We are living through an era of intense turbulence and disillusionment. Even before COVID-19 we were faced with circumstances which the scholar and critic Ziauddin Sardar has described as uncertain, rapidly changing and chaotic.
He describes this as a period where the old orthodoxies are dying, but new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense. In a word, the postnormal.
In any period of uncertainty, never mind a public health crisis and economic downturn of this scale, a company’s inclination can be to buckle down and focus solely on maintaining business as usual. And if there’s one thing we can be certain of at the moment – it’s that the last thing anyone truly wants or needs is business as usual.
We have seen some great examples of innovation and collaborative working across the social sector. Just days after the virus was declared a pandemic many companies managed to get upwards of 90% of people working remotely. Jobs that we never imagined could be performed remotely— jobs which people were told couldn’t be performed remotely – suddenly and successfully were handled from home.
Let’s not pat ourselves on the back too hard though. The Bank of England has forecast that the coronavirus crisis will push the UK economy into its deepest recession in 300 years. You can add to that a rapidly ageing population, the increasing automation of jobs, a creaking welfare state and the challenges of achieving net zero. Even one of those trends would hit our communities hard, add them together and the picture can look decidedly apocalyptic. Perhaps hangovers are a daily part of the new normal.
So, how many of our companies are looking at investing more in community driven innovation than they were pre-COVID? I’m betting: not many.
There cannot be a board in the country who is not looking to cut costs right now. Offices stand empty, projects and programmes have been derailed and the medium term outlook is problematic at best. Any investment deemed high risk and low return will be the first to be shelved as all efforts go into securing the bottom line.
We have to accept that we will all have to contend with increasingly limited resources – but conducted in the right way innovation can thrive under such constraints.
The challenges emerging from, or accelerated by, COVID-19 require innovation on a scale never seen before across the social sector. This demands that we overcome organisational and sector boundaries and join forces.
The big challenge for the social sector will be putting aside any organisational ego and working in new partnerships. We need to be open to sharing each other’s resources, linking expertise in areas where one can compliment another. We need to be bold enough to admit that many of our organisations no longer need to exist.
In reality this requires a significant behaviour change – we need to move away from gathering personal career plaudits or seeking awards. The nature of the challenges we face – let’s use climate change by way of example – are not problems that can be solved by individual organisations. They require innovation at scale by hundreds of partners if we are even to make a dent in the problem.
There’s a window of opportunity here that may last for as long as two years. COVID – 19 has temporarily removed many of the normal barriers to innovation, and sped up regulatory approval, access to funding, and internal decision-making.
So now is the time to accelerate much tighter collaborations between companies, communities, think tanks and start-ups. Many of these startups are already bringing ideas and solutions to the table and are unhindered by legacy business models or thinking.
Research has shown that strong innovators are more likely to embrace ideas from external sources and partnerships. Yet only a few companies have built a mature open-innovation competency. There are many reasons for this, ranging from a fear of sharing intellectual property, to perceived regulatory hurdles such as data privacy, to an outright disbelief that external collaboration is needed.
Orthodoxies are widely held and unchallenged assumptions that often start as truths at a certain point in time but aren’t revisited or challenged as realities change. COVID-19 has changed our reality and normal no longer applies.
What we’ve thought of as normal was never natural. Normal was the problem in the first place – and we now have an opportunity to fix it.
A version of this post was originally published in Inside Housing