hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also be interested in listening to the latest episode of our podcast series, where VISION’s CEO, Billy Glennon, discusses mobilisation with business journalist Fraser Allen – find it here, or wherever you listen to your podcasts.