A societal experiment, or Brave New World…?

The economic consequences; governmental actions (or lack thereof); and behavioural changes wrought by the current pandemic are likely to have many as yet unforeseen outcomes.

One of these may well be the realization that how our societies are currently constructed and function will need to change to make them more resilient against future disruptions, while at the same time recognizing that not all of its members are equally-equipped to adapt, or may not wish to.

First, as a statement of the obvious- human beings are remarkably adaptable; although they tend not to practice that unless forced to. Nevertheless, consider that the (re)insurance industry in most countries “went virtual” within days in the second half of March, with no obvious deterioration in functionality, but clear changes in risk appetite. The industry “adapted”, but its behaviour changed.

However, second, any society is a network, with patterns formed by billions of interpersonal connections, decisions and actions. At the macro scale, its behaviours can sometimes be predicted with a reasonable degree of certainty, in the absence of discontinuities; but, as the pandemic itself demonstrates, or such “surprises” as Brexit, or, a century before, the Russian Revolution, it is the discontinuities one has to focus on. And, at the micro or individual level, modelled demographic averages do not apply, nor necessarily provide any protection against adverse outcomes to individuals.

Therefore, while changes will only occur if behaviours adjust and are adopted at the macro level, the benefit to the many may harm the few.

So, the question arises as to how to balance conflicting impacts.

On the one hand, controlling, suppressing and eliminating the SARS-COV-2 virus demands society-level collective action; on the other, as we have seen, it can destroy the value and meaning of many individuals’ and sub-groups’ lives and livelihood. Bentham and Mill vs. Hayek and Rand.

In essence, the pandemic has created the circumstances, as this post’s title suggests, for a global-scale societal experiment. What do human beings regard as the fundamental, non-negotiable components of their societies, and what are they prepared or willing to discard? What will they resist and what will they accept?

Certainly, so far as the “distributed workforce” is concerned, there will need to be both a retained critical mass for it to become the norm, or at least part of a hybrid model, with the conventions and infrastructure to support it. In many cases, it may work as a temporary “fix”, but it is not a viable solution for space-constrained, child-burdened families without some sharing of incremental costs and recognition of needs. New “learned behaviours” require time to become habits or conventions, so the longer the Great Cessation continues, the more likely new paradigms are to be created and become embedded. Ironically, rather than going “back to the future”, we may be heading “forward to the past”, when workforces were much more fragmented and widely distributed.

Yet even if the workforce does become more distributed, what of the longer term effects on, for example, public transport, or mental health? If people do not travel, and when they do, are more likely to use a personal mode of transport, what then? And human beings are social animals. Working long-term in isolation is likely to have an adverse impact on mental health. It is also not effective for many forms of necessary communication, and for establishing sufficient levels of trust, let alone its potential impact on innovation. Chance encounters and conversations are often a source of new ideas.

As students of history and assessors of the future, the Awbury team continues to monitor the actual and potential impact of the pandemic on our societies, because assuming that the past simply continues into the future unchanged and undifferentiated is the height of folly.

The Awbury Team

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