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Activating collective will: Responding to the pandemic at the system level

Mille Bojer
May, 2020


“Covid demonstrates the power of our collective will when we agree on what is important. What else might we achieve, in coherency? What do we want to achieve, and what world shall we create?” – Charles Eisenstein

Reos Partners works at the heart of a global web of multi-stakeholder efforts, each aiming to bring about change in a specific system, for example the food system in Southern Africa, the education system in the United States, the justice system in Mali, the fashion industry in Brazil, and the insurance system in Argentina.

These systems are experiencing profound impacts and ripple effects from COVID-19. The implications are extensive, complex and uncertain, and they affect different social systems in distinct ways, varying across domains, sectors, geographies, and societal groupings.

Each of the system change efforts we support convenes diverse stakeholders from across sectors and perspectives who engage together over time in a collaborative, systemic, and experimental process. In this challenging time, they are uniquely positioned to engage in perceiving and responding to COVID-19 not only from the perspective of individual actors or institutions, but also from a perspective of “we the system”.

We are accompanying them as they grapple with COVID and ask themselves four key questions:

1. How can we help now?

The Sustainable Fashion Lab team in Brazil is enabling the production of medical masks and gowns for hospitals, beginning with those in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. This rapid response involves collaboration among multiple supply chain stakeholders, experts, the public sector, industry associations, foundations, and seamstresses working from home. The seamstresses who receive fair wages and work under good working conditions are part of the Tramando Junt@s (Weaving Together) initiative, a social business spinoff of the Lab. Their production shifted quickly from clothing to medical supplies to meet demand resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Sustainable Fashion Lab group also collaborated on a sectoral position paper, presented to the Ministry of the Economy, in support of emergency measures for small businesses and workers in the fashion supply chain who are most affected by the crisis.

Meanwhile in the United States, due to the impact of COVID-19, postsecondary students are facing a host of issues related to loss of income that threaten their wellbeing and ability to remain in school. The need for emergency aid (EA) funds has risen sharply. Colleges are doing their best to respond to student needs immediately, whether or not they have the systems, capacities, and tools in place to do so effectively.

Prior to the onset of COVID-19, Reos Partners had already developed an integrated solution for postsecondary institutions: the
Emergency Aid Roadmap. Evolving out of the Emergency Aid Lab, this solution enables campuses to transition from having informal, ad hoc EA efforts to implementing comprehensive programs that increase retention, completion, and student success. Now, Reos Partners is working with multiple partners toward development of a Rapid Response EA program. The proposed approach includes delivering a light level of rapid support to address urgent needs and enable campuses to develop a minimum level of effective response as quickly as possible.

2. How can we keep up our collaboration through virtual connections?

Many of the social labs we facilitate, such as the
Justice Transformation Labs for Mali and Syria and the
Inclusive Insurance Innovation Lab currently working in India, Morocco, Argentina, and Rwanda, are continuing their work while shifting to a virtual environment. Using videoconferencing and virtual whiteboards, they are collectively mapping systemic leverage points, transformation pathways, and user journeys, as well as creating prototypes of new innovative solutions.

These virtual technologies are unfamiliar to many participating stakeholders, who are rapidly learning how to work virtually as they strive to continue their collaboration. In some cases, participants had limited internet access and bandwidth. In response, some partner organizations, such as the Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (HiiL), have provided mobile internet to these participants while the Reos Partners team provides coaching on how to work with the tools. This is adding a further dimension to the transformative and empowering impact of these labs.

3. How is COVID affecting our system, and how do we need to respond?

In addition to supporting the work of members of its network in responding to immediate and urgent needs, the
Southern African Food Lab is offering its website as a portal for information-sharing about the ways in which COVID-19 is affecting the food system and about possible systemic responses. It is demonstrating how the COVID-19 crisis is being magnified in the food system; highlighting the links between food insecurity, malnutrition, and the pandemic; and showing how the current situation exposes the inequitable ways in which food systems operate. It is also engaging in and facilitating conversations to generate responses to the pandemic that are comprehensive, cross-sectoral, and at the same time agile.

4. How do we want to emerge from this? How might we apply our expanded imagination and the reset that COVID-19 has catalyzed towards rethinking our system for the future?

As it upends our familiar reality and causes great pain and suffering, the virus also creates conditions for a new transition. At Reos Partners, we are proactively supporting social systems to look beyond the crisis toward the “next normal” for their system.

COVID-19 has demonstrated that things we may have thought were impossible — such as basic income grants, student debt relief, housing for the homeless, regeneration of natural habitats, or significantly reducing air pollution and carbon emissions — are not beyond our reach. It has deeply shifted our mindset around the recognition and value of “essential services”. It has exposed both flaws and strengths in our old systems and mindsets and has rapidly confronted us with unfamiliar threats and opportunities.

This is a moment of uncertainty and expansion of imagination. It has even been called the Great Realisation. However, although many leaders and citizens have realised something new during this crisis, a mindset change is not going to be enough if we are not able to translate it into resilient structures, rules, investments, habits, and forms of leadership that will be sustained after the crisis fades.

The systems perspective generated when multi-stakeholder alliances work together over time has never been more important. These alliances serve as a space in which the direction of a system – that which is outside the control of any one actor - may be reoriented deliberately through collaboration.

Contributors to this article include: Monica Pohlmann, Lucilene Danciguer, Christel Scholten, Yiannis Chrysostomidis, Giovanni Sgobaro, and Colleen Korniak.

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