Train to the Future, Platform 19

By James Arroyo, OBE

Wars and pandemics are the locomotives of history. But where that train goes depends on how the track is laid – in the same direction but faster, to a new place, or over a cliff.

As many are commenting, the coronavirus crisis is accelerating our route to the future but that future is still open to be shaped and, as well as many tragedies and challenges ahead, there are also great opportunities to reimagine ourselves and our societies. Even as we grieve for people and certainties we lose, we have to reflect on how to value their legacy through thoughtful change. Ditchley aims to help in this process, building a programme that meaningfully connects thoughtful people across divides on the personal impact of the crisis; on the effect on systems; and on the impact on politics and relationships between states.

The impact on the individual and the community

Our culture had largely succeeded in banishing the thought of death from everyday life. Death was either the natural end of a long life in the popular myth, or a rare tragedy, an accident or a terrorist attack. Now death and stories of loss are back in the news every day. At the same time, actual death, seeing someone die, is more distant and necessarily medicalised than ever. On the one hand there is a sudden realisation that many elderly people are lonely and there has been a rush of kindness to provide contact and solace in lockdown. On the other hand, the shielding of the elderly to protect them has something in common with the care home, a solution for old age that removes the burden of caring from families. At the end of this crisis are we going to allow the elderly to slip back into invisibility in our consciousness? Will we be able to rethink how people die and the interventions we make and those we don’t? Can we sustain the care that communities have shown to people who need help?

Alongside stories of stockpiling and selfishness, this crisis has been a triumph of family and community. It took separation for us to recognise our interrelationships with our neighbours and that has become a source of strength. How can we build on these new relationships? Can greater community cohesion turn into greater decentralisation of power? Having necessarily led a centralised response to the crisis, will central government be willing to let go sufficiently to allow local initiative and innovation to rise? At the end should we cheer for No 10 but vote for real power for the parish council? What is the right level for the government of everyday local life to take place? 

Another realisation of the crisis is that the people we rely on the most – key workers as we now say – are generally poorly paid and overlooked. We always admired people in the health system (although that did not necessarily translate in money) but the label of key worker has given a new and deserved dignity to the roles at the supermarket checkout, the delivery van and the warehouse.  Are we going to take back that dignity when this is done? More broadly how does our thinking about talent and reward need to change? Are the qualities that are good in a crisis – a calm head, resourcefulness, resilience and kindness – different from those in everyday economic life? How does that change if we should expect more crises?

The impact on systems

Science is leading the response to the coronavirus crisis but we are discovering that epidemiology is more economics than maths. There are lots of unknowns and probabilities rather than certainties. Government scientists were initially welcomed as heroes, now they are seen by some as human shields for politicians. Nonetheless, all but the most religiously fervent, are looking to science for the answers, for the treatments and for the vaccine. In February, Ditchley held its second gathering of pioneers in the field of computational biology, the combination of biological research and AI with the ultimate ambition to automate scientific discovery. The opening questions were “what would be the impact on the field if computational biology could develop a cure for Covid-19?” and “what would be the impact if a virus like Covid-19 resulted from computational biology?” Our power over biology is growing through innovations like the gene editing technique CRISPR-Cas 9 but so are our risks. We are already deep into uncharted waters in our ability to manipulate nature with global consequences but without global governance. Do we double down on fast progress in science or be more cautious? How do we strike the right balance between scientific determinism and political responsibility?

Imagine this crisis without the Internet – no home working; no home schooling; vastly slower scientific collaboration. There has been fake news and trolling but social media no longer seems such a bad idea. Our transformation into a global digital community has accelerated. Cyber security is now essential and yet as difficult as ever. We have realised some of the potential of the access to ideas and information from our homes. Are we going to want to return to the daily commute? Is the big corporate headquarters still going to be a killer competitive advantage and sign of success?

What is going to be the impact on the economy and on inequality and economic insecurity?  Governments are going to be significantly more indebted. Conventional economics says that is a problem that must come home to roost but is that true any more? How are governments going to take away the extensive support they have offered to individuals and businesses? How can we turn the habits learnt in the crisis into lasting increases in innovation and productivity? The response to the crisis has seen a huge expansion of the reach of states into the economy. How, and should, this trend be reversed? Automation and integration of AI is surely going to accelerate. How are we going to accelerate learning across all ages in adaptation?

On health in particular we are going to have tough choices. Where should the money go? To more hospitals and intensive care units or to improving general public health? If we want everything, then how will we pay for it as government budgets are overwhelmed by support for the unemployed? 

The impact on states and world order

Multilateralism has so far had a truly woeful crisis. American and indeed Chinese international leadership have been noticeable only by their absence. The European Union has failed to develop a coordinated response. The UK like other states has looked firmly inwards. This wasn’t inevitable and a better outcome did not depend on world peace and a harmonious Security Council. There could have been a coordinated approach to orders for equipment. There could have been more orchestration of messages and actions. The damage stems not so much from the failure of systems but from the weakening of collective instincts. A crisis characterised by the need for collective action across nations across the world has been met by a purely national response. How can we regain a collective spirit?

One scenario is for the acceleration of the rise of the East and of a boost to authoritarian government. The Chinese narrative is that only the Party could lead such decisive and agile action, bringing the world’s second largest economy and all social movement across 1.4 billion people to a halt in a few days and then restarting it again with discipline and control through effective social surveillance measures. 

One reasonable worst-case fear is that the fullest impact of the crisis will be felt in the most deprived and fragile areas of the world. Hundreds of millions of people living on a knife edge of economic insecurity have been thrown out of work from garment factories and similar across the developing world. Young populations will get younger still in countries without intensive care units or ventilators and with political results. Eradication of poverty and development of economies will surely be set back as economic globalisation retreats. Faced with hopelessness at home, people in those regions will begin to march towards potential economic opportunity only to be met with border fences, tear gas and populations in developed countries fearful of an influx of migrants that could overwhelm already weakened states and bring new contagion. 

We need to work out our own narrative for the renewal of democracies as we emerge from lockdown. A commitment to freedom and the rights and privacy of the individual has to be at the heart of that story. If we are to afford the future, then that freedom has to extend to markets to a reasonable degree. We will need to make it easier than ever before to take an idea and turn it into a company. We will need to make it easier than ever before, building on what we learnt in the crisis, for a person to take themselves and turn themselves into someone new with refreshed skills and knowledge. Perhaps in tension with this, we will need to nurture and sustain the new communities we have built and we should keep our richer appreciation of who matters. If we are not to slip into decline then we have to treat this as a new beginning, a new chapter in the story. Ditchley’s aim is to help to connect people, creating space for reflection, so that we can get the shaping of ideas on the page. That’s the only way we can move forward, balancing freedom and order, and in peace.