Consider the following scenario: It’s June of 2050, and the planet is sustaining a thriving global community that is healthier than any other point in human history. Leaders and investors across sectors and nations brought about a new type of prosperity that aims for shared outcomes, driven by the view that human health is a prerequisite for human wealth. Broad alignment and integration between industries, governments, and nations have enabled the world to tackle persistent multi-generational problems once thought too big to solve. Climate change mitigation measures have succeeded and the smog that went away temporarily during the Great Pandemic of 2020 has now faded permanently. Those coming of age in 2050 can scarcely believe that “unilateralism” had at one point been a dominant political theory, or that Lake Eerie once had toxic algal blooms. Is this Pax Mundi?
This possible future state is not so far-fetched. COVID-19 is refocusing global attention on how health is central to our economic well-being. Increasingly, it is becoming clear that we need species-level cooperation in order to find the right balance to maintain both. Such an approach will likely realign our priorities and our capital to privilege health for years to come.
Getting there requires that we adopt two significant paradigm shifts: the first is that we enable new patterns of working to solve complex problems together, and the second is that we acknowledge that the health of the economy is contingent and should be measured on the health of the people that comprise it and the environment in which we all exist. Both paradigm shifts are mutually reinforcing. Collaboration produces net-positive outcomes that create a viable path towards our collective wellbeing, and our collective wellbeing requires collaboration. Arguably, these paradigms build from old standards in the human toolkit and there’s a rare opportunity to revisit them now.
The world’s economies are facing new realities as a result of COVID-19 comparable to other similarly paradigm-shifting global events like the World Wars, whose jolting effects renewed multilateral efforts, with varying degrees of efficacy. Golden ages often occur in the shadow of a crisis, but they’re not a given.
In 1957, psychiatrist and cybernetics pioneer W. Ross Ashby proposed the law of requisite variety, which posits that complex problems require complexity of an equal order in their address. This concept was taken up by transformation designers who applied its fundamental underlying principle to solving problems at the pentagon, NASA and World Economic Forum over the last four decades. The collaborative design principle at the heart “requisite variety” is that￼ problems that involve many can only be solved by the insights and perspectives of those same many, or else run the strong risk of generating inadequate solutions. Stakeholders in the system accelerate their respective success when furthering shared values and shared intentions. This leads to resilient alignments enabling people to collaboratively work their way out of quagmires towards outcomes they equally own and desire. By making the “back room bigger,” the application of the law of requisite variety can be a powerful way to keep systems accountable to the people they are meant to serve.
COVID-19 is a complex species-level crisis that can only be addressed through species-level cooperation. For the first time in human history, everyone in the world is sharing the experience of a pandemic while observing each other respond in real-time. Governments across the globe are making seemingly difficult trade-offs between human and financial health. The crisis is a shared experience, and, hopefully, a shared opportunity to learn that human and financial health go hand-in-hand.
COVID-19 is a reminder for politicians, policymakers, and investors that disease and the outcomes of illness are tied to environmental health. A recent study from Harvard University has shown that exposure to poor air quality, which is known to worsen chronic conditions like asthma, also correlates to a higher risk of death from COVID-19. If reminders like this are taken seriously, the environment—as a critical determinant of human health—will be universally adopted onto the “high priority” list for collaborative action. Adopting a paradigm which posits that health is the economy and environment is health makes it possible for coalitions of governments, industry, investors, and voters to prioritize addressing climate change as the species-level crisis that it is.
Unfortunately, the current crisis has also exposed limitations in our current international capacity for building shared intent, even in situations where we share outcomes. The current fault line is the re-emergence of nationalism, the historic harbinger of global conflict and political balkanization. Nationalism forces its proponents to play a finite, zero-sum game. Sadly, this has narrowed the global political paradigm into two primary types of players: supporters of globalization that believe in open, free global trade and international cooperation; and supporters of nationalism that believe in domestic-centric economies and “go-it-alone-ism”.
Establishing principles of human health as a measure of wealth can create new international alignments on how trade and collaboration ought to work in a post-COVID world. And these views might be attractive to both autarkists and globalists. For example, there may be merits in stronger local and regional economies that rely less on trading goods across large distances trade while continuing to rely heavily on multilateral cooperation—particularly with respect to shared policy intentions, research, and the economic power-trio of intellectual property, data, and technology. Collaboration and knowledge sharing in the near-term will help us decouple old international frameworks from our future.
Fostering shared intent around the environment has proven difficult, particularly along the left-right divide. Understanding the environment’s relationality to human health and social wealth will not suddenly solve the lack of consensus, but it opens new pathways forward.
Forecasting the future is a risky business and may feel like the trouble of tomorrow. But setting course toward the future we want demands a relative bearing—and this might be the safest thing we can do as we navigate the unknown.