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Creating A New Renaissance: Can Responses To Covid-19 Pivot Us To A Transformed World?

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In this essay, we ask if there are any weak signals for a pivot toward a new renaissance trigged by COVID-19. Using the work of Arundhuti Roy as a starting off point, we suggest that six pivots are possible: (1) the shift from GDP to Wellbeing; (2) From Roads, Rates, and Rubbish to the Anticipatory City; (3) From Central Fossil Fuel Systems to Decentralized Distributed Renewable Systems; (4) Toward a Green, Fair, and Coordinated Asian Region; (5) Toward Inclusion and Partnership; and (5) Toward the Inner. Of course, while in the long run, we may create a wiser world, we may also descend into an era of pandemics, climate change, and violent tribalism.

While there are many reflections on the implications of COVID-19 and planetary futures, I would like to begin with the door of possibility. Writes novelist Arundhuti Roy (2020):
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
Thus: can COVID-19 can help us create a new Renaissance – a transformation of self and society, home, and plant. There have been two historical renaissances. The Asian Renaissance was personal: the quest for inner peace, enlightenment, the utopia of the mind. The European Renaissance challenged dogma, allowing science and art to flourish, creating the possibility of revolution after revolution against authority that does not serve the greater good. The question now is can we integrate the two for the next stage in human history.

The world philosopher Shrii P.R. Sarkar (1988) suggested as much decades ago. He argued that “humanity was sleeping, and now it must wake up from the Cimmerian slumber (47) “and transform the physical (science and technology), the social (equity and inclusion) and the spiritual (inner practice and purpose) in “all strata of life (47).”


Can we create such a novel future? If so, how do we go about it. Part of the solution comes from the study of possible and preferred futures. In this approach, theories of change are analysed and the future is used to change today. We learn from where we wish to be: we see the present as not eternal, but remarkable, merely the fragile victory of one possible trajectory over other pathways. The future thus becomes malleable, allowing agency to challenge structure. Going back many decades, I remember well the resistance to the study of the future. Indeed, one of my professors at the University of Hawaii in 1978 called the study of the future “a can of worm,” a waste of time. The future does not need to he studied as it is stable. Looking back at the last forty years, it is stunning how wrong he was. Whether the fall of the Berlin Wall, the spread of the Internet, the development of the Human Genome Project, the rise of China, Depopulation and other demographic shift in large parts of the world, the Global Financial Crisis, the impacts of Climate Change, and now COVID-19, it is clear the world has dramatically changed. Indeed, instead of a can of worms, the study of the future is now a capability one must have as the head of Strategy of INTERPOL Anita Hazenburg has often commented ((Sheraz, 2019; Vettorello, 2021).

Are there any weak signals for this latter future, this portal to profound change? Or will we return to the pre-COVID world? Again, this is hard to predict, however, there are weak signals, possible pivots to a different world. They may develop or may disappear, destroyed by a regression to the narrative of blame or inertia or from the outbreak of war (caused by the possibility of a hegemonic shift).
The first pivot is the shift from GDP to Well-being. In dozens of workshops we have led around the world what has emerged is the search for a new model of work, accounting, and success. This is a possible shift from the economy as everything to models where there is a quadruple bottom line, that of prosperity plus social inclusion plus nature plus spirit or purpose. In a project for a national government, we focused on the futures of infrastructure, it was understood that infrastructure would need to be smarter, greener, and more participatory in design, but the meta question was what might infrastructure look like if designed from the principle of wellbeing? They concluded that infrastructure would be preventive based and aligned with creating community and social cohesion, not just roads. With wellbeing in mind, infrastructure could be used to create partnerships, enhance mental health, reduce carbon emissions, reconnect with nature, and design for personalized education and health (Inayatullah and Milojevi?, 2021).
But where will the sites of change be? Cities, it seems. Traditionally cities have been focused on short-term planning, expanding roads, and collecting garbage. In several recent projects, what has emerged are discussions on the rise of the anticipatory city. In this new image of the city, using big data, cities become sites where we can anticipate tomorrow’s problems: flooding, psychological depression, pandemic spread and on the positive side, areas of well-being, longevity, and indeed even bliss. With big and real time data, public policy shifts to becoming more science and foresight led (Russo, 2016). Without science-led policy, we will continue to see health disasters as with India, Brazil, and Trump’s USA, for example, where religious dogma and fascist politics ensured the spread of COVID-19.
With prices of solar energy decreasing monthly, another pivot has been the shift to renewable and distributed energy systems. Numerous energy companies we have worked with all imagine a future where their role is not the supplier of energy per se but both the connector, ensuring household solar systems are connected to the broader grid and the energy wizard, providing real time energy information systems. Thus, the new system is decentralized – household self-reliance- nested in a new decentralized but integrated system. The goal is a shift toward full renewables with each person having full data access to energy use, much as we do with mobile phone plans, knowing the daily gigabyte use and the costs entertained. More imaginative companies envision a world with the “genie” of energy, much like telecommunications utilities, giving citizens real-time energy whenever they need it. More and more, coal mines will become stranded assets and the worldviews psychic sunk costs.
In recent work with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia, experts and advisors explored the region in 2040 (UNESCAP, 2021). What emerged was the focus on a shift from pollution as an individual issue or as a negotiation between states to pollution as a collective issue: form my air to our air. To create the new air commons, an Asian confederation or harmonization of laws would be required (Inayatullah and Na, 201). The region needed to move together to create a greener and fairer region. If the region is to lead the planet, then it must become not just more prosperous but far fairer and greener. Along with pollution, eco-health systems need to be revitalized, stopping the encroachment of cities into wildlife areas. Climate change threatens to unleash more and more COVID-19 pandemics – zoonotic diseases – unless a new narrative is created for the region (Naicker, 2011; Shrestha, 2019). However, it is not just that one region needs to become greener but that all planetary regions need to coordinate and move toward a Gaian polity (Thompson, 1985).
In a series of foresight workshops with a leading medical centre in the region, while there were many novel ideas what participants were most passionate about, they key pivot was the move toward inclusion. As the head of the centre said: “we need to challenge a system that creates more white buildings with white labs run by one gender wearing white coats.” His point was that diversity would enhance creativity, diversity would create new ideas, help the medical centre and knowledge centre as a whole transform. For example, more and more data asserts that gender inclusion, for example, enhances productivity, it optimizes (Turban, Wu, and Zhang, 2019). As Sarkar has argued, “Society should have cooperative leadership, not a subordinated leadership: there should be coordinated, cooperative leadership between males and females” for a renaissance to be possible (Sarkar, 1987: 49). Others need to be brought in who have different worldviews thus making the entire system more resilient. Science itself needs to move from the corporatist model to a non-profit open science discovery model. We are seeing early indications of this with the COVID Moonshot project (Chodera, Lee, London and Delft, 2020) but much more needs to be done to move toward a global right to vaccination regime, a global right to preventive health. Science, again as Sarkar has written, must like art exist for “service and beatitude (Sarkar, 1988: 47). As we have seen with COVID-19, exclusion enhances the spread of the virus i.e., an integrated inclusive system protects all, while a system that excludes minorities can enhance vulnerability. In a workshop for the Government of Egypt on the futures of manufacturing, participants suggested that the most important and radical scenario was one in which the informal sector was integrated through platform cooperatives and artificial intelligence (Inayatullah, Jacob, and Rizk, 2020). Up to date data on pricing, climate, pollution, and pricing could help those on the street enhance their wealth, make rapid decisions, and contribute to the national economy. Instead of seeing the informal sector as the problem, it could become the solution, what Sarkar has called the people’s economy (Sarkar, 1992:40).
The final pivot as the continued shift toward the inner. This is the great pause – using restriction as a way to become more mindful, enhance quiet time, to go deeper into one’s life, moving away from the litany of noise, and toward silence. The data is conclusive. Meditation works by first enhancing efficacy, second by increasing efficiency (Rathi, 2015) and third by increasing compassion. and its spread has become easier through new apps that increase accessibility. Indeed, research as well suggests that through meditation we can train ourselves to be more compassionate toward others. It appears that cultivating compassion and kindness through meditation affects brain regions that can make a person more empathetic to other peoples’ mental states, say researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Land, 2008).

In this reading, COVID-19 becomes a leverage point toward possible transformation. It is a potential move toward a wiser world where wellbeing leads the way. Health is wealth, as the saying going. To move through the portal to a different future, we need to imagine complex and guided evolution: humans cooperating and co-evolving with nature, technology, and spirit. If we don’t then instead of a new Renaissance, we can easily see a descent into an era of pandemics, climate change, and violent tribalism. All three are equally dangerous. They all reinforce national politics and power instead of regional and global governance, the necessary new inclusive global commons. However, successful and failed responses to COVID-19 have clearly taught us that society progresses when all are included, when everyone moves together (Guterres, 2020; Milojevi? and Inayatullah, 2021).


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