Covid-19: an Economic Resilience Strategy via Training and Creativity

This essay is an extended version of “Training Together for a real Green New Deal” (in French), published in latribune.fr on March 30th, 2020

For an express read (1mn), skip to paragraph “In short…”

Urgent need of an inspiring future plan to avoid the collapse

The Covid-19 crisis has left the planet in a state of tetany and does not bode well either for the world economy or for the welfare systems. A massive and long lasting unemployment that will bleed nation states is to be expected. No matter the amount of money printed by governments to provide palliative subsidies, these latter will necessarily have a limit and will not prevent the generalization of precariousness if there isn’t a proper future plan to inspire us.

Transition and paradigm shift acceleration

The economy will not simply recover by itself, and especially so because the general slow-down marks a turn toward more resilient, low-carbon and post-consumption life-styles that should be seen as a collective gain. The generalization of telework shows that we can enter a phase of real “de-mobility” and drastically shrink our carbon footprint. The closing of shops shows how fast-fashion and recreational shopping is not essential. It is the right moment for industries with a high environmental impact (e.g. transportation, construction, textile) to shift toward new purposes, value(s) creation and activity models. We should help them engage more frankly in their cultural revolution for the purpose of saving jobs.

Searching for a new form of collective prosperity

For those who imagine that the economic recession is announcing a welcome de-growth, let’s remember that without economic vitality and value creation, there is no possible equitable redistribution or even preservation of current public services, as these are the very sources of state funds. Let’s not fall into the trap of believing that an economy based on volunteerism and the adoption of a universal (survival) basic income, will mean anything other than a generalization of collective poverty and vulnerability. History shows how social emancipation and collective prosperity work in pairs.

To resolve the paradox of maintaining collective prosperity while reducing environmental impact, economic life has to shift toward low-carbon, resource-light and immaterial domains. This systemic mutation will happen at a local scale, territories having a key role to play in it. Public actors should embrace this mission as soon as possible and accelerate the process. The current closing of borders, whether temporary or on a longer term, shows how territorial economic autonomy is a resilience requirement and now a priority. Instead of a non-virtuous “back to business as usual”, we should envisage a reinvention, if not a conquest, of a new socio-economic model using our imaginations and future horizons, wherein lie our resilience capacities.

Appropriate the future to gain agency

Thinking creatively and mobilizing our cognitive and imaginative capacities is a prerequisite to overcome the fear and tetany. The current status quo is in fact a very good opportunity to reflect on new political and action strategies. Embracing and opening the future spectrum certainly provides agency and power over the feeling of being in front of a wall or on a slippery slope. Future scenarios currently being proposed, for instance at the Brooking Institute or the UN-DESA in the US or at Futuribles Institute in Paris, are all announcing a global recession, only varying in strength and length. As far as now, a month of confinement already corresponds to a 3% GDP decrease in France. Instead of waiting to see how right they are, it is time to use our creativity to bend these warning curves and realistic prognostics. Moreover so, as they do not include truly new and disruptive ideas, thus not giving them a chance. These scenarios are designed with forecasting models and techniques that are based on traditional variables, schemes and measures, all centered on the classic axis of government vs economic sphere. They do not integrate the fact this sphere is already experiencing a structural transformation under three major influences: hybrid innovation uses and ecosystems that show how the value is moving toward the periphery of the economic sphere ; the digital transition currently being accelerated by the Covid-19 crisis ; and the sustainable development objectives and societal expectations in the background. In fact, the crisis is accentuating the rise of an new paradigm that these institutes have not yet identified as the fundamental canvas of a new normality being designed under our eyes.

Daring for a creative and prospective disruption

In fact, foresight experts are often good analysts and smart designers of hypothesis systems, collective intelligence or gearing tools, but are not necessarily very creative and capable of designing innovative solutions or disruptive scenarios. If UNESCO currently promotes the notion of future literacy, i.e. the capability to address and anticipate the future, it is precisely to unlock foresight uses and methods, to recall that the future belongs to everyone and to open up space on the future horizon for more creative potentials and more original, bold or speculative scenarios. The future also needs to be implemented thanks to the goodwill, experimentation and design of uses and projects. Since early ages, human nature has constantly been adapting and reinventing itself thanks to its creativity. Let’s trust ourselves to tap into this endless resource that also belongs to everyone. Just like with diseases, remission, healing and resilience cannot be achieved without a certain mindset geared toward rebuilding an individual and collective solidity as well as the future.

A smart use of confinement time

The first idea to promote is that companies, rather than putting 30% of their staff in technical unemployment as they are currently doing, should liquidate their training credits and take advantage of the slowdown to step aside and prepare for their future. Instead of waiting for the collapse and lay-off, it’s the moment to learn, build up our talents and innovate to find solutions for tomorrow, whether local or digital. A process made all the more easier and as early as now with generalization of telework. Online training and innovation programs can give birth to solutions for every facet of the crisis, ranging from the virus and public health emergency to all the impacted and transitioning societal uses. Still respecting their scientific validation criteria, “research & training” innovative collaboration can be designed in scientific laboratories.

A training Marshall plan to become future-proof

But above all, if public subsidies are a vital necessity to tackle the crisis emergency, the State should as often and as soon as possible, transform them into a massive investment in professional training programs for all the persons whose activity is currently on hold. Instead of an expected mass-unemployment, long to resorb and toxic for the societal balance (including chances of democratic decline), we’d rather all gain new capabilities, develop the population’s talents and become individually and collectively future proof. Everybody should have access to these training programs, at all ages and for all profiles. Let’s look at this as an opportunity to redefine our personal project along the way, as the jobs of tomorrow will not be the ones of today.

Opportunities for independent workers and to boost the local economy

On another hand, independent workers, many of them being already vulnerable, do have knowledge and know-hows to transmit and often have that experience. Among their very diverse profiles, creative and artistic talents are hardly hit and need to bounce back quickly. Creating with and for them, as early as possible, a new online training economy, will certainly help them. The solution might not be perfect, but if children, students and teachers can achieve the incredible performance of shifting the entire education online in a week or two, why can’t adults do the same? Kids would be even more motivated to study if they see their parents do the same (and vice versa).

In short, this scenario of a professional training Marshall plan, would create a very resilient dynamic via a chain of virtuous effects: save jobs ; make productive use of the confinement time ; create numerous learning and training jobs in the short term ; up-skill and make “future-proof” a large part of the population ; stimulate local and digital innovation ; incubate projects ; prepare as early as now the recovery ; and re-orient the economy toward sustainable value creation models and uses that can be deployed very quickly after the pandemic.

The new frontier of innovation and pedagogy

More pragmatically, this Marshall plan will be an occasion for all schools and academia to imagine appropriate training programs and to investigate innovative pedagogies. The one based on “learning by doing” or the one converging toward innovation ecosystems and the incubation of projects are good examples. Schools are already very accustomed to booking independent professionals in their curriculum and could become portals to distribute the training modules that they might come up with.

Third places which usually federate very mixed communities of professionals (designers, entrepreneurs, researchers, associations, activists, teachers, etc.) are also key players in this creative experiment and learning economy, which is in fact already on the rise. The most innovative ones are already shifting toward the creative academy model. Learning to design a project prototype is an easy basic formula, and these projects, whether cultural, social, entrepreneurial or even intrapreneurial, will become the engine of a virtuous economic recovery.

Re-learning to live, produce and make a society

Beyond the smart use of confinement and crisis time, it is clear that we need to relearn everything to reinvent our life-styles during and after the pandemic, which recalls the limits of the human condition and our collective vulnerability. Relearning to live on Earth, be humans and create a fair society. Relearning to produce locally via short-circuits and a reasonable use of technology is a priority, but also, why not, learning with artificial intelligences requiring program-learning as well. Makers who are currently finding DIY solutions for the crisis such as masks and ventilators, show a good approach of resilient local action.

Transforming the purpose of organizations, including cultural places

Schools, private and public companies, associations but also cultural centers can become the pivotal platform of a transition toward a post-carbon and post-consumption society, where the concept of work is transforming into a more hybrid and multi-dimensional activity model, simultaneously training, full-filling and productive. Already endangered, the economy of cultural centers will go through a hard time with the downturn ahead. These latter could take advantage of the current closure to federate large creative online communities and prototype economically viable models of training commons. This would be a way to rehabilitate the prospective value of artistic experimentation (including its research and work methods) beyond its sole artistic and cultural value. Isn’t the world, more than ever, in serious need of the imagination, critical distance and boldness of artists to open the horizon of future potentials and activate an inspiring post-crisis world, starting with its public arena currently fully virtualized?

Prototyping a resilient values system

In this alternative Green New Deal scenario, the consumption value is slowly replaced by a learning, experiential and “enriching” value, both on an individual and a collective level , and including its multiple symbolic, human and material values. The more the imagination, meaning and qualitative human experience, the less the matter required. This value transformation allows reducing, without frustration, material consumption to basics necessities. Here can rise a new phase of the immaterial, learning and creativity economy, leading to prosperity, inclusion and true societal and environmental resilience. EU or the country who will first engage, can show the example and lead toward this new future.

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Raphaële Bidault-Waddington

artist, writer, founder of LIID Future Lab, a platform designing future labs in France and abroad. All experiences, conferences and publications on liid.fr