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Opinionista

Nothing like a crisis to focus the mind

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Technology entrepreneur, Rapelang Rabana has amassed 15 years’ experience building innovative technologies. She is the founder of learning-tech startup Rekindle Learning, a thought leader on digital innovation and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. BBusSci (Hons Comp. Sci), and M.Sc, University of Cape Town.

Now is the time to recognise the arbitrary nature of our cultural habits and economic constructs and open our minds to new possibilities. Those who bend and twist with the change in tides, will fare much better than those who resist.

“Sometimes you need a little crisis to get your adrenaline  flowing and help you realize your potential.” – CJ Redwine

As the dominos begin to fall around us, with Covid-19 causing havoc and the global economy creaking, it may seem disingenuous to consider what we gain from Corona. But history shows us that life is about seasons and cycles. Absolutely everything comes to pass and we come out better and stronger on the other side. These times, when our lives are in limbo with nationwide lockdowns, will actually create room for deliberate rumination, reflection and experimentation. Corona won’t leave us unscathed, but I believe that reflection and experimentation is at the heart of growth and transformation.

If we can still remember, a popular theme in conversations before the advent of Corona was all about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and how organisations and societies can become more creative and transform themselves. We toyed with ideas on how we could adopt digital technologies to address socio-economic challenges in food, health, security and education, and how businesses can reduce costs, drive new revenue streams and dramatically improve productivity. Even President Cyril Ramaphosa was at the helm preaching this gospel of exponential technologies. But, as I have observed many times in different contexts, when real life sets in, we push aside what we perceive as nice and cute ideas and we get back to work using the thinking and processes we have always known. At least until Corona.

The biggest block to creativity and innovation results from people’s broad acceptance of the status quo, and I would even say, the emotional commitment to the “way things are”. A blind adherence to “this is how the world works”, like it’s the truth. Most of us don’t realise that we spend our entire lives living in our own self-created box, a bell jar that determines so much of our behaviour, how our brain is wired, and how we end up seeing the world – so much so that we are not aware that we only seeing ONE view of the world. Corona forces us to see that the status quo can change, very dramatically and very quickly. That the things we held to be constant, are not so permanent.

This experience fertilises the ground for a deeper questioning of other status quos. Traumatic events like this have an uncanny ability to force us to press the pause, rewind, restart button, as we each experience our own FML moments. The sting of trauma forces our minds to step out of the movie we have been living, to sit and observe for a while; it forces us to separate ourselves from what we thought was true and constant, what we perceived to be a part of our being, and question everything. Without this sting, the humdrum of life would continue to consume us day to day and our focus would still be on getting through all our menial tasks as quickly as possible. We would continue to live our lives as if they are scheduled like you are stuck in some play, that you act it, not knowing when exactly you signed up for that play. Now our minds are opened and we have to pause and ask ourselves if we are even doing the right thing anymore.

We have a rare opportunity to take a step back and raise our level of awareness, above the assumptions we have made, the limiting beliefs that have determined how our businesses run and how we live. Space for innovation is created when we become aware of our perception of a fixed reality, and realise that it was all so malleable. Suddenly, we can see the assumptions we had made and beliefs that had governed how our world works. Before we couldn’t see them because it was just “how the world works” or “the way things are”. Trauma hurts. We bleed. But we come out on the other side with different perspectives of the world. Uprooted from our familiar ways we will be able to see the world at new angles, and this fresh perspective is the source of greater creativity. 

Corona has finally proven that most workers in the services sector really don’t need to drive to a building every single day to work. We don’t need to exhaust ourselves in traffic, looking for parking, and accelerating environmental deterioration. It has shown us that if you need to watch your people in order to make sure they are working, the problem isn’t your team but you. Companies have relented and permitted confidential meetings to be held in people’s kitchens and sensitive documents to leave the office network. Finally. 

“There is always an opportunity with crisis. Just as it forces an individual to look inside himself, it forces a company to reexamine its policies and practices.” – Judy Smith

Now is the time for more assumptions to fall.

Do we really need to constrain access to connectivity and internet access to only higher income earners who can afford the right devices and data?

When we have enough natural resources in terms of spectrum and alternative technologies to connect all people to the digital economy, real-time information, and provide sustainable alternative ways to make a livelihood.

Do we really need to rely primarily on physical branches and offices to service our clients?

When we have mobile and other digital channels which, if fully developed and supported, can be used to fully service our clients, possibly even better than the in-person experience.

Do we need to haul people into a room for training sessions, and children into classrooms all day long to learn?

When we have digital learning platforms through laptops, tablets and mobile devices and even virtual reality to create a range of experiential learning moments.

Do we need to keep eating nutrient-poor food for short-term pleasures, or allow the cost of nutrient-rich food to rise while the cost of processed food declines, penetrates more homes and perpetuates the rise of lifestyle illnesses?

When we have all the knowledge today of how what we eat determines life outcomes and our susceptibility to coronaviruses. When we know how biotechnology can be used to enrich our food for the benefit of all.

Do we need to run out of medical equipment and wait for items to arrive from China?

When we could be using 3D printing for emergency production within the localised areas that require the equipment?

Do we need to continue to let people live in overpopulated squalor, without electricity and running water? 

When there is no shortage of land, technology to fabricate homes faster than ever before and renewable energy sources.

Do we need to ask those who tested positive for Covid-19 to fill out a form listing the places they visited in the previous few days and who they came into contact with?

When we should empower concerned citizens and Covid-positive citizens to voluntarily share their location history and automatically identify points and times of risk so people who may be at risk are informed and take action.

Do we need to wait for another crisis like Corona or another FML moment to start acting, before we start doing work ourselves, before we start changing our organisations? This is not just a wake-up call to change how we are doing this now, but more importantly, that we shouldn’t wait for another crisis to change how we do things.

Having our world turned upside down, opens us up to greater creativity and innovation. We always knew that there was another way of doing things, but it always seemed too difficult or unnecessary. Well, no more. Corona is the greatest accelerator of digital transformation we have seen yet. Let’s set our minds free.

What assumptions can you bust through? DM

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