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'This pandemic is forcing us to ask new questions'
Author: Development & Alumni / Ontwikkeling & Alumni
Published: 07/05/2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the world, many countries have gone into lockdown, with only essential service businesses and workers allowed to operate and move around. Most businesses have closed their offices and employees who are able to, are now working from home. The impact on economies have been devastating.

The world as we know it has changed dramatically.

According to Dr Morné Mostert, Director of the Institute for Futures Research (IFR), this new world shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic will force business leaders “to ask new questions" to remain sustainable.

“The first kind of shift that we've seen with the pandemic and subsequent lockdown, is the rapid acceleration in digitisation. Everything that wasn't online before the outbreak from a business perspective has now become digital. From the customer perspective, many of their transactions with businesses have moved online."

The IFR was established at Stellenbosch University in 1974, and is the first and only institute of its kind on the African continent to focus on futures thinking in decision-making, and futures research. Its main purpose is to investigate longterm risks and opportunities, specifically for business and large organisations, and work with senior decision makers to help them “anticipate risk and sense opportunities early for their businesses in order to make better decisions".

“Our belief is that businesses should use this very difficult time to be creative and not just to freeze and hope for the pandemic to pass. Part of that creativity entails using this time for experimentation."

“Businesses have to ask themselves, what experimentation could we do as a business so that when we get out of this crisis, we are not trying to start the world as it was before corona, but we are leading a new world."

Many experiments are already unknowingly taking place.

Working from home, says Mostert, has essentially become “a global experiment in the efficacy of working remotely". All universities and those schools that are able to afford it, have replaced face-to-face teaching and learning with online alternatives.

“The point is, that in the 400 000 years that we have existed, we have never experienced a crisis of this proportion. This will be the first generation of managers, students, and learners that are now forced to learn and work in this way, and the truth is we don't really know how best to do it."

“The best way, based on the IFR's experience and expertise, is to treat this as an experiment. In other words, find something you are curious about, develop and test around it and then decide if what you have discovered is useful for the future of your business."

“Part of making better decisions, is to test some of the old assumptions about your business. It invites an intellectual approach that requires you to respond creatively to the previous business-as-usual, not so that you can change everything, but so you can be discerning in the kind of decisions you now make for the future."

All of these changes, says Mostert, will lead to new research about things we have never had to think about before.

“While we are in the age of technology, the pandemic is forcing us to ask new questions about the dynamics of interpersonal relationships like: What is the power of meeting with someone face-to-face? It's a question we've never had to answer in a scientific way because we've had the luxury of doing it before."

People are also now painfully aware of the unsustainability of limitless growth and consumption.

“A pandemic like this also makes us question the idea of limitless growth and whether a new type of balance is possible, especially with regards to the relationship between business and the environment. This pandemic is another nudge for business to revisit the relationship it has with the environment and whether the exploitation of nature is a sustainable strategy to keep the myth of limitless growth alive."

“We are a creative species, and the notion of development appears innate. But crude, ill-considered, one-dimensional growth at all costs will not solve our complex problems, and has created many others. Creative and systemic solutions are needed for a more balanced planetary trajectory."

Ironically, the establishment of the IFR came about thanks to the same discussions happening in society today around limitless growth and the impact on the environment. In the early 1970s, representatives who would establish the IFR attended the first meeting of The Club of Rome, which aims to address the multiple crises facing humanity and the planet by tapping into the “unique, collective know-how" of scientists, economists, business leaders and former politicians globally.

Mostert was recently appointed as a member of the  organisation.“The organisation is focused on five themes – firstly, how to reclaim and reframe economic systems in order to move beyond. GDP as the exclusive measure of economic growth. Secondly, we are focusing on the new emerging civilisation, which includes the implications of the well-being economy. The third is the climate emergency. During the worldwide lockdown, we have seen what is possible in the amazing reductions in our carbon footprint."

“The fourth focus is about rethinking how we provide people with access to finance so they can create employment for themselves and others. This requires that we rethink our models of financing. Lastly, we focus on the youth, including the requisite skills to address these themes in future. Interestingly, these five themes respond to many of the challenges we are facing in the pandemic today."

Photo: Dr Morné Mostert, Director of the Institute for Futures Research. (Supplied)