26 October 2020

Reviewing what we have learned on solitude and family: In preparation for action on social connection as we approach the Winter

Chair: Mr Emerson Csorba

As part of the Ditchley Autumn programme, we have been reviewing core ideas that emerged in the initial stages of the pandemic response. Solitude, aloneness, loneliness and experiences of families were all part of our April sessions with each informing our understanding of human connection. 

In this session a Transatlantic group reviewed these themes.

The following points were made: 

Less time to think. Many of us have been busier than ever, but there has been less time spent brainstorming and in open conversation. Remote working can become ‘task orientated’: the busyness and sense of being useful in completing long lists of tasks can detract from thinking and planning. Self-help articles, focused on helping people get through the Winter, highlight the importance of having 'lists of things to do,' but that does not translate to meaning or purpose. There is a need then to find ways to promote quality thinking rather than just busyness; many organisations are looking for solutions. 

Leadership and vision from civil society. In the pandemic so far there has been a yearning for some sorts of change but there has not been much vision or discussion about what kind of society we want to have. This was not a surprise to many since so little of what leaders talked about over the decade prior to the crisis actually led to concrete action, for example on finding ways to reduce social inequality. The more talk there was, the less doing in practice, seems to have been the case in hindsight. If anything, though, genuine inspiration is now emerging intermittently from civil society: most recently through the footballer Marcus Rashford in his campaign to see the government provide free school meals for poorer families 

Willpower for big ideas and service. We need to ask whether people have the willpower at the moment for big ideas; it might be that inspiration comes in bursts. There was a sense that citizens might benefit from national projects focused on care, taking small actions to help each other, but some of this hope for national solutions in the UK took a hit from the faltering use of the 750,000 volunteers who registered for the NHS Volunteer scheme to undertake local community based work. Still, the appeal for a citizen’s commitment, or obligation even, to serve others remains powerful. 

Lack of family safety nets. We are getting deeper into a social crisis for which the safety net of extended family – literal and metaphorical – is missing: Increased consumption of alcohol (many are admitting to); domestic violence; self-identified mental stresses, etc. are building.  There is a longing to find new ways of connection. At the same time, loneliness can push others away and so special effort will be needed to lift individuals out of these states.  

A search for deeper forms of connection. We are entering what was referred to as an “unending grey zone” one of fatigue in part because there is no end in sight. Many of us did not anticipate at the start of the pandemic just how long it might go on. The novelty of Zoom dinners and other virtual forms of connection is wearing off and people are beginning to look for deeper forms of connection. It is also not enough anymore to just encourage self-care; the self-care industry and appeals to “look after yourself” ring hollow. There is value in being reminded of the need for solitude, but now there is pent up demand for a period for connection, in whatever meaningful ways possible. A search for friendship was highlighted.

Different level of connection. We may be entering a period then where connection at different levels is also necessary, with variation between small and large forms of connection. People will benefit from connecting in small ways with each other – ideally in person but online if need be – with periods of scaling up into larger groups (and then back down). No one could point to organisations that have learned how to do this properly. There is a definite interest in this concept of movement between small and large forms of connection. 

Participants: Diana Fox Carney, a public policy expert with a strong focus on energy and climate change, and recent Executive Director at Pi Capital; Emerson Csorba, Chief of Staff, The Ditchley Foundation; Liz Greenhalgh, Impact Lead, The Ditchley Foundation; Linda Griffin, established and heads public policy at King, one of the world’s leading mobile game developers, and Co-founder of the European Tech Alliance (EUTA); Ito Peng, Canada Research Chair in Global Social Policy at the University of Toronto; John Stackhouse, Senior Vice President, Office of the CEO at the Royal Bank of Canada. 

The text is a summary of the discussion. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.