The crisis generated by the Covid-19 international health disaster is instructive in more ways than one. This health emergency provides immediate lessons for building more resilient societies. It indeed offers a unique opportunity to anchor sustainable development issues at the heart of any political ambition and corporate strategy. Here we describe 5 principles inferred from the current health, economic and social crisis, to be applied now and without moderation.
Where Does Sustainable Development Stand in the Midst of a Health Crisis?
Since the end of the 19th century, hygienic considerations, driven by pollution and major health crises, have structured environmental law across industrial economies. Our society is now in the midst of an environmental and social crisis. As urgent of a health crisis as Covid-19 may be, the longer-term implications for sustainable development are not secondary; Covid-19 further legitimizes the development of more resilient and sustainable societies. This for at least 3 reasons:
- Our societies were built around principles of exchange, collective life and social interaction. Confinement and social distancing now strike us at the core of what makes us human.
- Years of developing a more sustainable consumption model have been wiped out by panic-stricken consumers stockpiling on carbohydrates and hygiene products.
- Pressing environmental issues – climate, water, biodiversity – have been sidelined owing to increasingly digitalized and energy-intensive interactions. Meanwhile, hygienic and sanitary imperatives put further pressure on resources and reactivate the production of single-use waste.
There is nevertheless a good chance it’s all connected:
- Environmental degradations and urban concentrations played a central role in the emergence of Covid-19;
- Increasingly digitalized and interconnected economies fueled the pandemic;
- Finally, the lack of resources from public authorities as well as fundamental research, combined with the dilution of international coordination bodies have hampered our collective capacity to appropriately anticipate, monitor and manage the crisis.
Covid-19 opens up a fundamental debate on sustainability, particularly in terms of resilience (our adaptation to shocks) and inclusion (the capacity to integrate different social components into a collective). Climate, biodiversity, energy, water and bioterrorism… are just a few examples of impending crises – either global or local – likely to put policy-makers, business and citizens under severe strain in the coming decade.
- In terms of policy, learning the lessons of Covid-19 means exploring the principles of a more sustainable development of our societies.
- For companies, Covid-19 is a powerful test of their robustness and supply chains, encouraging them to reduce the impact of physical risks by diversifying supply sources and adopting a business continuity plan.
5 principles to abide by in any political and economic project
Our societies have become so complex they are unmanageable. The subprime mortgage crisis (2007-2010) showed how complex financial products had become. The climate crisis is equally indicative of how the interwoven responsibilities of key players make it difficult to manage. The digital revolutions underway produce data-processing systems at such an exponential scale their algorithms and decision-making mechanisms are impossible to understand. The global political, social and economic reckoning caused by Covid-19 will come to further demonstrate how unmanageable this pervading complexity has become:
- There are around twenty diseases, other than Covid-19, with pandemic potential; some more regional in scope, but all capable of creating multiple health crises with major social and political implications. Ebola, for instance, had far-reaching human, social and political impacts for a number of African economies.
- Complexity and our reliance on global supply chains, in which China is the hotspot, have rendered global business and policy subservient to its fluctuations. That very interconnectedness makes supply chains highly vulnerable to various exceptional health, environmental or social hazards. Indeed, a recent study shows 80% of companies estimated their supply chains were directly impacted by Covid-19.
- Finally, the impotence of our political leadership was made apparent by the World Health Organization, insofar as it warned us about the impeding health disaster with force and precision, but failed to decisively mobilize States, institutions and business in a proactive and coordinated response.
Faced with this growing and inextricable complexity, the answer lies in the realm of attitude, pointing to the concept of agility:
- Strategic agility, in structuring economic sectors capable of adapting to shocks. In the advent of another major health crisis, climatic hazard, a Fukushima-type industrial disaster or the likes, the diversification of supply sources is key. Resilience depends on our capacity to rapidly adapt, down to our most capital-intensive activities.
- Operational agility, in grasping the complex implications posed by any crisis, pointing us toward notions of interdisciplinary and diverse viewpoints. The current health crisis forces everyone to review their activity in the light of hygienic imperatives linked to virus transmission, social distancing and other operational considerations. Working in hot weather. Working under a bioterrorism threat. Working without water or energy for extended periods of time… Any one these potential climatic, environmental or industrial crises is illustrative of the need for operational agility.
- Collaborative agility, in channelling the collective ability to develop relevant responses, where Covid-19 showed traditional alliances to be a hinderance. The mystery as to how the Italian strain did not originate from travelers from high-risk areas raises questions regarding monitoring and protection techniques in place, which insufficient to curb the spread of the virus. Tomorrow heatwaves, health, industrial, or other crises, will raise the same questions as to our collective future.
Crises of such magnitude require collective and coordinated responses. Without blaming anyone, individualistic actions are irresponsible and reinforce their negative impacts. In the specific case of Covid-19:
- Leaving cities to seek refuge in rural areas before securing a negative Covid-19 test risks facilitating the spread of the virus to areas with less adequate healthcare and thus propagates the pandemic.
- Stockpiling and other irrational purchasing behaviors contribute to putting pressure on replenishment systems and create artificial shortages.
In a completely different context, let us remember that the French debacle of June 1940 was not the result of German military superiority. Surprised by their advance, the Germans had no logistical support and often had to stop for lack of petrol. It was indeed the disorderly flight of millions of distraught civilians on the roads that hindered the redeployment of the French army and made defeat inevitable.
Thus, at the height of crises – and Covid-19 is an excellent illustration – a disciplined collective approach makes it possible to overcome shocks and create the conditions for resilience more quickly. Several lessons can therefore be drawn today for any future health, industrial or environmental crisis:
- Share a collective vision to inspire people to “weather the storm together”. Each crisis has a lasting impact on systems and habits, as much as it questions the economic and social systems at the root of the crisis. A collective vision, supported by politicians as well as economic actors, must open the door to reform and reappraisal, to design a better future where we collectively anticipate necessary corrections and improvements.
- Create the conditions for collective discipline. In response, clearly-defined roles allow the full potential the collective to come to bear. Individuals, companies and frontline players must each identify which role they can shoulder, to enable the collective to progress and overcome the crisis.
- Valuing individual contributions. There are no small contributions. Everyone has a decisive role to play in enabling collective progress. To make sure to involve everyone, the more concrete, the better: individual contributions come to underpin the broader mobilization.
In the age of social media, anyone can develop a great deal of expertise on cutting-edge subjects, but the circulation of false information is equally facilitated. Withholding information generates distrust, which in turn thwarts collective action. There is therefore no other solution than operating in full transparency. To that end:
- Reduce any asymmetry of information between actors. Subjects are often technical, and pseudo-experts offer ready-made solutions. Educating, explaining, translating and disseminating are paramount: the premise for transparency is ensuring everyone accesses and understands of the same level of information.
- Explain trade-offs. Crisis management is complex and generally does not offer a perfect solution. Transparency entails describing all available options, in all their advantages and disadvantages. Crises are not necessarily conducive to debate, but committing to transparency involves allowing everyone to consider available options and decisions made.
- Share resources. Figures, studies, advice… decisions are reached based on broad consultations. Each comes with inherent biases, interests, self-interested influences, ideological stakeholders. There is no perfect process, no ideal balance. Transparency, however, calls for a sharing of resources to empower everyone to cross-reference raw data with their own understanding of the issues.
- Stay open to contradiction. Since there is no perfect solution, there are bound to be improvements and a wide array of situations to decipher. Transparency invites debate, contradiction, and attentive listening to diverse opinions. Creative and relevant solutions are often driven by contradiction.
4. Public authority
Covid-19 reminds us of an essential principle in managing sustainable development: business cannot do everything. Individual initiatives have their own limits. Such major societal, environmental and health challenges demand public authorities organize, invest and preserve high-risk arenas where private initiative is not as pertinent, all in the service of general interest.
It is a major understatement that, for the last 30 years, experts and professionals have been calling for public investment research and healthcare. In that regard, Covid-19 is particularly indicative of a deficit in public power to fully address lacking investment in:
- Basic research, wherever the private sector was allowed to focus on research with more immediate application opportunities…
- Health, where professionals were left to administer the run of the mill provided the State still injected public funds, leaving the global community woefully under-equipped to absorb crises.
With Covid-19, public authorities will likely be made to face up to their responsibilities. Health, social, environmental or industrial crises will recur. Public authorities have the primary responsibility to protect people and therefore spread knowledge and investment capacity to absorb health, climate or social shocks.
Finally, there is good news: the urgency and scale of the Covid-19 crisis proved States were not too ruined or bent on managing their deficits they could not grasp the urgency of investing in the major societal and environmental issues of the decade. The rapid and wholesale mobilization of funds to fight off the pandemic could shed new light on climate action and environmental management.
5. Navigating conflicting injunctions
The highly-experienced director of the Fukushima site opted to drown at-risk nuclear reactors. Not only did environmentalists sound the alarm on the resulting catastrophic long-term impacts, his managing company accused him of having destroyed the work tool he was paid to protect…
This director has had to manage conflicting injunctions and prioritized short-term solutions. While hindsight is 20/20, this example is illustrative, as will the Covid-19 crisis, of the importance of maintaining, on a daily basis, an attitude of awareness, to best respond to emergencies without mortgaging the future.
Conclusion: 5 pillars for resilience
In discussing the Covid-19 crisis with clients and contacts, we at Ksapa bear witness to a certain lack of perspective, where businesses are tempted to but purpose and other key issues on the back-burner while they weather the storm.
Quite the opposite! Covid-19, like any crisis, also offers an opportunity to question and reform our economic and political systems, to create the conditions for their resilience. The coming decade will seriously shake up our economies, and covid-19 is just one of many events to come.
We hope that drawing lessons from the current health crisis and reflecting on the five principles shared in this article will provide food for thought for all politicians and companies in order to help create more resilient systems.
Author of several books and resources on business, sustainability and responsibility. Working with top decision makers pursuing transformational changes for their organizations, leaders and industries. Working with executives improving resilience and competitiveness of their company and products given their climate and human right business agendas. Connect with Farid Baddache on Twitter at @Fbaddache.