A lifetime and a few weeks ago, I wrote that the great paradox of this moment is that our society is moving slower, yet at the same time changing faster and more fundamentally than it has for decades. In this context, the Long Crisis Scenarios are a tremendous gift to us all. Considered and calm, they offer a way to make sense of events that can otherwise seem so great in magnitude that, for myself at least, there is a real risk of feeling completely overwhelmed. But more than that, in the form of the Winning Ugly scenario, in particular, they offer both a call to action and a reassurance that action can and will be meaningful. This is where I think the work of my organisation, the New Citizenship Project, can add a helpful layer.
Four possible futures, not one inexorable collapse
The pace of events is only increasing. The day the Scenarios were published was the same day the Chinese government announced its intention, in effect, to bring the One Country, Two Systems arrangement in Hong Kong to an end. George Floyd was alive. Dominic Cummings had not yet appeared in the Downing Street rose garden. When you list it out like this, what has happened in the last fortnight can feel like the world is collapsing around us.
But if you look through the lens of the four scenarios, instead of seeing inexorable collapse, you see all four possibilities. You see the Rise of the Oligarchs in Trump, but you also see a Fragile Resilient future in the sheriffs and police officers joining the marchers, and the possibility of Winning Ugly in the physically distanced marches and protests around the world. In Hong Kong, you see Big Mother (at best) in the stance of the Chinese government, but when you find out how that city has dealt with COVID-19 and how protesters are organising now, you see again very real strains of Fragile Resilient and definite hints of Winning Ugly.
In this way, the Long Crisis Scenarios create vital space for what the philosopher Rebecca Solnit defines in her book Hope in the Dark as “authentic hope” – a kind of hope that “requires clarity – seeing the troubles in this world – and imagination, seeing what might lie beyond these situations that are perhaps not inevitable and immutable.” She goes on to distinguish hope from optimism (emphasis mine): “Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists adopt the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It is the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.”
Thinking Citizen, Winning Ugly
This point, where fear becomes agency and possibility steps from the shadow of collapse, is where these scenarios meet our work at the New Citizenship Project.
We have, for the last five years, worked to describe and support the growing momentum around what we call the Citizen story: a story in which we see each other as active participants who can and want to shape the society we all live in for the better; in which the right thing to do is to get involved and to create opportunities for others to do so too.
We have helped organisations from across sectors – businesses, government bodies, charities – reorient their thinking and their actions around this idea of who people are and what we want, challenging and replacing the default stories of the selfish, individualistic ‘Consumer’, or the dependent, biddable ‘Subject’. It has been messy, challenging work for our clients – opening up their organisations, giving agency to people they used to serve or command – but it has been incredibly satisfying, for us and for them.
At the beginning of this year, though, before the coronavirus hit, we were doing good work but beginning to feel this Citizen story would never take hold. Now, while events can make this story feel more under threat than ever, the Winning Ugly scenario describes to us the future we have been trying to build – and the world has come alive again. This scenario is defined by the distribution of power, which means that we all have agency; and by a Larger Us mentality, which speaks to the opportunity to collaborate and build. As such, this is the future that will result from a Citizen mindset.
Thinking Citizen Starts with a Simple Question
We have developed a range of tools to help organisations think about people as Citizens rather than Consumers or Subjects, perhaps the simplest of which is the table above. We like to play a game where we take an organisation and look at it through these lenses. Take the BBC for example: the British Broadcasting Corporation, it was created in the Subject era to inform, educate, and entertain the general public; it has struggled in the Consumer era as there are plenty of models that can create content for consumers. What might it become in the Citizen era? We came up with the starter thought of the MBC, not the BBC: the Movement for British Culture. I think that might not be a bad frame for the BBC in a Winning Ugly world.
We’d invite you to play this game with your organisation, but thinking of people as Citizens, creating a Winning Ugly future, actually starts with a very simple act of asking yourself a question:
“What would you do in this time if you truly believed in yourself and in those around you?”