After the pandemic, are we going back to the ‘old normal world’ or do we use it as a portal to a ‘next normal’? And if so, how will this ‘next normal world’ look like?
The final plenary panel of last week’s GIIN Investor Forum 2022 in The Hague debated some big questions. Here, we highlight the contribution of Jo Swinson, former UK minister and currently director at Partners for a New Economy
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Indian novelist and political activist Arundhati Roy published an article in the Financial Times, stating that the pandemic offered us “a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality”.
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew, she argued. “This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
Jo Swinson, director of Partners for a New Economy (P4NE), sees signs of that second, challenging option: “Obviously the pandemic was devastating, but our response to it was quite encouraging. Very quickly our societies managed to transform themselves to deal with this shared challenge. There arose a unique collaboration between scientists, governments and private companies, which succeeded in developing several vaccines within a year. We saw numerous spontaneously outbursts of community support, a natural way to take care of each other. That was really amazing.”
The conclusion, Swinson argued during this panel discussion, has to be that “we are able to make massive transformational changes within our societies. Seeing is believing. That’s what we have to do with the other crises we’re confronted with. We now know that we can do this.”
Swinson is a former leader of the UK Liberal Democrats party. As a business minister in the coalition government (2012-15), she was the architect of landmark reforms including shared parental leave and enhanced corporate transparency. She was also a leading voice in the successful campaign to measure the UK’s wellbeing alongside GDP figures.
Catalysing transformational change
The organisation funds innovative projects and builds communities that bring new thinking and approaches to traditional economics. According to P4NE, these ‘change catalysts’ play a pivotal role in helping to repurpose our economic system, and together they’re helping to build a movement for an economic system that’s fit for the challenges of the 21st century.
As result of pressure from society, including her own organisation, huge progress has been made recently, Swinson said. This includes for instance the Bank of England and other central banks including sustainability into their strategy. “That really is a big shift. However, that’s the low-hanging fruit. Central banks have to act in the public interest. So they are steps ahead of other financial players.”
“The present crises constitute a big risk to the financial markets. The growth of impact investing is really positive, but what about all the other investments? These investors have to reconsider their rationale. More and more they will realise that the risks to their capital are more or less the same as the risks to the world. All investors now should ask themselves if their children, when they grow up, will be glad with the investments you are doing today.”
Striving for stability
Swinson shared her concern about the current wave of net-zero goals at corporates and financial institutions. “Climate has become a mainstream concern, which is absolutely right. But my concern is that we could end up replacing the GDP, as the one figure everybody relates to, by net-zero. The suggestion that, if we succeed in reaching net-zero, everything will be fine. But life is much more complicated than that. One figure doesn’t tell the whole story. We could go for that zero in a way that is hugely problematic for social justice, for the divide between the global North and the South, or that it is detrimental to other environmental issues. We need a much more holistic approach, which values and benefits nature and all people.”
Coming back to the first question of how to reach a next normal, one might ask if we do need that at all? Is normalcy something we should care about, when actually we need serious change?
“That’s great question”, Swinson said. “The future is going to be about constant change. At the same time, during the pandemic we all said we couldn’t wait to go back to normal. It’s a very human thing to strive for stability. So, in an ever-changing world, we need institutions including the government to provide security and transparency. Explaining us where we need to go. Otherwise it will be a very difficult world to navigate.”