A global pandemic brings a sense of uncertainty, and COVID-19 is unprecedented in the chaos it causes. But around the world, the determination of people to respond proactively is palpable. We see it as Italian balconies ring out with singalongs, as new virtual communities come together, as strangers reach out to help those struggling amidst the panic. Humans want to contribute and make the bad into the not-too-bad. So how can we harness this positive energy and in the midst of social upheaval ensure that it shapes a better future, too?
Many of these positive ideas are focused on social outcomes, from advice to take virtual “coffee breaks” with colleagues when working from home, to tips for maintaining mental health in times of isolation. A crisis tends to advance people’s solidarity and we know it can bring people together. Of course, as lockdowns prevent doing this physically, people are exploring other ways to connect, such as moving the Brisbane-born global phenomenon ‘Pub Choir’ online. Just skim through the projects on Help With COVID, or watch members of a philharmonic orchestra perform from social isolation to be inspired by the diversity of people and ideas coming together to bridge gaps in community and forge social connections.
To prioritise the social has not always been the case of course. Often the social takes a back seat, while technology speeds ahead. This is brought to life in Geoff Mulgan’s recent book Social Innovation (2019). Mulgan, the CEO of Nesta, an innovation foundation in the UK, writes that often social ideas are not realised because they fall behind the technological drive. The issue Mulgan describes relates to when economic and technological ‘progress’ fails to bring social innovations along. This can result in a sense of social loss or mismatch, which can have significant consequences for those who feel they lack control or agency. He explains ‘[a]lternative ways of organising money, work, care or housing linger as ideas, possibilities that remain latent’.
Now, of course, we are facing a different challenge. COVID-19 presents us with economic downturn, stress, future anxieties and very real health concerns. We know that technological solutions are needed, and economic stimulus packages are provided, but we also seem to collectively know that we need more. We need those alternative ways, of being and caring.
Otto Scharmer, from MIT and the creator of Theory U, writes in a recent piece that without hope and heart in this crisis, we may not heal the wounds and set ourselves and our communities up for the future. So even though we need to stay afloat, we need a vaccine, more ICU beds and more testing kits, we also need to make sure that we can support each other and be proactive in thinking about how to ensure that alternative social innovations are not remaining latent but become realities we can test and implement.
Most of us would have read about, or viewed, small acts of kindness and joy – songs from balconies or boxes with food to those in need – that become more than the act itself. They are symbols of the way we should be; a reminder about our collective humanity. If fights about toilet paper are an indication of our fragility as humans and a result of an individualised ego, the songs and food boxes should remind us how we can be better going forward, as a collective with a shared heart. And these examples are just the beginning.
Because of this collective need, we should look towards social innovation as both an action and an output. We need ways that are different or new, where we will work together to solve the challenges that have been thrown at us.
But we should also remember that social innovation is not just about solving a problem facing us now; it is ‘social’ because it is really meant to change the way we work and act so that we reduce the chances that the problem will occur again. Often this means creating some systemic change. The ‘good’ thing is that in turbulent times like these, systemic change may be easier to leverage. We have seen this already in Universities, change is rapid and we adapt the system. For example, at CQUniversity, all degree teaching is now online; the Office of Social Innovation’s student ambassadors are designing innovative ways to engage and support students with online engagement activities; and campuses’ staff have put together ‘care packages’ of food and toiletry products, personally delivering them to students who must self-isolate after arriving in Australia.
In Sweden recently, Apotea, a pharmaceutical company put out a call and asked businesses who may be struggling if they could ‘borrow’ their staff. They would pay them their wage and the companies would therefore not have to let staff go. Imagine if we could coordinate this type of human resource exchange at scale – not only within organisations undergoing significant change, but across sectors, geographies and political divides.
Apart from these proactive actions that come from the heart and a collective understanding about our needs, this troubling situation we find ourselves in provides opportunities for us to reflect on what we value as a community and students at our University can explore how they can contribute to a better future and more just society, in whatever field they are heading into. So instead of seeing a move online as a reduced way to learn, it could become a proactive path to expanding students’ knowledge and changemaker mindsets.
The point is that our responses should not just be a panacea to immediate ‘threats’. Instead, the required changes we now adhere to and explore should proactively be viewed as opportunities for a systemic betterment.
It means that we need to support each other in turning our challenges into possibilities and to make sure these do not stay latent but are embedded in operations and future planning so they can have wider, deeper and more long-term impact. This will give us more hope even when we are facing an unknown future.
For more information about social innovation at CQUniversity, visit cqu.edu.au/socialinnovation and explore changemaker opportunities for students, staff and communities.