Redefining the new normal

by Anupam Saraph

As you are sitting at home, I want you to close your eyes and remember the last time you were confined to your room or your house. Perhaps it was when you were a teenager? When you had been up to something that your parents’ thought was against your interest?

Now try to remember when everyone around you, including your parents, were confined to their rooms or houses. There is no memory where practically everyone in the world was sent to their rooms?

Which means, the last few weeks have been unprecedented.

Across the world, most countries imposed a lockdown. Everyone was ordered to stay wherever they happened to be for varying periods from 2 weeks to several weeks. What was beyond our wildest imaginations happened. What we considered normal ceased to be normal, with no signs of normalcy ever returning.

Very few would have imagined the events or even the consequences of the events. Strange, because the world considered 2020 as a sort of utopian year. Policy makers, planners and forecasters did a lot of visioning and planning targeted to 2020.

There were of course a few, like my friends Dennis Meadows, late Donella Meadows and late Jay Forrester who had seen the limits to the growth of population, resource consumption and industrial output. Their model’s scenarios had indicated almost 50 years ago that we were headed to an overshoot and collapse of population within 50 years.

The reasons for the sudden collapse of industrial output and the decline in population may not be exactly for the reasons suggested in the models made over the last 50 years, but it definitely is due to the failure of the systems that make up our world. It also highlights the connectedness of different systems because they have the same participating actors.

While the majority see this as a disease outbreak, few recognize it is the outcome of the relationship between us and nature. But that is not what I want to talk about. I will leave discussing those systems for now.

I want to highlight the human designed systems that have been stressed or collapsed because of the lockdown. I want to ask, whether they can bounce back, or we need to invent new systems that are more sustainable, resilient and humane than the ones we grew up in.

What are these human designed systems? How do we recognize them?

Whenever we come together with others for a purpose, we create a system. It constitutes the “whole” with the participating actors as being the parts. Its behaviour is not the result of the properties of the participating actors, but the result of the interaction between the participating actors.

If the purpose for which we come together is important for all the actors in the system, it becomes the common purpose, the mission of those in the system. If different actors have different purposes for coming together, the system produces undesirable, even unpleasant, experiences for some actors, while producing desirable, even pleasant, experiences for others. An easy way to describe the former is symbiotic and the latter is exploitative or parasitic systems.

If any of the actors can not participate in the system, the system is stressed or even fails.

When we those who seek to be healthy come together to be healthy, we have a health system. If some of them have the purpose tracking people, testing people, vaccinating people, hospitalizing people or of making money, we have a different kinds of health system.

When those who seek food come together, we have a food system. If some of them have the purpose of sourcing premium food, creating packaged food, providing variety, or making money, we have different kinds of food systems.

When those who seek to serve come together, we have employment systems. If some of them have the purpose of organizing labor, outsourcing, sub-contracting, or making money, we have different kids of employment systems.

When we come together to value contributions, we create financial systems. If some have the purpose of managing demand, some the purpose of managing supply, some the purpose of making money, we have different kinds of financial systems.

The health, food, employment and financial systems are the ones that have experienced severe stress, even failure during the lockdown. They have demonstrated their inability to be resilient and sustainable.

The lockdown has made it difficult, if not impossible for many of the actors to accomplish their purposes or even participate in their systems. Most have been describing the failure of these systems, or the ability of their participating actors to meet their purposes, as the collapse of the economy. What we don’t say, despite the obvious, most of these systems that are stressed or have collapsed are exploitative and parasitic. Their actors are not there with a shared common purpose.

If the actors of these systems shared a common purpose, they would be resilient and sustainable. They would withstand the inability of actors to participate for extended periods as the actors meet their common purposes through mechanisms independent of each other. They would continue to allow the actors to associate and continue from wherever they left off as if nothing had happened. They would be symbiotic systems.

Post lockdown is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to come together with common purposes to redesign our human systems. To ensure the actors in our health, food, employment and financial systems come together with shared common purposes that are symbiotic and not exploitative. It is an opportunity to end the pre-Corona greed, limitless growth, expansion and exploitation.  

If we don’t talk about systems, if we don’t recognize their actors, if we don’t articulate their common purposes and reinforce them, we will not be able to build a resilient and sustainable world.

If we care about the Short Now, the lifetime of a child born today, it’s time to start talking about the systems we are a part of. It is time to define the new normal.

Dr. Anupam Saraph is recognized as a global expert on complex systems. As a Professor of Sustainability and Governance of Complex Systems, Dr. Saraph, has taught System Dynamics, information systems, environmental systems and sustainable development at universities in Europe, Asia and the Americas. He has worked extensively with Donella Meadows on global modelling and systems theories. He holds a PhD in designing and exploring sustainable systems from the faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences of the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, the Netherlands. He is based in Pune, India.