Reflections on our path ahead

– OPINION –

Sir Peter Gluckman
Director: Koi Tū: the Centre for Informed Futures

We have managed though an early and very effective lockdown to get almost absolute control of COVID-19 spread in New Zealand. But we must be prepared for the possibility that this novel coronavirus has more tricks to play. We will almost certainly get the occasional case and cluster in coming months; but it may yet be that winter brings more cases and these could be more severe. We still do not know enough about the virus’s properties to be more certain; we do not yet know whether there will be long lasting immunity to infection as a result of past infection. Developing vaccines for coronaviruses has previously proved frustrating, so we have to be prepared for a reality that may be more difficult than our current optimism allows for.

As it stands, we are in a very enviable position relative to other economically advanced democracies – the question becomes how to leverage our advantage. There is much talk that while we face major disruption with all its difficulties, it nonetheless creates the opportunity for a reset. Similar shifts have been seen after other major historical inflection points, such as the world wars and the great depression. Those events ushered in significant geopolitical, social and economic resets, and it seems probable that some degree of resetting will again occur on a global scale, but that will take some years and there remain many unknowns as to its course.

What will be the nature of a reset in New Zealand? Clearly some industries and the way we do some things are unlikely to return to a pre-COVID status. There is a cliché that if you don’t know where you are going, then any road will do. Given that any change takes time and will cross political cycles, it is important we take the opportunity to think through what we can potentially achieve. Many will have a natural tendency to want to turn to a pre-COVID ‘familiarity’, while others will see opportunity for radical change. Such stretch is important – that is the characteristic of real innovation. The issue will become how far do we collectively want to go versus the understandable desire to limit disruption and change.

What is needed is pragmatic reflection. It would be unfortunate if a return to a business-as-usual mindset limited our imagination. At the same time, it is critical that we focus from the outset on ensuring the many social, individual and economic casualties of the immediate disruption are attended to and have a way forward. While it creates more complexity, decisions made in this time of crisis must be viewed in light of the longer-term path we take toward recovery and renewal. They should not constrain our options, nor should they define the path forward, for that needs extensive and inclusive discussion.

A major part of the mission of Koi Tū: the Centre for Informed Futures is to spark conversation for all of us to collectively understand and thus find answers to complex issues. In our work and consultations to date, it is clear there is an enthusiasm and expectation that decisions over the shape of any reset will not be solely a top-down or over-ideological process, but rather one in which diverse communities, businesses and others have a co-determining voice. That will be very hard as we enter an electoral cycle in which the immediacy of our situation is sure to dominate debate.  It will be a real challenge for the political process and for the communities of Aoteoroa, not to waste the opportunity this crisis creates for longer term thinking.

There are several things I would suggest that we will have to achieve, if we are to make real progress:

New Zealand still has to address its outstanding problems of inequalities and marginalisation that continue to hold us back.  Yet despite these challenges, our diversity is a recognised strength that we can build upon. When diverse voices are afforded a real opportunity to be heard, some contestation is inevitable, but this can result in greater cohesion and strength, rather than marginalisation and disengagement.  By making progress together on some very real and longstanding issues, social cohesion could be one of our biggest assets. But it will also be fragile in a difficult time such as this. The issues of unemployment, of mental health struggles, stifled ambitions, of uncertainty ahead – all can impact on our cohesion.

The enthusiastic solidarity of pulling together in crisis will likely to be replaced by next-phase frustration as the issues flow into next year and beyond, compounded by domestic and international politics, and the almost inevitable shifting focus of the media onto bad-news stories.  Our mental wellbeing and cohesiveness will be increasingly challenged, warranting greater focus on the general wellbeing of all our population. Vulnerability has now spread to people who never considered that they would be vulnerable as their jobs, incomes, careers and businesses disappear or become uncertain. At the same time, the challenges experienced by those who have long been vulnerable have seriously compounded. Recovery is only complete when people feel their autonomy and sense of opportunity is restored, but also when the social vulnerabilities exposed by the crisis have been addressed.  Finding the balance between top-down and bottom-up solutions and actions will be critical.

As part of ensuring our future wellbeing, we need to look at our education system properly to ensure it is really fit for the middle of the 21st century. Are we yet developing the skills that are needed in a fast-changing world?  These are not the technological skills of mastering the new delivery formats that the crisis has necessitated, but skills such as critical thinking, psychological resilience to inevitable change, empathy and other executive functionalities. For those who have already been in the workforce, there is much glib talk about retraining, yet the science of retraining is poorly developed. We know little about how far we can retrain people at different stages across the life course. Retraining itself seems threatening for some and there can be a lot of resistance. For older people, retraining tools designed for a younger generation are of little utility.

Our economy will rely on our food and agriculture sector more than ever – but how can we develop it to be higher value and at the same time more sustainable? This challenge is not new, but it becomes even more essential to address it.  Farming systems take a long time to change, and there are issues such as land use, water rights, and regulatory control which have not been resolved over many years. As we reconsider the place of agriculture in the post-COVID economy, we can no longer afford to keep these issues buried in our ‘too-hard basket.” Collectively acceptable solutions must be found. We must invest better in science to find those new technologies that can sustain this sector that is vital to our economy. But ‘investment’ also means putting in the effort to understand the human values that are wrapped up in our food and land use systems.  We will need deep and reflective conversations, as a country, to chart our future course in an area that has come to define us.

Yet research remains a Cinderella.  Despite many years of declarations from all political parties of their support for greater investment in upstream research, much of our research remains biased to short-term gains and on a narrow set of opportunities. This has ignored the realities that social and environmental issues also need to be understood and new areas of activity opened up even if they will take some time to flourish. Research such as soil science, environmental monitoring and biological surveillance may never be able to grab headlines, but they are critical areas to moving ahead, to say nothing of the social science and humanities research and scholarship that helps identify and understand the associated social values and factors. We have produced a minute number of technological ‘unicorns’, but what do we have to do to produce more, and how do we retain them in New Zealand? Start-up alone is not enough, scale-up and retention is also needed. We still fail to look openly at the science ecosystem requirements, and the social context supporting them, that a small advanced economy needs to really thrive.

Other sectors will need attention too. For instance, there is increasing concern over the environmental footprint of mass tourism. At this time when the New Zealand tourism sector is essentially shut down, how do we move forward? Can we shift from high-volume to high-value tourism as other countries have done? What would that look like for New Zealand?  Can this be an opportunity to see a greater future for a green, circular, and prosperous economy? Can we better address ecosystem loss, and in doing so find reward in new industries, such as true eco-tourism and the like?

We must continue to find how to turn to a real and holistic sustainability, wellbeing and human development path. Can we bring the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) out of hiding and embed them across the entire policy landscape?

Could we create even bigger opportunities if we truly set our sights on achieving these goals? Can we, over the next few years, reverse negative environmental trends, achieve a green, and sustainable economy, support a diverse but cohesive society with strong inclusive social values, a modern workforce educated for the 21st century, and maintain our stable, corruption free democracy?  As a country that is already well-connected to the world and uniquely safe – from violence, capricious government, and of course largely free of the virus – New Zealand could be a unique global magnet. Could we attract major companies to put some of their most valued assets here, including key people and training structures in R&D, in strategy, and in management?

In the past, our weakness has been our geographical position, but it may now be our greatest strength. It is impossible to have a vibrant advanced economy as a small country without global connectedness. We have had a very lowly position in global value chains. We do not know how the geostrategic and trading landscape will change as a result of this global depression.  But whatever happens the interconnectedness of the world will remain.  Other small countries like Singapore and Ireland have done disproportionately well economically over recent decades by finding ways to be magnets for global enterprises at key inflection points in their history. Do we now have a chance to outplay others, with a unique selling point – our relative ‘safety’ across multiple indices? To do this would require collective vision, ambition, reflection, consensus, and holistic action across multiple domains. I believe we can.