As I am writing this blog, I am asking myself probably the same questions as many of you do. With so much financial means, technology, experience, health research and knowledge available in the field of epidemiology around the world in 2020, how have we possibly reached such a level of global chaos in trying to manage a coronavirus pandemic?
Leaving aside the developing countries who have to deal with dysfunctional public governance, under resourced health systems and chronic economic crisis on a permanent basis, why have many developed and rich countries not been able to implement existing recommendations, knowledge and research successfully to stop the spread of COVID-19 from the beginning of the crisis?
One answer would be that our modern societies’ health infrastructures and facilities tend to be built to be able to deal with chronic long-term problems not acute crisis. Another answer could be that traditional and social media have taken over the minds of the population and disseminated all sorts of unverified information which has created a global panic. But the reality is that governing in times of crisis requires to put collective knowledge, skills and competencies in motion, with coordination mechanisms between all components of the system, down from the individual citizens, all the way up to public institutions. But for most of our societies, this would require an important systemic change.
Firstly, because it is not just about responding to a health issue, it’s about understanding the interactions of a whole system which brings out a number of multi-facetted elements that can be complexified – during a crisis – by unpredictable reactions, insecurities, fears, beliefs, and resilience mechanisms that are unique to each individual.
Secondly, because each component of the system has its own beliefs and values that have to be understood and leveraged in a constructive way in order to find innovative solutions and respond to the needs of a population from different perspectives, not only from a health one.
As most governments tend to govern individual silos of a system, the lack of pre-existing collaboration among different actors puts societies in a particularly vulnerable situation in times of crisis, as people who lead during a crisis, rarely have a full and deep understanding of all the components of the system. What are the main categories of actors? What are the respective roles of each component? Who can influence or potentially disrupt? And more importantly what are the existing community assets that could be quickly and safely mobilized during these hard times?
Social innovation is the process of developing and deploying effective solutions to challenging and often systemic social and environmental issues in support of social progress. Systemic change and social innovation are very different from innovation in products or services. It involves changes to concepts and mindsets as well as to economic streams: systems only change when people think and see in new ways. It involves changing power dynamics. It usually involves all sectors – public institutions & government, private & business, civil society and individuals.
The diagram below shows the different components of a system with indicators that influence the level of collaboration among the parts of a system. These indicators or characteristics determine the level of collective leadership maturity a society has, in order to solve problems collectively and reach a level of systemic change.
How could a systemic approach to problem solving help prevent and manage any crisis at a country level?
Existing public governance structures and policies have found it impossible to crack some of the most pressing issues of our times – such as pandemics. But although the complexity and uniqueness of each country’s systems makes it hard to define specific tools which can contribute to change it, there are common elements and strategies that have been documented through history. They usually include:
- the formation of coalitions that bring together different partners to work across sectors;
- intentional processes to align understanding of the issues and the visions;
- documentation of cases and practical examples to demonstrate the impact and get inspired;
- training and capacity building of new skills and new attitudes with groups of professionals and practitioners;
- development of new technologies that will support innovations;
- a shift towards evidence-based decision-making culture with the support from experts;
- implementation of new (or adapted) legislation and regulations to support change;
- involvement and empowerment of the users/beneficiaries of the new system.
A systemic change approach to problem solving has to look at 3 main elements:
- The complexity and dynamic of the system’s environment within which one’s work and operate
What government’s decisions and actions will have on the business sector and the civil society and how could this potentially cascade down to individuals?
What is the level of existing trust between each components of the system and what can be done to increase it?
How individuals relate to their own civil society institutions and what role do they play?
Does government trust the capacity of civil society organizations to deal with major crisis and thus feel confident in delegating responsibilities to them?
Are citizens usually in favour of their government decisions and is this an indication of a healthy democracy?
Do people have social security nets?
Are there any traumatic historical events that could possibly re-open old collective wounds and are there specific groups of society that could react more than others?
Do people have the chance to express their opinions without fearing repressive actions and what feedback mechanisms can be put in place?
Are people confident about their economy and the capacity of businesses to be resilient?
Does the business sector trust that their government will support them in hard times by adapting fiscal measures and business regulations?
- The way the system will be engaged in the strategy in order to leverage positive impact
What kind of technology could be used to track and test the most at-risk and vulnerable people effectively, whilst ensuring the highest level of ethics and compliance with rights and legislations? Who in the ecosystem should be part of that conversation?
How can the business sector be put to contribution and use its knowledge and resources to address a social issue like a pandemic? Can government adapt regulatory measures to allow quicker results in social R&D?
What makes people want to voluntarily isolate or not?
What are the social norms that might hinder the tracking, testing, and isolation/self-protection of people?
Are people most likely to accept the concept of isolation and if not, what are the other alternatives to it before using law enforcement measures?
What role could education institutions, schools and teachers play in bringing knowledge, data and health education methods to increase the level of awareness within the general public through students and their families?
What community assets could be used to decentralize services from main health facilities? Who (institutions, community-based organizations, health facilities, family members, media, etc.) is best placed in the system to reach the most vulnerable people to this virus?
Who are positive influencers in the communities that can help spreading the accurate information?
- The best way to test assumptions and hypotheses in order to be able to learn and adapt effectively
Who should be responsible to collect and analyze data among population, why and how? Could involving citizens in data collection and analysis be a positive way to empower them and build trust towards their decision-makers?
What technology could increase accuracy, decrease response time and improve protection of privacy?
Are authorities willing to give up some political power in order to be transparent on data, get the real-time information and justify decisions accordingly?
What is really at stake for politicians when it comes to transparent communication and how can we encourage them when they make sensible decisions?
How far the general public (individuals) is ready to accept risks and mistakes as oppose to innovative solutions and continuous learning?
Is isolation of the entire population the best way to contain the spread or is isolating targeted at-risk population would be more efficient and have less negative social and economic impact? How can we know? Who in the system would know from previous similar experience?
What should be the role of media in documenting, managing and disseminating information and how should it be used? For what purpose? When?
In times of stability social innovation is rare simply because there is not enough incentive for change. Systemic change and social innovation are often being pushed or accelerated by a crisis, because existing infrastructures, behaviors and cultures are being challenged and consequently this offers the opportunity to improve the effectiveness of public governance as a whole.
Governments, public institutions and businesses that will thrive out of this crisis are those who will recognize the limits of the old paradigms of governing in silos, those who will be responsible and avoid further deterioration of social and economic capital. In other words, those who will socially innovate, and choose to govern with courage and humility have more chances to get out of this, quicker and healthier.
Violaine Des Rosiers. I have 20 years of professional experience in the private, public, humanitarian and philanthropic sectors supporting organizations to improve social impact performance and outcomes in times of crisis.
I am the founder of The Organiks, a social business whose mission is to support organizations to achieve greater social impact through organizational and human development. We equip leaders, managers, employees, volunteers and community members with innovative, environment-specific methods and tools so that they can thrive in a context of constant change.
Prior to this, I was the co-CEO of the Maison de l’innovation sociale, a Canadian nonprofit dedicated to civic innovation, removing the barriers between an idea with positive and social impact and its implementation through service design, incubation, social R&D and innovation capacity building.
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