Black Swan

How we're responding to Covid-19

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?”

~ JM Keynes

This decade is only 75 days old and already it is becoming clear that business as usual is looking less and less likely to return any time soon. The devastating spread of the coronavirus pandemic is already being felt across our health systems, our communities and our economies, and the months ahead will test our resilience in ways that many of us have never before witnessed.

There are so many relevant lessons for us emerging from the coronavirus crisis. We are truly globally connected and our ability to shield ourselves from external influences has been greatly reduced. As a consequence, speeds of transmission around the world have only accelerated. The spread is indiscriminate — the virus doesn’t respect hierarchy or social organisation and doesn’t care whether you’re the Prime Minister, the Health Minister, Tom Hanks, or your grandmother.

We are also seeing another side of the response. We see the eternal role of government to support our basic needs, such as security, health and supplies, and the backlash where this has been forgotten or underinvested in. We recognise the need for community resilience and care, compounded in those countries still emerging from bushfires, droughts, or civil unrest, and we see some heartwarming examples of social solidarity.

We are seeing how quickly and extensively we can mobilise when the need is urgent enough, most vividly described by Michael Ryan at the WHO.

“Perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management. Speed trumps perfection. And the problem in society we have at the moment is everyone is afraid of making a mistake. Everyone is afraid of the consequence of error, but the greatest error is not to move, the greatest error is to be paralyzed by the fear of failure.”

We contrast such willingness to act decisively and in service of the precautionary principle and ask, where is this spirit when we look to address climate change and the need to decarbonise our economies?

Challenging our working assumptions

At States of Change, our desire to maximise the environmental sustainability of our activities and impact has already challenged many of our working assumptions; coronavirus have brought them into even sharper relief. These include:

  • The feasibility of face-to-face programmes.
  • The sustainability of international travel and gatherings.
  • The growing unpredictability of freedom of movement.

As a newly launched independent organisation, recently spun out from the relative security of UK foundation Nesta, we need to acknowledge these shifting realities (and quickly!) and change course accordingly.

The obvious move being made by many organisations is to migrate their delivery online. We have historically been reluctant to do so because:

  • Most online learning has been disappointing, especially in the innovation space, and a poor cousin to the richness of the face-to-face environment.
  • Public innovation as a subject is highly contextual and interpersonal; face-to-face delivery allows for greater contextual nuance and an ability to explore the interpersonal element of creating change more effectively.
  • Our learning programmes are highly practical in nature, which is hard to replicate through remote delivery.

Ultimately, we have been reluctant because we believe that the cultural change we are trying to bring about requires working through relationships, safe spaces and dedicated learning environments.

That said, we can’t ignore the current global imperative to work differently, if only to avoid making a bad problem worse by encouraging greater travel. And as an organisation interested in working on our biggest problems, such as climate change, this presents an opportunity to change our ways to deliver impact more sustainably, a conversation we were having only last week with our colleagues at Climate KIC.

We also know there is demand in teams and countries far beyond our ability to always turn up face-to-face, so we owe it to that part of our community to think more creatively in how we ‘show up’ in a meaningful way.

So we have taken the decision to avoid travel for the next few months, while the world works through this latest crisis. And we would like to use this rather extreme moment in time for both self-reflection…and for experimentation. We have already heard of the benefits of self-isolation for Isaac Newton and we hope to use our time productively too.

We have an amazing community of experienced fellows and a global community of practitioners keen to connect, learn and grow together.

So the current questions we’re sitting with are:

  1. How might we best support our collective growth and development across the public innovation community in a travel constrained world?
  2. And given how our collective is full of people well versed in navigating uncertainty and complexity through experimentation, how might we better support governments to build an experimental culture fast to deal with increasing uncertainty and rapidly changing scenarios?

We have a number of early hunches

  • Increasing our focus on remote coaching and mentoring.
  • Experimenting with different blends of remote and face-to-face learning delivery.
  • Making better use of our extensive global network of fellows.
  • Ramping up our webinars to better share the experiences of innovation practitioners from around the world (including our own).
  • Regular chat and online meet-ups for collective support and encouragement, as well as challenge and debate.
  • Using the downtime to do some collective writing.

These are some of our early ideas, but what do you think?

  • What would you like to see during this time of relative immobility?
  • What content would you most like to see/hear from us?
  • What modes work for you?
  • How would you like to contribute?

We don’t profess to have the answers, but these next few months give us the opportunity to walk the talk and run our own experiments. And we’d like you to come with us on the journey.

Drop us a line at our email address or contact me directly to share your ideas about what you think we might most helpfully do next.

And let’s continue to look after each other during this challenging time.



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