Post-pandemic state of mind

Four scenarios for institutions under pressure

Hi, it's Chris from the Tony Blair Institute. In this edition we’re reflecting on the vast uncertainty imposed by the pandemic, and the different futures that may flow from it.

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It’s hard to think deeply about the future with a crisis staring us in the face. Nevertheless, there are two big reasons why now is exactly the time to consider what may lie ahead:

  1. The pandemic is exerting extreme pressure on our institutions; venting this pressure in a controlled manner may prove very difficult.

  2. Humans think in linear terms, but today’s operating environment is exponential. Common sense is an unreliable companion in such times.

None of us can be certain what the future holds. The best we can do is apply structure to our analysis and interrogate it for useful insights. This post is a first (and highly imperfect) attempt to organise some thoughts about the months and years ahead.

Divergent paths

The force of the pandemic has driven some major achievements. Entire health systems have been reorganised to handle unprecedented demand. New vaccines, using new technologies, have been designed, tested and approved in record time. Billions of dollars have been pledged to finance vaccine production for poorer countries, and health security is top of the G7 agenda.

At the same time, many of the world’s institutions have been measured and found wanting. National governments have stumbled time and again with clumsy attempts to suppress the virus. Everyone knows the global response is inadequate — for this pandemic or the next — but no one can agree what to do about it. Anti-vax sentiment and vaccine nationalism are on the rise.

Perhaps the heat of the crisis will be what is required to forge a new set of institutions fit for the 21st century. Or perhaps Covid-19 will be an extinction level event for shared responsibility between nations, leaving each to fend for themselves.

The pandemic has also driven a great acceleration in many fields of science and technology. The race for vaccines, diagnostics and treatments has unleashed tremendous innovation in biotech and computational medicine. The internet has been a lifeline for economies during lockdown, and entire industries have been reinvented around it. Efforts to end the climate crisis have renewed energy and commitment.

And at the same time, we have struck further than ever before into uncharted territory. New decentralised networks and protocols are gaining momentum (crypto is the bit everyone sees, but there is much more in play). Richly realised virtual worlds are competing with the real world for our time, and our money. Private entrepreneurs are determined to make humanity a multiplanetary species.

Perhaps the shock of Covid-19 will focus minds on using technology to tackle humanity’s greatest challenges head on. Or perhaps instead the trauma of the past year will make us try even harder to outrun them altogether.

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Four scenarios

Putting these two big uncertainties — the prospects for our institutions, and the focus of our collective ingenuity — together gives us a simple framework to think about different scenarios for our post-pandemic world.

Collaborative

This scenario is defined by a collective effort to address immediate global challenges.

In it, the pandemic shows the world that global institutions still matter, but also exposes some big gaps in what they are able to take on. In time this gives rise to new coalitions — both among nations, and between nations and private actors — that are better able to act together with direction and purpose.

These renewed institutions are far better equipped to drive forward necessary action on things like heath security and climate change, and to seek reforms that command broad international consensus on difficult topics like tax and regulation.

Competitive

This scenario is defined by intensified nationalism that prioritises the here and now.

In it, the pandemic leaves all countries burned by the failure of collective action and reveals that, in the end, even the most high-minded put their own needs first. For the leaders of all but the smallest nations it becomes politically necessary to adopt a strategy of self-reliance, in order to maintain a narrative of control over events.

This accelerated decline of our 20th century institutions shatters the world into myriad domains where leaders compete to flex their autonomy — not just on health, but across everything from security and the environment to trade and tech.

Hyperscale

This scenario is defined by entirely new types of institutions — ones that are truly of the internet, not just on the internet.

In it, the pandemic turns out to be the tipping point for a wholesale merge between the offline and online worlds. As the distinction between the two becomes increasingly meaningless, we figure out new structures for cooperation and participation at massive scale, and build new platforms for governing the first truly hyperscale society.

Building these leaner, faster and tech-literate institutions may take more imagination than today’s leaders are capable of. But when they do get built, democratising access to the digital commons does more for development than anything else in history.

Decentralised

This scenario is defined not by new institutions, but rather by their absence — in the traditional sense at least.

In it, the pandemic not only destroys the public’s trust in centralised power, but also catalyses the widespread adoption of new, decentralised modes of organisation in its place. Consensus between independent actors is held together by software protocols, incentives and mathematics, with no one in overall control.

Years of eroded legitimacy for traditional institutions makes them easy targets. It starts with the financial markets, but in time we see nation states themselves fade into the background, rendered obsolete as code achieves supremacy over the law.

Into the unknown

The point of this exercise is not to claim predictive power: clearly the pen-picture scenarios presented here are not mutually exclusive, and the path ahead is fraught with uncertainty. Nor is it to claim that any one scenario is obviously superior to the others, for each has merits as well as drawbacks.

What it does do is help illuminate just how wide the range of post-pandemic paths could be, and how what started as a global health emergency could plausibly catch a lot more than health in its wake. The decisions the world makes now to respond to the pandemic will cast a long shadow, determining not just how we fare against Covid-19 but potentially shaping our lives for many decades to come.

Of course, for all this talk of radical futures it might yet be reasonable to look around and conclude that the world is just as likely to simply muddle through. Perhaps that’s right, and the changes flowing from the pandemic will turn out to be far more modest than many of us expect. But then again, exponential change has a way of feeling gradual until it suddenly feels sudden.


What do you think about these scenarios and how our post-pandemic future is likely to unfold? Share your feedback with us on Twitter or LinkedIn, or by replying to this email.

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