Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”
Mary Jo (MJ) Kaplan
Founder and CEO at Kaplan Consulting LLC
June 15, 2020
Collapse, A Response
Are we in a time of collapse? Balamurugan writes that the pandemic itself is not a crisis because humanity will survive. In contrast, White argues that we are facing a demand for revolution. He explores how to achieve radical change rather than whether it is needed. I concur that we are experiencing a collision of system failures that open up the potential for radical change.
The status quo is potent. History teaches us that eras of reasonable stability — incremental change — are followed by accelerated unrest that eventually leads to a burst of radical transformation. Forces are converging in the U.S. and across the globe to foment widespread unrest. The time is ripe to fundamentally alter core frameworks and systems to care for growing numbers of people living in the margins of deteriorating communities. White calls for the field of design to step up and play a disruptive role to reimagine and create sustainable communities.
The pandemic is triggering havoc and shining a light on myriad cracks in our health and economic systems. COVID-19 also exposes broader systemic crises — climate, institutional decay, political legitimacy and inequality. Both the pandemic and the climate crisis span the globe; yet, the difference in response is remarkable. The world community has spent decades ignoring dire warnings about a warming climate. In stark contrast, the pandemic instigated swift and dramatic action. When a frog is placed in a pot of water that is heated slowly, it adjusts to the warming until it perishes. A frog immersed in boiling water leaps out of the water in response and saves itself. Will the pandemic help us face the urgency of climate change?
The pandemic and related economic trauma validate the need for massive system redesign. They expose the destructiveness of decades of neoliberalism. The killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests connect inequality and racial injustice to the economic and health fallout of the pandemic. George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police is unleashing pain and anger like a volcano that bubbles beneath the surface for years before it explodes. We have ignored the scars of colonialism, racial injustice and white supremacy. Massive unemployment, racial justice protests and a pandemic with no remedy in sight signal social system collapse. From demise, to…what?
The world community has spent decades ignoring dire warnings about a warming climate. In stark contrast, the pandemic instigated swift and dramatic action.
Perhaps Aotearoa, New Zealand, illustrates an alternative design that prizes collective well-being over individual freedom. My perspective is informed by eight years of active engagement working with diverse communities and institutions in New Zealand with a focus on social innovation, enterprise and impact. New Zealand is not perfect by any measure. Cohen admonishes us to forget the perfect and accept progress over perfection. Following are three features:
Treaty of Waitangi Act of 1975 and 2017 legal status of the river Te Awa Tupua
(Face the past)
The US and many other countries barely acknowledge their histories and legacies of colonialism. In contrast, protests in the 1960s and 1970s by New Zealand’s indigenous population, the Māori, led to a process for negotiated settlements. Though contentious, tribal settlements included financial redress, a formal Crown apology for breaches of the original 1840 Treaty, and recognition of cultural sites.
An important part of biculturalism is the acknowledgement that Māori are tangata whenua (the people of the land) and have a special relationship with the land and water. Grounded in these indigenous spiritual values, Māori leaders fought and won legal rights for the Te Awa Tupua river in 2017. This protection reorients humans to the natural world, based on responsibilities rather than rights. The government atoned for its past wrongs and sought healing. This precedent has led to forests, lakes, and mountains gaining personhood status. What if nations across the globe atone for past wrongs, pursue healing and include indigenous mindsets, values, traditions and ways of working?
Wellbeing Framework (Boldly envision the future)
New Zealand is redefining how it defines measures of progress as a nation, emphasizing quality of life for all. The shift is from traditional short-term growth measures such as GDP to a long-term framework with five priorities: transitioning to a sustainable low-emission economy, thriving in the digital age, lifting indigenous Māori and Pacific incomes, skills and opportunities, reducing child poverty and supporting mental health. Perhaps freedom truly reigns when expansive public goods such healthcare, education and retirement are accessible for everyone.
Balamurugan describes “intents” as the guiding compass to choose one story over another. The New Zealand government is testing a radically different intent to unlock a pathway to transformation. They are choosing intergenerational, collective wellbeing over short-term growth. We must pay attention to this experiment.
Leadership and trust (Be ruthlessly honest about the present)
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gained international accolades for how she handled the terrorist massacre at a Mosque in March 2019. She demonstrated empathy and strength. She embraced victims and immediately enacted gun reforms.
Perhaps Ardern’s compassion and action last year helped her unite the country quickly and effectively in the face of Coronavirus. Only 21 people died of the virus before they declared it eliminated. June 14th, sellout crowds filled rugby stadiums to celebrate their beloved sport, one of few countries resuming large events. Trust in government ranked higher in New Zealand at the onset of the pandemic than almost any other country – 88%. It is impossible to overstate the role that trust in institutions and leaders plays in motivating people to relinquish their freedoms and their livelihoods to protect the health of their neighbors.
Aotearoa, New Zealand, demonstrates that the downward spiral of institutions and wellbeing is not inevitable. The country faces astonishing income inequality, mental health challenges and a degraded environment. It has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the developed world. New Zealand is not perfect. Yet it is establishing a socio-cultural-political mindset for collective wellbeing that distinguishes it from most countries. Perhaps Prime Minister Ardern is a reflection of her people and culture as much as she’s a leader.
Getting from here to there
How does change happen? Individual and collective beliefs create a powerful immunity to change (see Kegan and Lahey). Can changes in beliefs become a lever for complex change? How do we enable new mindsets? White suggests that participatory design is critical to open up new perspectives. How do we engage diverse co-creators? We are in a conversation about the politics of the possible with new voices rising up. Which ideas will be legitimized for mass adoption? Perhaps we’ve known what a better future is, but this path has mostly fallen on deaf ears until now. Are we ready to listen?
When a frog is placed in a pot of water that is heated slowly, it adjusts to the warming until it perishes. A frog immersed in boiling water leaps out of the water in response and saves itself. Will the pandemic help us face the urgency of climate change?