.
H

istorians love to focus on big pivots that emerged from conflict. This renaissance lens teaches us that two world wars led to the collapse of empires, the rise of democracies and superpowers, new international governance, and the belated grant of votes for women. We hear less about how, well before shots were fired, movements for social and economic change were growing fast through radical artistic and scientific innovation, new political voices and campaigns for workers’ rights. It took the disruption of war to convert these demands into reality.   

A century later, COVID-19 has generated its own renewal jargon. Slogans like “build back better” have the best of intentions but many fear that recovery efforts will gloss over structural fault lines and tipping points that were already well documented. Global pandemics and zoonotic risk had been high on the World Economic Forum’s watchlist for years. Anti-Microbial Resistance is a disaster-in-waiting. Too often, however, contingency plans gather virtual dust on servers. As a global society, we seem surprised and affronted when the predictable actually happens. 

It’s no secret that economic development across the world had repeated the same patterns of spatial and social inequity. That production and consumption models had outstripped planetary boundaries. That clean air and green space were ever-harder for the poor to access. That the climate crisis and water insecurity had already forced people to migrate from their land and homes. 

Less tangibly, trust has eroded in today’s institutions and structures of power. Confidence in a better future for new generations has waned. The malaise of weakening social fabric finds a troubling echo in rising polarization. The values and metrics of success are being questioned all the way from schools to boards.

COVID-19—in both its origins and responses—illustrates the perils of short-termism, selective vision, and decline of international solidarity (witness the scale of criticism around the UK’s aid budget reduction). It highlights the grotesquely unequal health outcomes and life chances for the already-vulnerable, even in rich countries. It shows how fast employment and societal gains for women can be reversed. 

Yet this 21st century pandemic can indeed spark renewal if we take the long view. We’ve admired the ingenuity and resilience of communities and businesses. We’ve seen that government can move fast and fairly, when it matters. We’ve been powerfully reminded of how essential nature and place are to well-being, health, and our collective imagination.

What would it take for tomorrow’s historians to see COVID-19 as a pivot for regeneration? 

Three levers of change could help rewire the economy for people, nature, and climate, with equity as the keystone. We need to shift the discourse, transform organizations, and open up agency and tools for change.

Language and stories matter. We currently lack a compelling forward-looking narrative for just transition and systems change. Conflict imagery dominates messaging on the pandemic, while soft idioms swathe the carbon economy (highlighted when The Guardian changed its climate change lexicon). While “sustainability” can seem vast and abstract, brilliant design is bringing the Sustainable Development Goals into daily life and inspiring creative, tech and policy innovation. Flipping the lens—imagine “health-generating” cities and schools and a “nature positive” economy—can break down barriers and open new horizons, provided the language makes sense and helps people see they have a stake and a role in solutions. 

Business and finance are key drivers of transformation and resource alignment at scale. Many of the boards, companies, and entrepreneurs we work with at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) are searching for ways to define their new role in society, recognizing that truly sustainable business must be based on very different values and objectives to the traditional models upon which existing organizational components have been optimized. There is a hunger for transition models and new ideas. Leaders want to harness their influence to drive change inside their organizations and within and to whole systems. Governments have a critical role to play now and into the future for private-public collaboration. Bold policies and incentives now can enable and accelerate capacity to invest and deliver on long-term targets. 

Radical openness for the future will involve new forms of participation, agency, and access to tech, tools, and finance. Well before the pandemic, exciting movements were already taking shape and moving from the margins to the center—including the circular economy, local food chains, participatory budgeting, and new forms of active citizenry. As megatrends and digitization rewrite the landscape of jobs and skills (see CLG Europe report), more agile and inclusive forms of decision-making will be vital to competitive sustainability and future stability.

Never let a good crisis go to waste”, said Winston Churchill. We don’t need a phoenix to rise from the Covid ashes. This is the time for regenerative leadership that meets people’s aspirations and needs and delivers policies and actions to achieve net zero and the Sustainable Development Goals. Let’s ‘call out tomorrow’ by writing this history of the future.

About
Clare Shine
:
Clare Shine is Director and CEO of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) and a member of Diplomatic Courier's editorial advisory board.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Taking the Long View

Photo by Peter Fogden via Unsplash.

September 30, 2021

COVID-19 has illustrated the perils of short-termism and declining international solidarity, but if we take the long-view the lessons of the pandemic have the chance to spark a powerful societal renewal, writes CISL CEO Clare Shine.

H

istorians love to focus on big pivots that emerged from conflict. This renaissance lens teaches us that two world wars led to the collapse of empires, the rise of democracies and superpowers, new international governance, and the belated grant of votes for women. We hear less about how, well before shots were fired, movements for social and economic change were growing fast through radical artistic and scientific innovation, new political voices and campaigns for workers’ rights. It took the disruption of war to convert these demands into reality.   

A century later, COVID-19 has generated its own renewal jargon. Slogans like “build back better” have the best of intentions but many fear that recovery efforts will gloss over structural fault lines and tipping points that were already well documented. Global pandemics and zoonotic risk had been high on the World Economic Forum’s watchlist for years. Anti-Microbial Resistance is a disaster-in-waiting. Too often, however, contingency plans gather virtual dust on servers. As a global society, we seem surprised and affronted when the predictable actually happens. 

It’s no secret that economic development across the world had repeated the same patterns of spatial and social inequity. That production and consumption models had outstripped planetary boundaries. That clean air and green space were ever-harder for the poor to access. That the climate crisis and water insecurity had already forced people to migrate from their land and homes. 

Less tangibly, trust has eroded in today’s institutions and structures of power. Confidence in a better future for new generations has waned. The malaise of weakening social fabric finds a troubling echo in rising polarization. The values and metrics of success are being questioned all the way from schools to boards.

COVID-19—in both its origins and responses—illustrates the perils of short-termism, selective vision, and decline of international solidarity (witness the scale of criticism around the UK’s aid budget reduction). It highlights the grotesquely unequal health outcomes and life chances for the already-vulnerable, even in rich countries. It shows how fast employment and societal gains for women can be reversed. 

Yet this 21st century pandemic can indeed spark renewal if we take the long view. We’ve admired the ingenuity and resilience of communities and businesses. We’ve seen that government can move fast and fairly, when it matters. We’ve been powerfully reminded of how essential nature and place are to well-being, health, and our collective imagination.

What would it take for tomorrow’s historians to see COVID-19 as a pivot for regeneration? 

Three levers of change could help rewire the economy for people, nature, and climate, with equity as the keystone. We need to shift the discourse, transform organizations, and open up agency and tools for change.

Language and stories matter. We currently lack a compelling forward-looking narrative for just transition and systems change. Conflict imagery dominates messaging on the pandemic, while soft idioms swathe the carbon economy (highlighted when The Guardian changed its climate change lexicon). While “sustainability” can seem vast and abstract, brilliant design is bringing the Sustainable Development Goals into daily life and inspiring creative, tech and policy innovation. Flipping the lens—imagine “health-generating” cities and schools and a “nature positive” economy—can break down barriers and open new horizons, provided the language makes sense and helps people see they have a stake and a role in solutions. 

Business and finance are key drivers of transformation and resource alignment at scale. Many of the boards, companies, and entrepreneurs we work with at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) are searching for ways to define their new role in society, recognizing that truly sustainable business must be based on very different values and objectives to the traditional models upon which existing organizational components have been optimized. There is a hunger for transition models and new ideas. Leaders want to harness their influence to drive change inside their organizations and within and to whole systems. Governments have a critical role to play now and into the future for private-public collaboration. Bold policies and incentives now can enable and accelerate capacity to invest and deliver on long-term targets. 

Radical openness for the future will involve new forms of participation, agency, and access to tech, tools, and finance. Well before the pandemic, exciting movements were already taking shape and moving from the margins to the center—including the circular economy, local food chains, participatory budgeting, and new forms of active citizenry. As megatrends and digitization rewrite the landscape of jobs and skills (see CLG Europe report), more agile and inclusive forms of decision-making will be vital to competitive sustainability and future stability.

Never let a good crisis go to waste”, said Winston Churchill. We don’t need a phoenix to rise from the Covid ashes. This is the time for regenerative leadership that meets people’s aspirations and needs and delivers policies and actions to achieve net zero and the Sustainable Development Goals. Let’s ‘call out tomorrow’ by writing this history of the future.

About
Clare Shine
:
Clare Shine is Director and CEO of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) and a member of Diplomatic Courier's editorial advisory board.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.