Rebooting the system
Infectious diseases specialist Dr Peter Drobac is used to tackling world-scale problems. As his Skoll Centre team assesses Covid, he discusses sustainability in the fashion industry and the next GOTO theme — Systems Reset
The least surprising aspect of Covid was that it happened. Scientists had, after all, been predicting it was a matter of when rather than if humankind would be hit by a pandemic. What nobody could predict was how the world would respond.
For Dr Peter Drobac, there came a point when he felt compelled to put himself in the spotlight and talk about how best we could manage the spread of the virus. Drobac has a fellowship in infectious diseases from Harvard. He had also been a key member of a team that transformed the health system in Rwanda, a country that had been ravaged by genocide and civil war. Drobac established community-based health system incubators that developed and scaled care delivery innovations from infectious diseases to cancer.
‘I really started to feel the need to speak out a little more when some of the decisions being made, both in the US and UK, were dangerously inadequate,’ he says. ‘By early March, it was already clear that we needed to start to lock down and do more to aggressively control the spread of the coronavirus. But the government was reluctant to do. Also, given the severity and the breadth of this, and how little we knew about it early on, there has been a huge amount of misinformation throughout the pandemic.’
Since those early days, Drobac has now given well over 200 interviews to TV, radio, newspapers and websites to help to combat it. ‘Rwanda’s a great example of a place that, like the UK, has a nationalised health system that is an effective safety net for most,’ he adds.
‘But they responded to the pandemic much more vigorously, and with much stronger leadership, frankly, than many in the West. We’ve seen success stories like that, like Senegal, Vietnam and Thailand. What I think we’ve seen in places where the pandemic has been poorly managed and has hit really hard, is that tensions build up, trust in government falls.
‘And after that, we’re less likely to buy into the messages we’re hearing. We’re less likely to take the guidance under advisement and actually follow that guidance. Then, if all of our individual behaviours start to break down, each one of those faults is an opening for the virus.’
Drobac is also leading by example. As Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, he is challenging students to tackle world-scale problems. If anything, this work has become even more vital as a result of the extraordinary events of the past 12 months.
Drobac says: ‘I’m tremendously proud that the Skoll Centre team was able to not miss a beat and pivot everything online. The transition to doing mostly virtual convening for almost all of our work has allowed us to widen participation.
‘So rather than being limited to our students and those that are in Oxford, we were able to have thousands of people attend our events from all over the world. It shapes the conversation differently and has been a powerful positive impact of the pandemic.’
A key feature of the Skoll Centre’s work is the Global Opportunities and Threats Oxford (GOTO) programme. This year’s theme was climate change and culminated on 1 May with the GOTO Climate Action Summit. The event featured former US Vice President Al Gore, who talked about the sustainability revolution.
This was followed by groups of MBA students presenting projects that had been completed in unconventional circumstances.
Drobac explains: ‘Remember, students in the middle of this programme all had to hunker down, shelter in place, and sometimes travel halfway around the world. They were working from different time zones on a team project and were still able to come up with some brilliant solutions. The fact that some of them were able to show that off to Al Gore and thousands of people around the world was a real high point for me this spring.
‘The winning project this year was Team Hemp. They looked at how to mitigate the negative impacts of the fashion industry on the climate crisis. They did a rigorous mapping of the entire system of the fashion industry and found something really interesting — 80 per cent of all the climate emissions coming out of the fashion industry came down to the decision that designers made about which materials to use.
‘When they make those decisions, they in turn trigger a cascade of actions in the value chain and fashion designers are typically not trained around sustainability. If we could help fashion designers to make better decisions and use sustainable alternatives, it could have a tremendous impact in reducing the carbon footprint of the entire fashion industry.’
What Covid has done is to make everyone at Oxford Saïd think about how the school can engage with a wider audience. ‘Like everyone, I look forward to the day when we can re-establish those human connections in the ways that we all miss. But we must also maintain the ability to use technology to widen participation because the next great idea can come from anywhere.
‘We’re doing something completely different in 2021. GOTO is really about systems leadership. It’s about recognising that the grand challenges of our time require a different way of working, a different way of leading and a different way of trying to address problems. If you’re trying to boil things down to a quick magic-bullet solution you risk doing more harm than good.
‘Covid-19 is a dress rehearsal for 21st-century problems — complex issues that transcend any one organisation or any one nation state. We need to work together in new ways to really tackle them. ‘So the theme for GOTO next year is what we’re calling Systems Reset, and the idea there is to say let’s look at these critical systems in crisis right now: public health crisis, economic crisis, the crisis of systemic injustice, and the climate crisis. How do we reimagine and rebuild those systems so that we can have a more sustainable future, not to just be ready for the next pandemic but to build a better world?
‘We’re going to mobilise the entire GOTO community, as well as the entire Map the System community, which is a programme the Skoll Centre runs at over 50 universities around the world that take this similar approach to GOTO,’ he says. All told, it will see around 10,000 students and change-makers engaged in Systems Reset.
As Drobac concludes: ‘The great biographer Walter Isaacson wrote a book called The Innovators about the history of innovation through computer science. I asked him: “What’s the secret? What did you learn in this book?” And he said: “Innovation is about getting people with different expertise and world views together to solve problems.’’’
Words by Piers Martin