Wasafiri’s Managing Director Dr Kate Simpson suggests that we are surrounded by windows of opportunity. But she also challenges us, suggesting that the changes these create will depend on who spots them, in whose service they are used, and what ideas and coalitions are lying around ready to make use of them. As you look at your own organisation or your own community – what windows of opportunity do you see in this moment? Are you ready for them?
Don’t be mistaken; a shock is not the same as systems change
What we are experiencing right now is not system change; it is a shock to the system. Shocks create windows of opportunity for bigger, longer, system level change – but only if we are smart at spotting them, fast to grab them and skillful in using them. But what sort of change ends up bring created depends on who does the spotting, who moves fastest and what ideas are ‘lying around’ ready to go.
In the midst of a shock it is easy to confuse the disruption for the change. Take for example ‘working from home’. In early March the idea that a vast population of the UK – from teleworkers, to actors, to bankers, social workers, teachers and so on would be ‘working from home’ seemed laughable. By mid-March all those that could, were doing so. By April we all knew about Zoom fatigue, and in May the announcements of long-term remote working were coming thick and fast. All this can look and feel like change. But poke beneath the surface, start looking at who and what this ‘change’ is serving – and you’ll find predominantly the same system as before…. a system mostly concerned with worker productivity and cost efficiency.
Much of the traditional resistance to working from home came from fears about productivity loss – could people be trusted to actually do their jobs? Some anecdotal evidence from the current mass experiments seems to indicate that productivity has been largely unaffected – and potentially increased (which given that many people are working with the addition of children off school is pretty amazing). So if working in offices is not the key to productivity then we might well ask what is their function? Especially given the fact for many organisations office space is one of their biggest costs.
We are surrounded by new windows of opportunity.
If we take a different perspective, the current working-from-home experiments could offer a window of opportunity for systemic change… but only if this ‘solution’ is in pursuit of different outcomes. For example, outcomes that enhance wellbeing – whereby some time working from home enables people to have more time with family and community – and spend less time commuting or indeed working. Or outcomes that increase access to more jobs for different populations – say those with caring responsibilities or those living with disabilities that make it hard to commute to an office every day. Or perhaps in the UK, this era may help break down our obstinate north-south divide and create a greater spread of opportunities and wealth.
But these sort of outcomes are only possible if employers are willing to ask their people what change they want rather, than simply resort to imposing ‘solutions’ to the same old issues of cost control.
But how do you translate a crisis into systemic change?
In 2008 we had a near-global crisis in the forms of the banking collapse – yet after this crisis things mostly went back to the way they were before. Will things be different this time?
Mathew Taylor, Chief Executive of UK’s Royal Society of the Arts (RSA), suggests there are three conditions that determine if a shock (or crisis) will translate into change:
- before the crisis, there is an existing, latent demand for change
- during the crisis, this demand is strengthened and there are ‘glimpses’ of what the future could look like
- after the crisis, the policy ideas, social innovations, political alliances are ready and able to offer a way forward
Taylor is optimistic that this time things will be different to 2008 and the banking crisis, that this crisis comes on top of a deep demand for change, particularly around inequality. He feels that with initiatives like the furlough scheme (which is in effect Universal Basic Income) in the UK we are seeing glimpses of the future; and that we have in the right ideas lying around to build a better what next?.
Not all windows of opportunity bode well for the planet
I too am optimistic, at least about the possibilities for change. However change will not be uncontested. The windows of opportunity are not one way. For example, there are new opportunities to build a greener economy. We could use government support to demand lower carbon energy production and consumption, or infrastructure investment to stimulate green jobs (for instance by retro fitting houses for better energy efficiency, or building out our pedestrian and cycle infrastructure). But equally there is a window of opportunity to push for lower environmental regulation and the promise of faster economic growth. Or for public transport use to contract as people prefer the health security of their cars.
There are windows of opportunity to fundamentally shift how we work and reconfigure how work fits into our broader lives and well-being. For example more flexible locations for work, enabling job growth outside main cities, or enabling individuals to reclaim commuting hours or better combine work with caring responsibilities. But there are also counter-incentives to push people away from the public shared space of work and for organisations to ‘externalise’ the cost of office space back onto employees, which will in turn accelerate the digital divide.
Or there is a window of opportunity to enhance global collaboration – and our ability to respond to the transnational challenges of pandemics and climate change. But equally there is a window of opportunity to double down on nationalism – to blame others and to seek greater isolation for those who can afford it.
Are you ready?
Right now we are surrounded by windows of opportunity. What changes these create will depend on who spots them, in whose service they seek to use them, and what ideas and coalitions are lying around ready to make use of them. As you look at your own organisation or your own community – what windows of opportunity do you see in this moment? Are you ready for them?
 This idea courtesy of Milton Freidman via Naomi Klein
 The data on this at the moment is quite patchy but does indicate that an it is not fair to assume offices attendance and productivity are directly correlated