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The world may seem bleak right now, but Team Human can still have the last laugh

This piece by Michael Hayman originally appeared in City A.M, see here

“A day without laughter is a day wasted.” Words of wisdom from the twentieth century comic genius that was Charlie Chaplin.

But whatever 2020 is ultimately remembered for, it seems set to be a year where very few of its days will have been characterised by cheerfulness.

The epic challenge presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, now accompanied by the consequences of unparalleled economic upheaval, is enough to challenge the stoutest of optimists.

That the world is in crisis there can be no doubt. Whether that crisis (to borrow the words of a former Prime Minister) goes to waste remains to be seen.

With so many previously unassailable conventions about the way we live, work and play now turned on their heads, we face an era where the rules are now open for a rewrite. Make no mistake, in this there is an opportunity.

The goal does not need to be like-for-like recovery. Go back to the way it was as quickly as possible might be the objective for some, but the virus has opened the gate and the proverbial horse has bolted.

This is an era for reinvention, regeneration, and renewal — and we need to grip these bold words as talismans for the future.

Moreover, the sense of a short-term opportunity might soon become a long-term obligation for the private and public spheres alike to change. Defining events have a tendency to do that.

Consider the Edwardians who, in 1918, came blinking out of the trenches of war to a world soon to deliver incredible technological and societal advancements. Some things may well have looked familiar, but in reality everything had changed — and with the change an ill-prepared generation swiftly passed the baton on to another.

Or look to the aftermath of the Second World War, when the immediate priority was to ensure food security and to deliver a sense of better times ahead. It was the thirst for change and stability that was to cost Winston Churchill dearly at the ballot box.

This time, the imperative moves from food to health security. Woe betide a nation that cannot keep its citizens safe, which is at least one part of the explanation for the intense national efforts around the world to develop a vaccine.

In turn, economic and social imperatives also point towards the opportunity for change. That we breathe a sigh of relief at the latest Bank of England predictions that the UK economy will shrink “only” by a massive 9.5 per cent underpins just how much work needs to be done to rebuild national prosperity — and our sense of confidence.

All this is why thinking differently about business and the way it is done is a crucial part of the response.

Some have smirked at the recent plans by John Lewis to turn redundant retail stores into housing projects, for example. But such a radical change in strategy might be an early signal of the reinvention of the company business model, and realisation that to move from survive to thrive relies on embracing the digital future fully.

At the same time, while many business leaders (and the Prime Minister) understandably want to see office workforces return by the battalion to the workplace, they also need to understand that something has changed in our relationship with the traditional way of working. That means opening our minds to doing things differently — not just for health reasons but for social ones too.

Then there is the virus itself, which has united people around the world with a sense of their own mortality and the fragility of the planet in which we live. If you think net zero is a can of fizzy drink, you need to get with the programme — and learn from the companies playing their part in reducing carbon emissions and building a more sustainable planet.

These are frightening times, and it is the only foolhardy who claim to have the answers. The challenges facing the planet are beyond the relatable experience of us all.

But one thing is more likely to be true: we will prosper by embracing change and its consequences, rather than trying to hide from it. And we are more likely to triumph over our troubles by facing them together. After all, being human is a team sport.

It is in this way that in the battle with Covid-19 and the delivery of a post-virus future that Team Human could face this crisis and still have the last laugh. For, as the great Chaplin said: “nothing is permanent in this wicked world — not even our troubles”.

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