Bridges to the future is about how change happens - RSA

Bridges to the future is about how change happens

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Today we unveil the first in a pop-up podcast series exploring the prospects for change in a post-COVID-19 world.

The first three episodes of Bridges to the Future feature:

  • Geoff Mulgan from UCL, who talks about why some nations are doing better than others in tackling the crisis and what this might tall us about the kind of government we need in the future Listen now
  • Torsten Bell from the Resolution Foundation, who offers insight into how fiscal policy and living standards may be impacted 
  • journalist Isabel Hilton, who brings great authority to the question of how the virus may influence China and its place in the world.

We’re also delighted to have lined up future guests:

  • business leader James Timpson
  • psycho-biologist Daisy Fancourt
  • Labour MP Rachel Reeves (who many expect to be taking a very prominent role in the new Party hierarchy). 

In my last post, I suggested that three conditions need to be in place for a crisis to affect long term change:

  • There needs to be an underlying need and support for things to be different.
  • The crisis must reinforce that latent case for change.
  • Finally, there needs to be an effective political alliance and policy agenda to turn the potential into reality.

Learning from past moment of crisis

No two crises are the same, but if we compare the AIDS epidemic with the 2008 financial meltdown we can see the importance of each factor and how it is far from certain that they will align.  

In the former case, an existing gay rights movement plus a wider social liberalism provided the background potential.

The scale of the crisis forced the most impacted communities and public health authorities to make a choice, hide away and cover up or demand action and fight stigma and ignorance. Eventually, they firmly chose the latter.

Finally, the crisis pointed to two clear and achievable sets of changes:

  • improvements in care and treatment (leading ultimately to the effective cure of the disease as a chronic condition)
  • removal of legal barriers to LGBT equality.   

The financial crisis was very different.

First, the momentum for change in either the way markets worked or their outcomes was weaker and more contested.

Second, people derived different messages from the crisis itself. For some it was all about the behaviour of rogue bankers, for some it showed the negligence and irresponsibility of governments while for others it revealed the inherent failings of globalised finance.

Whilst these arguments aren’t totally incompatible, they tend to lead to quite different policy prescriptions. 

Finally, the prospects of turning the crisis into an agenda for lasting change was hamstrung not only by a lack of consensus and the tensions between short term imperatives and long-term shifts, but by the failure of reformers to create alliances or develop popular reform programmes.

The left split between the radicalism of Occupy and the unsuccessful attempts of incumbent social democrat leaders to adapt and renew.  The beneficiaries of the crisis were not progressives but nationalist populists.

Understanding the current crisis

Turning to today’s crisis views of change can be put in a two by two matrix, with each of the four positions being regularly articulated.

Position one is that nothing much needs to change and nothing much should (beyond direct responses to the pandemic and possibly preparations for future viruses). Broadly this is the default of governments. For most leaders ‘getting back to normal’ is the achievable mission. 

Position two is the most fatalistic; things should change but they won’t. Those in this camp - who tend to be on the left – are alert to the way inequalities in power and wealth are playing out in the crisis.

Position three, which is probably strongest in business and on the mainstream right, is that things might change but they probably shouldn’t. Here there is concern that the temporary expansion of the state will become permanent or that too severe and long term a lock down will severely blunt the scope and reach of commercial entrepreneurialism.

Position four that change needs to happen and that with the right politics and policy it can, was famously articulated by Democrat grandee Rahm Emanuel when he argued back in 2008 that a we should 'never let a good crisis go to waste'.

Although the RSA has clearly nailed its colours to the fourth mast, I’ll be encouraging our colleagues and collaborators not only to take seriously the other positions but to derive insights from them too. Without a great deal of continuity, it’s not change that happens but breakdown. It is right that Government’s primary focus is on restoring stability.

Action leads to hope

Where vested interests are at stake the push back against reform will be concerted. The public isn’t going to suddenly develop progressive instincts where they didn’t exist before.

Not all the changes that might be made more likely by the crisis are good ones; think for example of the way the likes of Orban and Putin are already advancing their authoritarian agendas.

Ultimately the choice of each position - including ‘should change, can change’ - reflects people’s sentiments and interests as much as any calm intellectual assessment.

Recognising this doesn’t mean we should become neutral or passive. Once again, I am reminded of my favourite maxim: ‘it’s not so much hope that leads to action as action that leads to hope’.

The ‘Bridges to the future’ podcast will look at many specific issues but as we gather more voices and feedback perhaps the biggest subject will be change itself.

Listen and subscribe to the RSA's Bridges to the Future podcast

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  • I've been trying to find a way over recent weeks to articulate my own thoughts on this: we know that bad things will happen because of COVID-19; it is our duty to ensure that some good comes of it as well.

    This is a great pithy one-liner, tho, so I'll work it into my chat now: "never let a good crisis go to waste".