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COVID-19 is accelerating a burning desire for change, creating a mandate for more responsible business.
Mercury Rising, Thirty-Eight Degrees and Butterfly Effect are Hollywood movies that derived their names from theories of social science used to explain unpredictable, complex change. Often this occurs with a single localized incident that has an impact of global proportions, as we have seen with the Black Lives Matters movement.
The long-term implications of COVID-19 are likely to be even more profound and represent an inflection point for both business leaders and public policymakers.
In my former career of counter-terrorism, I have seen how highly charged, emotive events have the capacity to engineer major change.
9/11 shaped a new era of collaboration, across borders and between governments and industry, in the universal spirit of making society safer.
Years later, many of those close bonds were broken by the effects of the Snowden allegations relating to government’s use of big data. That was another inflection point, fostering anxiety between government and Big Tech that is still with us today.
With COVID-19 we are living through impacts of enormous proportion.
Never before, in the face of a major crisis for society, have we seen so much action on a global scale, putting urgent health and societal needs far ahead of global economic interests.
As global lockdowns continue, can we detect that something has really changed for the better? And, if so, will it last?
Businesses and their leaders have been moving for some time towards an era of ‘responsible business,’ matching up corporate actions more directly with social impact.
We’ve seen consumer product manufacturer’s scale up the production and supply of sanitary products, and tech companies collaborate to offer digital ‘track and trace’ solutions, or sharing user information with the World Health Organization.
These examples involve deep cooperation between industry and governments, on a scale rarely seen. This temporary phase of business as an extension of public and social infrastructure could be a blueprint for the future, with industry becoming part of the solution and an asset to effective Government. That is good for society and it makes commercial sense too.
All that said, it is impossible not to hear public frustration with health and racial inequality, globalisation and capitalism, and the public’s burning appetite for change.
Chief executives should see this moment as a mandate not a risk, with an opportunity to ‘build back better’ from this outbreak, to quote Paul Polman, the former boss of Unilever.
Many instruments of change are at hand.
COVID-19 has demonstrated the benefits of modern digital solutions in helping to solve the biggest problems in society.
Against a backdrop of general concern about the privacy implications of technology, this COVID-19 experience has fashioned a more optimistic outlook about the role data-led systems can play.
That is not to say that those privacy concerns are less important. Instead it speaks in favour of cultivating a broader culture of digital ethics in business, ensuring the principles of privacy and data security are built into the heart of future products and operating models.
Bringing greater transparency to global supply chains is also a critical part of a more responsible economy. The spectre of illicit labour markets has hung over large corporations for some time.
COVID-19 has magnified the problem, not least for those at the lowest and least protected part of the working population.
In all this, there are lessons here for governments.
Many officials will have been encouraged by the response of the business community to this pandemic and will hope it continues in the same spirit.
To facilitate that, governments should avoid the temptation to over-regulate areas of continued private sector participation, instead stimulate the free-flowing exchange of innovation practices, and to focus on re-building levels of trust.
With groundswells of change, not just in response to COVID-19 but around culture, societal and climate issues, the world is watching what CEOs and businesses do next.
This momentum should propel the business world towards a new social contract with society.
It’s quite an opportunity. Seize it and we will all emerge stronger.
To discuss any of the points I raise in this blog, please get in touch.