Earlier this year, many parts of the world experienced a great pause. Soon after the initial shock, we moved on to metaphors like reboot (for example, rebooting our economies or our societies) and reset. For a PC user, this sounds all too familiar. Remember the old mantra? Retry, reboot, reinstall. The problem with these metaphors is twofold: they are static and are only about reinstating the status quo ante. Our systems just halt for a moment, followed by a quick reboot or reset, and then everything returns to the old normal.
But what if that’s not enough? Even people who rely on the reset metaphor try hard to make this point: there’s no way back to the old normal. WEF founder Klaus Schwab and the Monthly Barometer‘s Thierry Malleret came up with a book (COVID-19: The Great Reset) this summer, stating the following:
“A new world will emerge, the contours of which are for us to both imagine and to draw. […] Many of us are pondering when things will return to normal. The short response is: never.”
The first step: understanding
That’s why the world needs more than just a pause, a reboot, or a reset – we need a redesign.
And that’s why we at NEXT came up with a book called “The Great Redesign”, which will be in stores starting next week. Because the first thing we need is a conceptual framework we can bank on. The book tries to deliver frameworks for the future, as the subtitle declares. Since we can no longer trust the old frameworks, the goal is to sketch new ones. This, though, doesn’t mean that we can throw everything in the garbage can and start with a clean slate.
Quite the contrary: we must learn from the past, discern what’s still valid and, perhaps most importantly, decide about our goals (besides surviving the pandemic, which is most people’s first goal). These frameworks help us understand the situation, the systems we interact with and the options we have.
It’s about principles, which always come first, as a matter of principle. The German priest Bernhard Lichtenberg once said:
“The actions of a person are the consequences of his principles. If the principles are wrong, the actions will not be right.”
Every crisis forces us to rethink our principles, since a crisis is a strong indicator of a situation or a system that is no longer sustainable. Every business needs to worry about sustainability, primarily in the business sense. But in a broader sense, businesses must worry about unsustainable situations or systems around them, as the impact is potentially devastating.
The pandemic is only one, albeit prominent, example. There’s another quote, most likely misattributed to Albert Einstein:
“The thinking that got us to where we are is not the thinking that will get us to where we want to be.”
The second step: planning
We need to understand the current situation as well as the strengths and weaknesses of our systems from a principled point of view. This is the prerequisite for the second step: planning the desired outcome. Fortunately, we already can build on solid ground such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals. There are 17 of them, which makes the list difficult to digest. But this also prevents optimising for a single goal, be it shareholder value (as in neoliberalism) or climate change, at the cost of all the other goals.
No single goal can be worth sacrificing all the others. If the Green New Deal, for example, is accurately named, it must be just that – a deal. And that means commercial by nature, an exchange of money and services or goods, a quid quo pro, a compromise in the best sense of the word, a win-win. And we probably need more than one deal, since I doubt any single deal can reconcile 17 distinct goals (defined in a list of 169 targets). The fine folks at Our World in Data are indeed already tracking our progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.
However, implementing those fine goals is still a deeply political process. As David Mattin reminds us,
“we need new and compelling narratives of our future, based on ethical visions of what human beings are and how they should live together.”
Inevitably, there are tradeoffs to be made, and we must articulate specific, tangible visions. A good example is what Ramez Naam does for the future of solar energy. As it happens, solar can turn into a great success story for technological innovation that will help us not only with decarbonising electricity, but also lowering costs for consumers and businesses. This story will play out in an exponential fashion, through the learning curve — if it really happens. That is, as always with innovation, not a given.
The third step: acting
With these two steps – a proper understanding of the situation and planning towards our common goals – we are ready for the third act: acting. That’s, to quote Rafael Kaufmann, “conceptually easy”.
“However, it is practically hard, because it is practical – it requires action, not just theory.”
Action is always the hard part, as every software developer can tell from his daily experience. When the heavy thought work is done, someone has to implement it. Implementation inevitably produces new insights, a better understanding (step 1), and changes to the plan (step 2). The Great Redesign is not a one-time effort, it is a process that requires constant readjustments. The learning curve also applies to the Great Redesign. We need to design our futures.
Let’s go back to the drawing board. Let’s understand, plan, and act.