Future Present – Reflections from the Edinburgh Futures Institute

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EFI is publishing a series of blogs that allow our community to respond to the existing crisis of COVID 19 through a variety of lenses and perspectives. 

EFI is publishing a series of blogs that allow our community to respond to the existing crisis of COVID 19 through a variety of lenses. These lenses, economy, sustainability, creativity, history, health, justice, education, democracy, societies, are some of the themes critical to recovery. Members of the EFI community from across the University, different Schools, disciplines and experiences, will share their work and insight and help us consider our present future.

Launching the series is EFI’s Director, Professor Lesley McAra, who shares her thoughts on the current lived experience of the lockdown and how it may shape our collective journey. Additional reflections and articles will be forthcoming from our Directorate and the wider EFI community. Watch this space!

Future Present

Seven weeks into lockdown, and sights are now turning to exit strategies. But how can we tackle safely the fundamental changes which COVID-19 has wrought in our day-to-day lives? And what role can and should universities play in supporting recovery and transitions to a ‘neo-norm’?

Social order as metaphor

The UK government has used the metaphor of war in its response to the pandemic – ‘fighting’ the invisible threat, characterising health workers as frontline ‘soldiers’, exhorting us to stay alert (now) to any viral uprising, mobilising the population with a call to arms. In doing so, the government is following a path, well-worn through history, of attempts to create a sense of common values and purpose – of a legitimate social order – through the invocation of real or imagined enemies. But this war-like discourse does not accord with the lived experiences of the lockdown, and, as I will argue, the pandemic has exposed the shortcomings of any social compact based primarily on exclusivity.

The fragility and significance of social bonds

In such a very short space of time, the virus has cruelly highlighted the fragility of our social, political, cultural and economic institutions – the predictions of the worst economic downturn in 300 years, the loss of critical education transitions for a generation of school pupils and students, the demise of sport and organised leisure activities, the shutting down of civic institutions such as places of worship, the decimation of tourism and festivals. I could go on.

The impact of the virus too reflects and reinforces a social order riven with inequalities. Death rates are significantly higher among the most poor and dispossessed, older people, and those from BAME backgrounds. Lockdown is having a disproportionately negative impact on those in violent or difficult relationships; those with no ready access to gardens or living in overcrowded households or buildings; children with special educational needs and their care-givers, to name but a few. Among the silent voices are some of our hardest-to-reach groups such as travelling communities, those experiencing homelessness, as well as those living with end-stage illness. This stratification belies any notion of being ‘in it together’.

More positively, however, the lockdown has also exposed some fundamentals of social connection – oft hidden and never so openly celebrated as now. Volunteering, the rainbow messaging, the teddies to guide toddler walks, the gifting, the Thursday clap for the NHS and key workers – all examples of the micro-connectivity that underscores a sense of social belonging, all expressions of compassion, altruism, love; and all expressions which challenge notions of social order based on othering.

Acknowledge complexity and inter-dependency

As strategies to ease the lockdown move towards implementation, the shortcomings of a war-like political discourse become even more evident. Ensuring compliance is not a simple matter of command and control nor of punishment and deterrence nor of mere exhortation to use ‘common sense’. Above all, this pandemic has highlighted the complexities and inter-dependencies of our institutional and policy frameworks – that the fundamentals of human and planetary flourishing require governments to be multi-disciplinary and international in approach and to work across policy portfolios. Health, social care, education, transport, economy, justice – all intersect and all are co-dependent. And so changes in one segment of the policy frame will have implications for the others. Without a holistic – ‘whole systems approach’ – there will be confusion, misalignment and further viral contagion. Scientific research on vaccination and therapies requires cross national cooperation and needs to intersect with knowledge on social, economic and cultural recovery to ensure maximum efficacy and impact. The easing out of lockdown is, therefore, not a singular action but an interplay of multiple behaviours.

Re-making the public realm

The pandemic has also demonstrated the value of a reinvigorated public realm. Independent, trusted, public service broadcasting is critical to effective communication and building public confidence and understanding. Similarly, the financial support extended by the State to business and industry has become critical to ensuring economic survival. What has become particularly evident world-wide is the lack of preparedness and limited capacity of populist governments to properly protect their own populace: and a key lesson is that pandemic survival requires leaders who are able to sublimate ego and ambition for the greater good.

Who and what are universities for?

At this critical juncture in history, what then is the role of the university?

In my view, higher education has a major role to play in support of economic recovery and community regeneration. Universities themselves form unique sites of convocation and advocacy, of challenge and innovation, of independent thought and deep knowledge. While universities too are facing major financial pressures as a result of the pandemic, they form a crucial part of civic culture and of a reinvigorated public realm. Universities have a duty to nurture their staff and students as we find new ways of working in the liminal contexts between pandemic and recovery. And at Edinburgh we are justly proud of our many colleagues and student partners who are volunteering, participating in community projects, undertaking research on COVID-related topics, and working as practitioners in covid wards and other health and social care settings.

The Edinburgh Futures Institute has been established to build challenge-focused and data-informed education and research which aims to support societies’ navigation of complex futures. We are committed to collaborative working with communities, industry and government: a democratic approach to innovation which now finds its first test in the pivot towards COVID-19 recovery. Our first major set of programmes link to sectors of the economy which have suddenly become very precarious as a direct consequence of the pandemic: creative industries, tourism, and festivals. They also link to drivers and enablers of recovery including future infrastructure, financial and public services. At the Institute, our multi-disciplinary approach recognises the need to understand the interdependencies of complex social and economic systems and to interrogate the ways in which inequalities become intensified and reproduced. Our aim to understand the ethical implications of technology-infused intervention; the conditions needed to promote greater social inclusion; and the ways in which creativity can support healing and positive transitions has never been more relevant.

Moving toward the ‘neo-norm’

Over the next few months EFI is launching a series of activities focused on COVID-19 response in collaboration the wider community both inside and outside the university. These include a series of blogs reflecting on the impacts of COVID-19 pandemic, with the aim of bringing diverse evidence to bear on social, economic, and cultural recovery. Together we will launch a broader community ‘in-reach’ project where contributions from individuals and community groups locally, nationally and internationally will be brought together. Here we aim to build an archive of personal reflections, provocations, and perspectives using multi-media (blogs, images, sound) on the lived-experience and outcomes of the pandemic. What differences has the pandemic made to rural and city landscapes, to identities and connections, to health and well-being, what has been the community experience of social distancing, and of remaking association when lockdown ends. Finally, we are going to use our power of convocation to launch a series of outreach events on recovery and regeneration, bringing together academic experts, experts by experience, and public, private and third sector institutions.

I have used the term ‘neo-norm’ rather than ‘new normal’ precisely because the pandemic provides a moment, a critical juncture, in which many of the values by which we have lived (the ‘old normal) are open to scrutiny as never before. The lived experience of the lockdown reminds us of the role that community activism and a reimagined public realm can play in building and sustaining a more just and equal society. I hope that you will join us and help shape our collective journey.

Professor Lesley McAra

Professor Lesley McAra

Director of EFI

Join us to challenge, create, and make change happen.