The words “Houston, we’ve had a problem here” issued by Jack Swigert 55 hours and 55 minutes in to the Apollo 13 mission might have been uttered in response to the main alarm light illuminating in their Apollo 13 command module, however the same could now be said for the entire world and the topic of globalisation.
Many commentators believe we have hit ‘peak globalisation’ as we see a wave of nationalistic sentiment now accelerating under COVID-19. Yet, with the many wicked problems our world is facing – including the urgent need to find a COVID-19 vaccine – the more minds working together on finding an answer the better . These are not simple problems and solving them in one nation won’t suffice as they require a global solution for true resolution.
We are now at a crossroads. It turns out that the globalised planet is easily fragmented. A virus has the deadly potential of decimating all the carefully constructed configurations comprising our global economy. As free-flowing travel came crashing down, businesses and governments have become siloed, imposing lockdowns on citizens and employees.
Faced with global supply chain deficiencies during the pandemic, politicians have spoken of the need to be more self-sufficient, and ‘make things here again’. It is a throwback to the pre-globalised world where national economies protected themselves with import tariffs and domestic manufacturing subsidies.
COVID-19 has brought with it a nationalist response – but does this mean we go backwards to move forwards, and lose all the benefits and progress that a globalised world and economy has brought us?
A burning platform to inspire unity
There’s nothing like a fire to get people moving. Besides the burning platform of finding a vaccination for the world’s population against COVID-19, there is a never-ending list of wicked problems that require an international coalition, including famine, poverty, child exploitation, climate change, water security and slavery. If the response to COVID-19 is to revert to nationalism, it will become even more difficult to solve some of these complex world problems by reducing the size of the global brains trust.
A further complexity is the argument by some that globalisation caused some of these problems and hence reverting to a nationalism is the cure. However, thinking in terms of absolutes, of ‘or’s’ rather than ‘and’s’, of ‘winners’ versus ‘losers’, of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ undoubtedly breeds its own set of problems that history has repeatedly shown results in dire consequences.So, how then do we kill the bad stuff of globalisation, but hang onto the good stuff?
All of us have been restricted in our movements and interactions since March, yet none of us are thinking that we’ll never socialise or interact again. We’ll do it slightly differently, perhaps, but we won’t hide away for the rest of our lives. That’s because we’re social beings. We benefit from interactions, with the challenge now being how to make those interactions sustainable as well as profitable. Just as we’ll make these adjustments as individuals, so too must our governments and businesses keep global cooperation alive even as we make our post-COVID changes on a national and industry-specific level.
Cooperation despite divisiveness
While some commentators are predicting COVID-19 will hasten the death of globalisation, what if it also sparked the birth of a new internationalism? One that is based on deeper purpose and learning by sharing. The pandemic has shown that humanity can take strong collective action when it is so minded.
In many countries, we’re seeing unprecedented goodwill and collaboration for the benefit of the community. We’ve seen political opponents, trade unions and the private sector come together to create welfare plans, stimulus packages and hospital plans to protect all. We’ve seen people singing from balconies to entertain neighbourhoods in lockdown and communities break out in applause to celebrate our frontline responders. Considered acts of solidarity spreading around the globe equally as fast as the virus.
The search for a COVID-19 vaccine that can be brought to market in 18 months won’t be achieved by protectionist behaviour. Exactly the opposite. It will only be by pharmaceutical companies and universities opening their research labs and patents to achieve what is needed in the fastest possible time.
In Japan, Toyota and Canon are making various IP available free of charge in order to prevent the spread of disease. Toyota will allow access to a technology that enables the capture of respiratory data from infected patients without touching their body. Microsoft has launched the Open Data Campaign to develop new collaborations. These are the types of shared resources, shared knowledge and collaboration of minds that become essential if we are to solve the truly big and wicked problems.
Leadership is key
Many people look back on a cataclysmic event such as World War II and ponder what might have happened if Winston Churchill had not been Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. As we move towards a post-pandemic phase, will our political leaders take collective action for the benefit of the world? If governments are not up to the task, then it is up to businesses who value internationalism and stability.
Ideally, it would be governments, businesses and NGOs working together to set the tone for this new internationalism, ensuring it worked for everyone.
We are living in a dangerous time, when economic malaise can breed a ‘nothing to lose’ mentality among the unemployed and overlooked; when this happens, the peddlers of destructive ideologies swoop in to take advantage of desperate people. COVID-19 is a crisis we haven’t seen since the Great Depression and there aren’t any leaders experienced with it. And yet, how our political and business leaders choose to move forward is crucial to how the international community comes out of a global pandemic.
Therefore, the biggest question is what type of leadership do we need to navigate through the next decade and take the world to a better place post-COVID. Empathy, humility, vulnerability, reflection and responsibility are leadership characteristics that we need to start teaching in business schools and leadership courses to shape and create the ultimate leaders to face existential crises.
These are not easy questions and there are no easy answers. Apollo 13 never made it to the moon. But they did make it home safe. They also set the record for the most distance for human space travellers that stands to this day. Recognised as NASA’s most successful failure, the teams also learned the lesson of what could be achieved in the face of adversity. As we face the adversity of COVID-19, we too can learn lessons . To revert to the path of fear and protectionism or to take on new approaches and new ideas for solving mega challenges. After all, that’s what moon shots are for.