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We live in interesting times. Now what?

Posted by Flux on 

30 March 2020

This article was originally published here

As I write, life – and business – as we know it has, paused.

Right now, we have to do two things:

Firstly, we need to survive the immediate future; cut costs, make tough calls, do what is necessary to get though at least 21 days (but likely a lot longer) of life in limbo. That is hard enough. For most of us, simply surviving; adjusting to working at home (if we are lucky enough to be able to do so); planning for where the money for our next meal and next rent or payroll payment will come from will sap much of our energy. Make no mistake, the next weeks and months are going to be brutal; for businesses and individuals alike. In particular, small, privately owned firms – the lifeblood of the South African economy and our biggest hope for curbing the seemingly ever-widening chasm of unemployment – have been thrust into a battle for their very survival, which many, unfortunately, will not emerge from intact.

However, committing all our attention to the seemingly overwhelming pressures of the present now is a mistake. We have to find the resilience to look ahead to the world that comes next. Those who start planning for long now today will have a significant advantage over those who remain trapped in the present when the world eventually emerges from lockdown – be that in two or twenty months time (as is seeming increasingly likely).

You see, when it comes to the problems in the midst of the present chaos, we can only react to each new challenge as it comes our way. The truth is we each have very little control over the events going on in the local and global economy. Viruses emerge and mutate from nature without our design or consent; decisions are being made for us by government authorities and central banks that we can only accept and deal with, not influence.

However, we must not allow this reality to make us complacent. We do have significant influence on what happens next. The decisions we can and do make today will shape the future we step into when the global lockdowns lift and life goes back to the new normal.

Can we know what will happen next? No!

Do we know if 21 days lockdown will be enough? Unlikely. Mother nature does not care for our economy, your business, or your job. Practically, and mentally, we need to prepare for long-term social distancing at best, and lockdown at worst, for the next 12 to 18 months until (if) a viable vaccination is found.

How long will the recession last? Brace yourself, the economic fall out is going to be both deep and long, particularly now that the quantitative easing has begun. Furthermore, there is no money in the debt-ridden South African fiscus to grant bond holders debt amnesty, or to provide households with helicopter money, or to cover wage bills, or lost freelancer income, as the rich Western nations have been able to do to compensate their populations for giving up their livelihoods for the greater good. In the South Africa case, the SME relief fund and 100 basis point interest rate cut won’t go very far towards changing on-the-ground reality for our hundreds of thousands of affected entrepreneurs and gig workers; our private sector is largely on its own.

Those are just two open questions. There are many more known – and unknown -unknowns about the near and mid-term future.

The trick is to accept the unknowable, understand and prepare for the best and worst case scenarios ahead; then step back and focus on what we can control.

For example, we can control how you spend our time, while in enforced hibernation. As my partner Dion Chang writes, now is the perfect time to focus on learning and re-skilling yourself and your staff in transportable, weather-proof skills such as skills in product development and project management, systems thinking and complexity management; and the ability to lead, negotiate, persuade and sell, which will be invaluable in the months ahead.

We can also look at how to pivot our core personal or professional skills into solving a need or problem for someone else. There are always opportunities for problem solvers, and right now there are a lot of people with a lot of problems that need solving.

We can decide how to spend (what’s left of) our money, and who to support with it, small local businesses, or large multinationals.

More importantly though, we can also take the time to think and decide which far-reaching social changes we are prepared to accept and which we are prepared to fight against when the doors open again.

Some of the more important choices we are all going to face shortly include:

Do we continue to allow our civil liberties to be eroded after the pandemic is passed? Or do we accept corporate and state surveillance of our whereabouts and contacts as a new normal?

Do we change our conspicuous consumption behaviour and buy less and better, or do we revert to old purchasing habits when the retailers throw open their gates again?

Do we invest in a savings culture, or do we continue to live beyond our means and let personal and national debt grow, for a future generation to pay back?

Do we give in to xenophobia, nationalism and populism, or do we appeal to the better angels of our nature and recognise that humanity has no borders (just like viruses)?

Do we rely on state welfare to help our neighbours, or do we engage in radical generosity and actively support the individuals and businesses in our own communities voluntarily?

Do we act ruthlessly towards our debtors, or do we engage in business empathy and realise that we are all in this together?

The choices we make now, individually and collectively, privately and publicly, will bend the future course of history. May we all choose wisely.

Dion and I are also available to guide your organisation through the current chaos with purpose and foresight though our one on one virtual closed door business foresight sessions if you need a guide to help you unpack the best and worst case scenarios ahead and separate out how to prepare for and react to what you cannot control; and to identify what you can do now to alter your own future course.

We can use the current situation to build or to break society as we know it. What will we take with us? What should we leave behind? The choice is ours.

Bronwyn Williams
Foresight | Futurist | Strategist | Economist | Trend Analyst

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