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“We can’t return to normal, because the normal we had was precisely the problem.” Hong Kong graffito. Dr Richard Simmons FRSA asks if we have to bounce back to the way things were before coronavirus or if RSA Fellows can offer alternatives that add up to a leap forward for society

They said it again. At 10 Downing Street’s coronavirus communications lectern on 1 April 2020, UK Business Secretary Alok Sharma reiterated his Prime Minister’s oft-repeated mantra: Britain will bounce back from the pandemic. That is the goal: get back to where we were before it all went haywire. There is good reason to believe this is what the government will want. After the 2007 financial crisis there was an opportunity to reset the system. Banks had caused the recession through their dodgy operation of housing finance. There was every reason to reform. Instead, as Matthew Taylor reminds us, the crisis was wasted. The government shored up the housing industry, bailed out the banks and the system bounced (or, more accurately, staggered) back.

As coronavirus closes down the global economy, civil society, personal relationships and much else that we hold dear, it is natural for politicians to reassure us that everything will soon be back to normal. They don’t want us to worry but there are also many with powerful vested interests in the old ways who will wish it so. Other voices are calling for a better alternative. Instead of rebooting the old operating system they are asking if an upgrade, or even if a completely new system might be available.

Matthew and his team at the RSA have already begun to talk about what this new operating system might look like and, just as importantly, how it might be installed. Unfortunately, it isn’t going to download via the cloud from Cupertino. We will have to write the program ourselves and find ways to get it embedded so it changes the system.

If there was ever a task made for the RSA’s Fellows, this is it

With our diversity of knowledge, talent and great ideas we have two ways to put the update in place. First, help design it through collaboration and exchange of ideas. Second, sell the ideas into policy forums, professions, businesses and political institutions, taking advantage of our wide reach and undoubted influence.

So, what is the reboot about? Not a bounce back but a leap forward. Instead of locking us down in a society that was divided, unequal and under existential threat from the climate emergency, its about liberating talent and new ways of living and working together. It is about rebuilding communities and reshaping governance and the economy. We can waste this crisis, or we can push CTRL-ALT-DEL and build a better society. The challenge and opportunity is for Fellows to help the RSA create the ideas that can make a leap forward possible. Naturally we have to do it virtually for now, but the RSA has great online platforms to enable that. Let me begin with some of the questions in the air at the moment.

1) How can we reimagine work?

With government stepping in to offer direct financial support for wages, is the time ripe to make the case for a guaranteed minimum income? The profound insecurity of the gig economy has been reinforced by the crisis. How can more security be offered to workers?

2) How can we strengthen community?

While selfish acts make the headlines, from street level, through neighbourhoods to the whole NHS, volunteering and looking out for each other are replacing the negative stories. Communal effort often waned rapidly after other crises. How can it become the norm?

3) How can our public services become more resilient?

If it is true that NHS personal protection equipment (PPE) was not stockpiled for accounting reasons, it shows a sad but (from personal experience) not unexpected failure to understand the economics of crisis preparedness. How can we rethink investing for resilience?

4) And related, how can we rethink healthcare?

This crisis began with a failure of public health governance. The response globally is principally through public health measures until a vaccine is made, if that is possible. Yet public health is always the poor relation when it comes to healthcare funding and research. Can we change that paradigm? Can we come up with globally applicable public health solutions, adapted to local cultures but not in ways that risk triggering pandemics?

5) How can we reboot the economy?

The regrettable loss of many businesses is going to leave holes everywhere from local high streets to global supply chains. Smart companies will learn from new ways of working. More home working and video conferencing may mean big changes for commercial property. Just-in-time supply chains have been found wanting. How can we take the positives out of all this? Can we swap our consumerist economic models for something more robust?

Finally, what lessons can be learnt for responding to the climate emergency?

Attempts to link the coronavirus crisis to the climate emergency can feel tenuous. Two things resonate. First, if we can rise to the coronavirus emergency, why not the climate one? The former is acute, the latter chronic. Is that the challenge? If so, how do we meet it? Second, we are experiencing a world where profligate flying is on hold and consumption, air pollution and, one assumes, CO2 emissions are massively reduced. How can that become the future normal?

There are many more challenges and opportunities, not least how we renegotiate the political environment in which change has to occur. The question is, will Fellows engage, put forward their own positive ideas for the future and together kick-start the leap forward? 

If you’ve an idea to share that you want to share with other Fellows, or have a project you want to build or get off the ground in response to coronavirus, then feel free to post it on the RSA Wazoku coronavirus platform.

Alternatively, if you want to offer your expertise or time to help an idea grow, simply browse through the ideas and offer help where possible. 

If you would like to write a piece for consideration on the RSA’s platforms, please email comms@rsa.org.uk


 

Dr Richard Simmons is a Visiting Professor at University College London. He has many years’ experience as a planner and regeneration practitioner in UK local and central government.

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