James Goodman, Director of Partnerships at Local Trust, chaired the digital discussion, and kicked off proceedings by sharing some background on the Trust’s involvement in the creation of our four scenarios.
Speaking about the Big Local project, which is set to run until 2026, James said “we have a long-term strategy and we want to have an impact beyond that as well. When the pandemic hit, we realised that the world was suddenly changing really quickly in ways we hadn’t anticipated. Some of the assumptions we had been making about the future were suddenly up in the air.”
“That obviously has an impact on how we work, and how we work with the Big Local partnerships, and we realised that our planning and strategy might have to change as well,” he went on to say. “That’s why we asked Alex and David to develop some scenarios to help us understand the new landscape, even though the landscape is changing all the time.”
Many people from Big Local partnerships across the UK attended the webinar, including speaker Becky Doran, a community development worker for Revoelution in Blackpool. Also offering an invaluable local perspective were Pat Kane and Indra Adnan of The Alternative UK, who joined us to speak on their experience of working with local communities in Plymouth.
The Long Crisis Network
Following James’ introduction, Global Dashboard editor and co-founder of the Long Crisis Network, David Steven, introduced the thinking behind the scenarios.
“We start with incredible uncertainty about the future” said David. “I think it helps to understand this as a crisis that has three layers – three layers that are proceeding at different speeds, that are interconnected, and that we have to grapple with simultaneously and understand their reality.”
“What matters” he went on to say, “is our response to that, and these scenarios are based around our response – they look at that response along two axes.”
He then handed over to fellow Global Dashboard editor and Long Crisis co-founder, Alex Evans, who introduced, in brief, the four scenarios: the ‘government of the few, for the few’ that is The Rise of the Oligarchs; the benign but ineffective ‘big state’ of Big Mother; the ‘wave after wave’ of crisis that characterises Fragile Resilient, and the ‘long, hard slog’ of Winning Ugly.
To summarise, Alex shared his thoughts on a best-case-scenario response, based on the intersection of the four scenarios along two axes. “The x-factor that really comes out […] is that we’re looking for a mixture of both collective action and broad participation – we do need a response that’s collective rather than polarised, but it also needs to empower everybody.”
The Alternative UK
Pat Kane of The Alternative UK introduced some of the platform’s recent work with local communities in Plymouth, Devon, “An extremely rich and interesting place to talk about community and its challenges”.
Using online tools including Google Docs to overcome the challenges of not being able to meet in person, Pat’s team invited a diverse group of local residents so share their thoughts. This created a substantial body of text in which to find patterns, regularities, and certain bits of vocabulary that people used when discussing their thoughts about the future, particularly a future in the shadow of COVID-19.
While not having used the scenarios to organise this information initially, Pat said, they had since proven a very helpful way to mark the community’s statements to particular quadrants and identify a tendency towards responses that are collective or polarised, centralised or distributed. As it was, the tendency was towards centralised-collective.
Pat’s colleague, Indra Adnan, went into more detail about the project. “What we were trying to do was engage with those people over a period of time […] they’re invited, then, to take some responsibility for the future.” In being given the opportunity to express “their own blue-sky thinking”, and to address what they felt both necessary and possible in their local area, the group found themselves moving from the bottom right-hand corner of the quadrants up to the top right-hand corner – from Fragile Resilient towards Winning Ugly.
The final speaker was Becky Doran of Revoelution, who looked back on her area’s localised reaction to the coronavirus outbreak so far. Mentioning that her local council was quick to react to the crisis, Becky identified elements of a Big Mother scenario at play, with an emphasis on “looking after our own.” The capacity for this help, however, didn’t last long.
What began with the impression of “open arms – you know your community, you get on with it”, said Becky, suddenly slowed and became talk of due process and discretionary measures.
Becky highlighted the particular challenges facing Blackpool, a locality that relies heavily on seasonal workers. With an unusual season ahead, and thus a large decrease in the number of “cash-in-hand, long-hours jobs that people can easily access”, the area faces an uptick in unemployment. Thoughts, then, turn to how to support families who are unable to access these jobs in the long term.
With this in mind, Becky said, “I would say, looking at the scenarios, that Fragile Resilient is the one that speaks most to me”. People from deprived areas, she added, are used to living in these difficult scenarios – “there is a resilience in our communities that upper government never expected.” Despite the positives, including high levels of mutual community support, there has been a marked impact on residents, particularly to their mental health.
After COVID, Where Will We Be?
With elements of each scenario appearing variously at local, national, and global levels, predicting which path our COVID future will take is almost impossible. An impromptu poll of the webinar’s attendees further highlighted the uncertainty:
However, armed with plausible stories for our shared future, we now know that we can further this dialogue, developing new ideas and actions that will empower local communities to shape their own places in that future.
Created for Local Trust, a UK charitable trust empowering communities to transform lives and spaces, this report presents four potential outcomes that the world could face as it navigates a future in the shadow of coronavirus, each one with its own implications for plotting the way forward at a local, national, and global level.
Making predictions, particularly in a crisis where we’re still finding deep uncertainty in every emerging layer, may be impossible. But there is, nonetheless, a very real need for plausible stories about the future.
In creating these stories, we can create a foundation for decision makers, campaigners, and communities to influence the process of change. As James Goodman, Local Trust’s Director of Partnerships, writes in the foreword to the report, they “look for signals in the noise”.
Taking the Scenarios Further
If you’ve already read the full report, or our previous blog post on Global Dashboard, you will have encountered our four scenarios: The Rise of the Oligarchs, Big Mother, Fragile Resilient, and Winning Ugly.
Having laid out these four routes into our COVID future, identified the possible pathways from one to another, and compared each across the dimensions of power, prosperity, places and people, we’re now opening the dialogue further.
Today, we’re kicking off Scenarios Week, a week of articles from leading thinkers who have formed their own responses to the Long Crisis Scenarios, perspectives on what our world might soon look like, or insights on how we can prepare for an uncertain future. Keep an eye out for our first piece, from Local Trust’s James Goodman, later today.
COVID-19 marks a turning pointin the 21st century. Levels of uncertainty are off the chart, making predictions impossible. But if we can create plausible stories about different futures, we create a foundation for decision makers, campaigners, and communities to influence the process of change.
Working in partnership with Local Trust, our new venture, The Long Crisis Network, has created scenarios that imagine what could happen, allowing us to explore what different pathways into the future could look like.
We start with the nature of the risks we face in the long crisis of globalisation – a turbulent period in which risks proliferate across borders as rapidly as opportunities. We then explore the difference between high and low resilience systems, and what it takes to respond to a crisis when events are running out of control.
The COVID-19 pandemic is the latest and greatest of a series of shocks to global systems. It has three layers – a public health emergency that will continue for two years or more, an economic disaster that will take at least five years to unfold, and a crisis of polarisation and insecurity that could take a generation to play out fully.
Drivers of Change
Two drivers will shape how societies respond to the emergency. Will a crisis force people to work together or will it divide them? And will the response be centralised or distributed? These drivers frame four scenarios:
1. In the Rise of the Oligarchs, the dark phoenix that emerges from COVID-19’s ashes is a government of the few. It’s polarised, xenophobic, and corrupt.
2.Big Mother sees government take charge. The response is ambitious but uninventive.
3.Fragile Resilient is a future where things fall apart – with chaos tempered by innovation.
4.Winning Uglysees an uneven process of renewal. No obvious victory but a steady increase in a society’s ability to organise, learn, and adapt.
We compare these scenarios across four dimensions: who has power? What do they mean for prosperity? What impact do they have on people and places? And what are the pathways from one scenario to another?
Finally, we explore the implications of the scenarios for the way forward. How do we move from Them and Us to Larger Us thinking? What do we need to do now to promote positive outcomes in the short, medium, and longer term? Who are the actors in a Larger Us movement? And which strategies are mostly likely to be effective in the future described by each of the scenarios?
The unknowns on the public health, economic, and insecurity layers of the COVID-19 emergency are compounded by equally deep uncertainty about how we will react.
At all levels, we face choices between collective action andpolarisation. Millions of lives, billions of people’s futures, and trillions of dollars depend on whether we act collectively in the face of crisis or instead polarise when under threat. The response can also be centralised or distributed. In the rapids, does the captain steer the ship alone or does she also empower everyone to row? Four scenarios reflect these choices.
Like a dark phoenix from the ashes, the winner from COVID-19’s crises is a government of the few. It’s inequitable, illiberal, corrupt, opaque – and ineffective.
No-one thought that it would be this bad: the spread of the pandemic, the economic pain, or the damage to people’s lives. But through it all, the powerful – in politics, business, and the media – protect their own.
People are angry, but also scared and compliant. Stranded between apathy and the latest conspiracy theory. Risk takerslive at the bottom, not the top of the pile.
International co-operation withers and geopolitical tensions proliferate. In a world of closed borders, racism and xenophobia flourish.
Politicians are expected to deliver: a vaccine, an income, a future.To keep the lights on both literally and figuratively. People are told what to do by a state that promises to look after them. Lockdowns are sporadic but behaviour is constantly monitored and regulated.
The social contract is clear, but the strain is showing. The government has plenty of answers, but seldom the most imaginativeones.
And it continually increases expectations while elbowing others aside. When it gets it wrong, people feel betrayed and anger surges.
Repeated waves of COVID-19 – and a financial crash, food system crash, energy crash, trade crash – overwhelm the capacity of a state that finds itself in the latter, more frenetic, stages of a game of Tetris.
Amid intensifying levels of drama and chaos, national politics increasingly becomes a competition for what is left of the spoils. Bubbles inflate and burst. Fortunes are made – and lost.
At the grassroots, there’s a surge of innovation as communities fend for themselves. Like Italian towns facing the Plague or developing countries today, people are fantastically inventive when making the best of a bad job.
Distributed | Function not Form | Learning | Emergent
No-one said it was going to be easy.
No obvious sign the battle was won. No heroic moment of victory. Instead, an extended – and at times seemingly endless – attack on the pandemic. One that started in hospitals, moved into communities, and was driven by a collective willingness tolearn and adapt.
The economic trauma was profound, but institutions held. Not just the organisations, but our ability to organise. To draw on reserves of community cohesion. To replace failed leaders with a new generation.
At first, we just threw money at the problem. But over time, this created space for smarter approaches to proliferate and for the emergence of a narrative that promotes collective action to tackle other urgent risks such as climate change.
Towards a Larger Us
If these four disparate scenarios make one thing clear, it is that we are at a point at which the future is up for grabs. Them and Us thinking could drive us further towards breakdown – but a Larger Us movement still has everything to play for. A future where the toll of the pandemic is still heavy, but our capacity for collective action grows.
Firefight better – getting the emergency response right to overcome the most serious problems.
Make people feel secure – not only to defuse risks of violence and conflict, but to create the psychological conditions needed to support collective action.
Protect the critical global infrastructure that we absolutely cannot afford to lose.
And a New Deal for a New Generation – education, jobs, and climate protection.
In this post, we wanted to say a little more about what we mean by critical global infrastructure and why we need to identify and focus on it.
Shooting the Rapids is a sequel to Confronting the Long Crisis of Globalization – a Brookings report from 2010 (written with Bruce Jones). And the Long Crisis was in turn developed from a paper that Gordon Brown asked us to present at the Progressive Governance Summit in April 2008.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown with other World Leaders during a press conference at the end of the Progressive Governance Summit, 5 April 2008; Crown copyright.
Brown hosted the summit to try and build a like-minded coalition to manage risks in an increasingly tempestuous international environment. But the initiative was dismissed as a “frothy indulgence” by critics in his own party. They advised him to forget the global and get in touch with “Labour values” by offering “common sense” answers to the everyday problems of British voters.
But 2008 was not a good year for progressives to try to retreat into their shells. As Robert Cooper once said, “we may not be interested in chaos, but chaos is interested in us.” Northern Rock, an upstart British bank with a “reckless business model,” had collapsed in February. The “run on the Rock” was the first in the UK in 130 years. By the time the Progressive Governance Summit was held, signals of broader systemic trouble were blinking red, as chatter grew about an impending “credit crunch.”
As we would soon discover, the global financial system was rotten to the core and Brown’s time as leader would be defined by his attempts to prevent it from collapsing (much lauded) and the subsequent revenge taken by British voters for the pain the crisis caused them, driving him out of office and his party far away from power.
The summit was a tense, and often strange, affair. Our job was to kick off a summit on global governance (see our paper), but it was long delayed as the discussion on the economy ran on and on.
My strongest memory is of Dominque Strauss Kahn’s intervention. Yet to be unmasked as a sex pest or worse, the head of the IMF told leaders that he’d been shaken by a financial crisis unlike any he’d expected to encounter in his career. Now it’s over, he said, we must learn lessons and make sure it never happens again.
But it wasn’t over. It had hardly begun. Lehman Brothers collapsed 163 days later, with the global economy came frighteningly close to total breakdown. So:
The world was unprepared for a crisis – financial and economic systems were not resilient.
Leaders called the peak of the crisis far too early – and were tempted to declare victory and move on.
In September, with floodwaters up to their necks, they rallied – revelling in the “drama, media attention, and sense of purpose” that an acute emergency brings.
But – again – they moved on, leaving the Eurozone to fester, trust in institutions to collapse, and societies to polarise in a way that left societies less prepared for future crises.
In this new crisis, we can already detect the same patterns of denial, panic, emergency response, and a failure to sustain action.
The danger of a premature declaration of victory is especially acute at the moment, as governments convince themselves that infections have peaked and they are past the worst, that economies can be restarted and will recover, and the bounce in popularity that many have enjoyed will be sustained.
Maybe this rosy scenario will come to pass. But – as we demonstrate in the first section of Shooting the Rapids – levels of uncertainty are frighteningly high, the route out of lockdown is perilous, many countries are only just starting their journey with the virus, and it is hard to see economies going back to normal anytime soon.
Moreover, the ‘consequences of the consequences’ are only just starting to unfold. We could soon see a secondary wave of impacts on food systems, energy and trade, sovereign and corporate debt, and banking systems, be hit by an unrelated shock such as a major earthquake, or experience fallout from political instability and insecurity.
“The ‘consequences of the consequences’ are only just starting to unfold.”
The future could look very ugly, in other words, if we again discover that this is the Northern Rock phase of the emergency and Lehman Brothers lies ahead.
This matters for the international system and what it should be focused on. The run up to this week’s World Health Assembly was dominated by calls for an independent enquiry into what went wrong. Many countries are also switching into ‘lessons learned’ mode.
But we should be more focused on the mistakes of the future than the mistakes of the past. On understanding which of our global systems could fail in the next phase of the crisis and acting now to shore them up.
In Shooting the Rapids, we identify some priorities:
Keeping global food supply chains open, using models that emerged from the 2008 food crisis.
Stabilising global energy markets and helping major exporters cope with the pain that collapsing prices is causing their citizens.
Maintaining trade routes at a time when protectionist forces are stronger than at any time since the 1930 Depression and there are rational reasons for onshoring.
Tackling systemic financial risks and making sure the global communications infrastructure can withstand attack.
In each of these areas, we need strong international leadership, the strategic discipline to focus on what is most important and jettison what is not, and minimum viable alliances that “can begin to manage a risk or solve a problem – and then expand participation as momentum builds.”
This work is not glamorous. If it’s effective, it will go mostly unnoticed (the unfortunate “paradox of prevention”).
But it is essential that we act now to protect the “institutions and systems that we cannot afford to lose as we navigate the long crisis of COVID-19.”
The Chinese government first reported “cases of pneumonia of unknown aetiology” to the World Health Organization (WHO) on 31 December 2019. A week later, the new virus responsible for the disease outbreak was identified. Tightly connected global systems quickly spread the virus across the world, and by the time WHO declared a global pandemic in mid-March, 114 countries had reported cases.
Governments everywhere have scrambled to contain not only a public health emergency that could lead to millions of deaths, but also the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s. Below the surface, a profound political, social, and cultural transformation is also underway.
The signs of strain on both decision makers and the public are clear. As the crisis unfolds, people are struggling to maintain good mental health in the face of such wide-reaching upheaval, new inequalities are being created between and within countries, and government officials are left playing what “feels like a game of whack-a-mole”.
Meanwhile, in the midst of a pandemic that pits all of humanity against the virus, we face decisions at both local and global levels about whether to act in self-interest or in the collective interest.
This is the world in the age of coronavirus, the latest in a series of shocks typical of the “long crisis” of globalisation.
A decade ago, in Confronting the Long Crisis of Globalization, we warned of a turbulent period for globalisation in which risks would spread and multiply across borders just as rapidly as opportunities. Now, as we prepare to face the global risks presented by COVID-19, we are building on that first piece to explore what we do and don’t yet know about the crisis, set out a playbook for collective action, and present a plan for international co-operation.
Shooting the Rapids: Key Findings
Today, as we find ourselves in an especially perilous stretch of the river, the metaphor of ‘shooting the rapids’ is more relevant than ever before.
As we navigate the whitewater of a major systemic crisis like COVID-19, there are many routes we can take, but it’s still the river – not us – that decides the speed and direction of travel. There’s no chance to pause, rethink, or reverse direction; the threat of capsizing looms; and above all, it’s essential that everyone paddles together.
Layers of Change
The coronavirus outbreak marks a turning point in the 21st century. If the world that existed in the wake of the disastrous invasion of Iraq saw us at “a fork in the road” – in the words of Kofi Annan – then seventeen years later, we are on a razor-sharp knife-edge.
In our report, we identify three layers of change that make up the greater COVID-19 emergency, each one unfolding at its own speed.
First, there’s the initial phase of the public health emergency, likely to last at least two years. We may have learned a lot about COVID-19, but many public health decisions are still surrounded by uncertainty, as much for those making them as for the public witnessing their effects.
The way in which the pandemic continues to unfold will be determined by many different factors, ranging from (poorly understood) fundamentals of epidemiology and governments’ effectiveness and legitimacy to patterns of inequality. We also don’t yet know how other shocks – heatwaves, conflicts, natural disasters – will be impacted by the pandemic.
The second layer is the economic crisis, which could last five years or more, and the impacts of which are still largely hidden to us. Bailout packages have been large and innovative, but it’s likely that governments will struggle to protect people as growth evaporates, supply chains erode, and systemic pressures build.
For us, this raises two key questions. Can governments support their citizens in the short term while building a longer-term foundation for reset or recovery? And who will ultimately pay the greatest costs: younger workers or older investors?
Lastly, there is the social emergency, marked bypolarisation and insecurity, that could last for a generation. Governments entered this crisis with already polarised societies and depleted levels of trust, and with many poorly led and coping with high levels of inequality, grievance, and populism, tensions are rising and fragility is spreading.
We do not yet know whether a democratic model for containing the virus will emerge, whether the wave of local mobilisation will be sustained, or if rifts between generations will widen or heal.
Playbook for collective action
Millions of lives, billions of people’s futures, and trillions of dollars depend on whether we opt for the ‘Larger Us’ approach to the crisis or polarise into ‘Them and Us’. It’s clear that collective action will be essential to effectively fighting the pandemic, but first, we need to lay the groundwork.
To promote collective action, there’s much to be done: enforce rules proportionately; confront the new inequalities that have emerged from the crisis; tell a story of hope rather than of tragedy; defend the facts; create consensus around solutions; build innovative partnerships and, perhaps most crucially, give everyone a role in the response – to once again employ the metaphor of shooting the rapids, the direction of the boat depends on the combined efforts of all those on board.
Plan for international co-operation
When a crisis is as complex as the COVID-19 pandemic, our strategies for fighting it need to be agile and flexible. Even so, we know that an action plan for international co-operation should have four main dimensions.
First, the international system needs to firefight better, getting the emergency response right to build hope that the most urgent problems can be overcome.
Second, it needs to make societies and people feel more secure, not only to defuse risks of violence and conflict, but to create the psychological conditions needed to support collective action.
Third, the critical global infrastructure must be protected, identifying the forms of global co-operation that we absolutely cannot afford to lose, and then defending them like our lives depend on it (they do).
And finally, we need a new deal for a new generation, protecting the future of children and young people through education, jobs, and climate protection.
Whatever uncertainties we face as we navigate this crisis, one thing remains clear: it’s our capacity to act collectively that will determine our fate, and in the choice between adopting a ‘Larger Us’ approach or polarising into a ‘Them and Us’, the stakes are incredibly high.
One choice ushers in a breakdown, with sky-high infection and death rates, savage economic impacts, and people turning on each other just as the need is greatest to work together; the other, a breakthrough, where the toll of the pandemic is still heavy, but our capacity for collective action grows. These are the two futures we currently face – which one will come to pass is up to us.