I have spent the weekend, among other things, reading a remarkable set of 12 essays from Dan Hill, currently working in Stockholm for Vinnova, the Swedish Government innovation agency.
I’ve known Dan for some time since we met in Sydney while he was at Arup and we discovered a mutual friend in Richard Allan (Lord Allan to his friends), for whose campaign as the Lib Dem member for Sheffield Hallam Dan’s parents were campaign managers. I think we’ll put that one down to a universe overdosing on serendipity with a sense of humour.
Dan’s career has included stints with Sitra in Finland and back with Arup in the UK and with Future Cities Catapult before his current role in Sweden and as a visiting professor at the Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose at UCL.
Called the Slowdown Papers, you can find them here
This is the opening line of the first essay:
The impact of this virus is pitched somewhere between the common cold and the end of capitalism, and no one knows exactly where
This is the reason Dan wrote the essays:
I’m publishing these ‘papers’ in order to share ways of seeing, ways of thinking. But I’m also writing in order to not forget, forcing the deceptively simple act of putting one word in front of another as a way of figuring out what to look for in the blazing environment around us.
Solutions and plans aren’t the point right now, Dan argues.
This is not a time for conclusions, though. I refuse to offer up strategies, or ideas here. It is not the time or the place: people are dying and I’m not a doctor. The situation is too complex to carelessly stumble into. It would be like hurling a PDF at a hurricane.
Fair enough, although that clearly belies the experience of so many PDF-hurling hurricane tamers.
What follows are 12 late night meditations on what on earth, when it comes to Covid and after Covid, is going on.
It will take you a little bit of time to work through the full set. But they are well worth the trouble. They are redolent with Dan’s characteristic mix of erudition, curiosity, clarity and regularly well-landed punch. They make you think, they make you worry, they make you hope.
I won’t attempt a collation of the many insights and ideas from the essays. To be honest, I’m still thinking about them, which presumably is the point.
Here’s one observation, for example.
In essay 10 – Another Green World” – Dan suggests that:
“Post-virus, we don’t have to fall back into the 20th century mode: Nine–to–Five workdays, five days per week, commuting to office spaces in city centres, difficulties for working parents, low productivity, deaths of high streets…”,
There is, or could be, a post-Covid alternative, reaching back to many of Dan’s intersecting interests in cities, design, architecture, technology, policy and institutions:
“Instead, we slowly move out of corona curves continuing some of these patterns: working from home one to two days per week; perhaps even four-day weeks; more diversified work days; remote working; local co-working spaces; mixed-use neighbourhoods, diversified learning..”
It’s an alluring prospect but, like all “from/to” analyses, risks smudging complexity and contentious issues of feasibility and real-life transition in the search for concision and impact.
The leitmotif through the 12 essays is an extended wondering how we flatten the curves after we flatten the curve, how Covid’s disruption and dramatic revelation of what is possible and how, under extreme conditions, what is possible has turned out to be remarkably rapid and simple to achieve, prefigures the real issue, which is a new approach to governance, work and how we live driven by the need to finally and properly address climate change.
In his words:
“Crucially, the virus is intrinsic to the same patterns of activity that create the climate crisis, and its attendant crises of chronic health and inequalities. In essence, the virus is an articulation of the climate crisis just as the bushfires are.”
All of the essays touch on some dimension of this pondering. Can our Covid response, and the many dividends we may end up reaping in policy, funding, governance, and institutional, individual and collective behaviour, set us on a more rapid trajectory towards, finally, a new accommodation for human life between, as he puts it, the stars and the earth?
I have three questions that frame my response to much Dan’s wonderful analysis:
How deep is the Covid impact? Will the dividend be deep or ephemeral?
So much has changed so quickly and so dramatically under the fierce pressure of this emergency that it’s hard to know whether these things will stick when it’s over.
There’s an underlying optimism, I think, in Dan’s analysis that many of these remarkable, rapid transitions – totally new rules about the role and reach of the state, how much we can spend on keeping jobs and health systems afloat, whether we can run entire work and learning systems on line (Zoom and Microsoft Teams are the new public infrastructure apparently) pretty much at the drop of a virus – will become foundations for lasting transformation.
I’m not sure.
People are very afraid and uncertain at the moment. It’s pretty normal when you are afraid to claim undying allegiance to whatever the arrangements were that made you feel less afraid and uncertain. Just watch Boris Johnston’s astonishing love song to the NHS a day after he left hospital where he came close to death. Of course you’d vote for lots more of whatever kept you alive. I would.
The good thing about this question is that it is entirely empirical. We don’t need too much political theory or institutional analysis. We just need to wait and watch and we’ll soon discover the extent to which emergency has been the catalyst for a new normal on some other, hopefully better trajectory.
The transitions we’re talking about in terms of the role and size of government, the trade offs between privacy and resilience, the shift to mobile and flexible working and the shift to massive online learning and work systems are difficult and will be much more contentious than the current circumstances suggest.
Is it premature to assume these changes are done and dusted and that we’re already on the new path? That’s not what Dan is arguing, by the way. Far from it. But it’s worth thinking about. Won’t there be voices at some stage of protest and resistance, not only from predictable interests vested in the pre-Covid status quo but others who actually don’t like and wouldn’t vote for some of the changes that they’ve been happy to put up with whilever the life-and-death calculations were so, well, life and death.
And we know how tough it is for institutions, which such big pieces of the puzzle. Their behaviour and calculations about their own interests will have to undergo huge shifts, so critical to long term movement in these patterns of our social, economic and cultural lives, to actually change shape and stay changed.
Institutions are designed not to change. Or, perhaps more accurately, designed to accommodate shifting conditions without changing fundamentally. Bend and adjust, for sure, but not break and start again.
What are the right methods and frameworks to use to apply to the ambitions for a Covid Dividence-driven jump to the kinds of more hopeful trajectories that many of Dan’s essays depict so that their costs, benefits and impacts can be subject to an appropriate level of rigorous analysis and contest?
How will we know whether different is better and what better should deliver?
And is it helpful, in the midst of a time infused with the instability of new and volatile cocktails of hope and fear, to vote for a whole new future way of, well, pretty much everything, without somehow holding that process to proper account?
The pressure to vote for whatever it is we perceive saved us from disaster once disaster is averted will be powerful. I like many of the shifts and transitions I am witnessing. They feel right to me.
But how do we test them with something more rigorous that that?
I’m even wondering whether asking the question isn’t itself, in the midst of the crisis, heretical?
There are two ambitions animating Dan’s essays.
One is to make sure that, for the moment, we write to our individual and collective memories about what we are seeing and feeling. And that doesn’t mean we all have to stay up late and bash out 12 great pieces of actual writing:)
It means let’s invest some time, and some slow time, to look, listen and learning before the attempt to lead. It’s good advice.
The other, though, is an ambition that “bouncing back” really isn’t an option, if only because, as the essays set, business as usual is part of the reason we’re in this quandary at all, not just the virus or the larger frame of the climate emergency but of their interdependence.
Dan is unequivocal:
“Our goal must be a better life than before the virus, not snapping back to saving a business-as-usual that has proved increasingly costly, in every sense”
A better life seems like a decent enough goal.
Now all we have to do is work out whether we can get there from here, and how.