What’s disrupting our short-term behaviour, and will it last?

It’s been a week of promise from British and American politicians to move away from ‘firebrand campaigning’ to governing.  I am still acutely aware of how counter-cultural it is for governments to behave with more foresight than simply tacking from point to point.  This tendency towards short-termism is not just about our politicians, it’s across the way we all consume.  Disconnected from the wider impacts.  Accruing benefits privately, competitively, fast.  Even though we might be appearing to be more local and social in recent months, it remains pervasive.

Yet there are opportunities in the disruptions we’ve experienced.   If we choose to recognise and work with them, what might happen? What would it take to see a shift towards longer-term behaviour? Why might we want this?

Sitting alongside the multitude of collective kindness unleashed, this crisis has also exposed many weaknesses in our socio-economic systems.   It’s exposed how unusual it is for maternal mental health to be prioritised, as (yet-remaining) children’s centres still haven’t re-opened.  It’s shown how capital investment remains allocated on an outdated view of returns, as digital infrastructure in community health systems creaks at the seams.  It’s surprised us that our consumption is divorced from environmental impacts, as ever more of everything now comes direct to our doors.

The initial collective experience of working towards a common purpose has morphed into binary and contentious debates about whose facts we trust and who is more important.  This type of leadership is of an age that reduces problems to ones that can be consumed quickly.  The era that we are entering, which the pandemic has exemplified, is one where collective, foundation-building, ‘seizing on tipping points’, alliance-creating, types of behaviours are essential to tackle the interconnectedness of issues.

Fast is not wrong.  By acting fast, we got our fellow citizens off the streets and into (short-term) homes.  We got our easy-use tech to our elders in their homes, to keep them connected to loved ones and carers. But these disruptions to our views about ‘what is possible’ and ‘what is important’ risk being lost as we seek out ‘normal’.

What instead if we notice the disruption in the relationships that have formed to make these ‘episodes’ possible, and we spend even more time re-purposing towards longer-term aims?  What if we notice that the assumptions underpinning how we deploy our various resources have changed, and imagine, together, the possibilities if these continue?  What if we recognise whose voices have been amplified to do good, and stop being scared of how much better it would be if this builds?

Those individuals, communities and societies that have already experienced pandemics or war or wildfires teach us two things.  Firstly to take care of yourselves and each other as if you are in this for the long haul.  Secondly, to look at history and learn from our collective experiences.

This pandemic has exposed the weaknesses in point to point tactics.  That opaquely and gradually erode the power of communities whilst playing to our love of consumption. We have a liminal now for a more creative and collaborative socio-economic future to emerge.  We have to notice, understand and connect with each other over the opportunities this disruption presents.

With thanks to Charles Leadbeater, Jennie Winhall, and Helene Bie Lilleor for inspiration and learning via the Rockwool Foundation last week.

Liminal Space, Bill Hertha