The COVID-19 pandemic has surfaced political heroes of all sorts. Amongst the leaders who are beginning to recognise the crisis is a major turning point in human evolution, a few stand out, including President Emmanuel Macron of France, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, and the city of Amsterdam. More should follow their examples in elaborating and modelling the fundamental changes that will be needed if we are to thrive in the coming decades.
The Renaissance defined a new era, perhaps not by coincidence, propelled by the devastation of plagues in earlier decades. One of the most significant aspects of this period in history was break in the orthodoxy of the church as humans moved into the role of creators of their own futures.
Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the 15th century was followed by the great scientific works of Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Durer among many others who opened the floodgates to human innovation and creativity. A great deal of the innovation was driven by inventors, scientists, artists, and artisans, not the established political or religious orders of the day. That is why, when we hear from political leaders, we should pay attention, for they have the influence to shift entire systems in ways that individuals do not.
The pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of our social and political systems. Responding to it demands significant, if not fundamental, change.
But, perhaps of greater importance, although seemingly less urgent at the moment, is the fundamental transformation of human systems that will be necessary to respond to the climate-related disaster that is besetting us.
Citing the projected loss of more than 1 million species over the coming decades, the UN IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services states: “Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably — this is also key to meeting most other global goals. By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”
In other words, if the pandemic doesn’t get us climate change will, unless we make fundamental changes that shift our interactions with each other and our physical environment into regenerative patterns of behavior across our economies, environmental, and social systems.
As in the Renaissance, we can expect innovation forged by inventors, entrepreneurs, scientists, and artists as they see opportunities and pursue imperatives that cannot be ignored. But these innovators need the investment and enabling regulatory environments to thrive. In this context, when we see political leadership that begins to elaborate, or seeks ways of providing, the enabling environment for such change, it should be highlighted, debated, and celebrated.
In her book, Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth provides the critical framing of the axes of change necessary to move into this new world. In an innovative multi-stakeholder partnership including several city agencies, Amsterdam is pursuing its development through the Doughnut lens. The 37 organisations that currently comprise the Amsterdam Donut Coalition, are undertaking an effort to redefine Amsterdam across a full range of human and environmental indicators.
Expect to see much more of this kind of activity at the municipal level as cities bear the brunt of COVID-19 and climate change in its heels. Cities are likely to become a hotspot of this kind of activity and tying together the experiences, metrics, and politics is a job that will pay dividends to the world at large as national leaders catch up.
National leaders cannot get too far ahead of their constituencies. Yet those who simply follow as a method of leadership are likely to be ineffective. Thus, watching the actions and words of national leaders is a perhaps less satisfying, but nonetheless significant, indicator of the will to change and adapt to the new reality. The recognition of problems and solutions that national leaders can exert can have systemic impact.
In this context, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government has been a leader. In explaining a recent decision for the prime minister and cabinet officers to take a 20 percent pay cut for six months to show solidarity for the many New Zealanders out of work and suffering from the pandemic, Ardern said: “If there was ever a time to close the gap between groups of people across New Zealand in different positions, it is now. I am responsible for the executive branch and this is where we can take action … it is about showing solidarity in New Zealand’s time of need.” (Guardian UK 15 April 2020, Jacinda Ardern and ministers take pay cut in solidarity with those hit by Covid-19). Calling for unity, and then backing it up with action that is visible and tangible, is leadership.
Ardern’s government has not only led in the crisis, it has been one of the few globalised economies that is searching for new ways to integrate future opportunities and challenges in its own policy as well as in its foreign policy. A leader in launching the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), New Zealand is also leading in new trade agreements that incorporate climate change and digital trade, which will be essential for innovation and inclusion.
While some may argue that these agreements do not support regenerative business practices, in the long run innovation in international governance will be needed if we are to ensure that the benefits of innovation are shared globally. Doing so is not simply a matter of sharing, the major issues that we face all involve global commons and cross-border challenges that cannot be solved by individual countries. In this respect, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.
French President Emmanuel Macron is speaking like no other national leader. Often derided by the French public for perceived preference for the wealthy at the expense of the working class Macron’s statements are nonetheless dramatic in their recognition of the challenges faced broadly by society and the kinds of inclusive remedies that must be explored.
In an interview with the Financial Times (FT) (translated from French by the FT) Macron “sees the crisis as an existential event for humanity that will change the nature of globalisation and the structure of international capitalism.” “‘We all face the profound need to invent something new’”, he says.
According to the FT, Macron “says he hopes the trauma of the pandemic will bring countries together in multilateral action to help the weakest through the crisis. And he wants to use a cataclysm that has prompted governments to prioritise human lives over economic growth as an opening to tackle environmental disasters and social inequalities that he says were already threatening the stability of the world order.”
Sanguine about much of the developments of globalisation over the past 40 years, Macron concludes that it was also “clear that this kind of globalisation was reaching the end of its cycle, it was undermining democracy.” Continuing, he said “there is a realisation that if people could do the unthinkable to their economies to slow the pandemic, they could do the same to arrest catastrophic climate change.”
While it remains to be seen if Macron’s words translate into action, his focus on systemic problems and the fundamental changes necessary to address them demonstrates another aspect of leadership that could and should be replicated by other national leaders.
The leaders mentioned above are just single voices in a massive jungle that is overburdened with Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro, and numerous other backward-looking autocrats. Therefore, don’t look to the G-20 for the innovation and leadership of its national members. Nor will the leadership come from our existing multilateral institutions, many of which like the WTO and the WHO, are operating under the duress of divergent nationalist agendas.
We need to celebrate and amplify the voices of those who lead politically in order to encourage others to speak and adopt the policies that will enable transformation. And we cannot forget that a vast amount of the leadership and innovation resides in individuals, small businesses, and artists who will actually forge the path to our regenerative future. Here, the impetus that can be provided by philanthropic entities, universities, and associations to begin to create the essential enabling environment is a critical next step in pursuing the Next Renaissance.