Albert Einstein is often attributed with the fantastic quote that:

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

While it may not have been Einstein that said it, however, the fact that it’s attributed to someone who literally changed the world at least in part enabled by a move from one political and social system to another one is interesting.

In my spare time, I’ve been thinking about all of the pundits who are suggesting ways that New Zealand (actually, not just New Zealand, but the world) can economically recover from Covid-19.

Firstly, I need to say that I’m a little nervous that the vast majority of those opinion pieces have come from well-meaning, but hugely privileged individuals. I’m also aware of the irony that me opining on anything is yet another example of a privileged white dude articulating his “reckons.” And so with that caveat, let’s get into it.

My good mate MOD, penned one of his always-entertaining OpEds this weekend. In it, he talks about his experience in lockdown, and the fact that, with good e-commerce availability, streaming video and the other essentials of life, it wasn’t so bad. Now MOD is a smart guy, who has a tonne of awareness and empathy for those less fortunate than him, so I’m not suggesting for a minute that his post is ignorant, but it does seem to be predicated on the perpetuation of a status quo: namely, that people will continue to be driven by the desire for luxuries they mistakenly consider necessities and, secondly, that the current model of consumption (where massive multi-nationals create the goods, often in low-cost economies, and then sell them at arms-length to consumers, will continue. It also misses the point of the 80% (or more) of people for whom ready availability of e-commerce and all the latest (and oldest) movies on Netflix isn’t important – for these people, it’s things like, you know, food and shelter that doesn’t come with the high likelihood of getting beaten up that tick the box.

As I said to a mate I was opining with on the Twitters, it feels a little bit like today’s version of Marie Antonette’s famous “let them eat cake” line. We (and buy we I mean the Western World which consumes the lion’s share of global resources, but does so while externalizing all the impacts of that consumption to some forgotten third-world backwater) are the aristocracy sitting inside the Palace of Versailles enjoying the luxury furnishing while, unbeknownst to us, the people are gathering outside, ready to storm.

Last week I wrote a critique of another well-meaning, but potentially misguided individual’s suggestion that the answer for New Zealand was to invite 50 or so billionaires down here to build mansions as a way of drumming up some dollars. The idea being that 50 people, each committing to buying $5M worth of land and building a $5M property on it quickly generates $5B worth of money in the system. And, as Keynes and his followers have been telling us forever, the trickle-down theory will mean that cash drives benefits for everyone in society. Or does it?

For this is where the disconnect between MOD’s experience of lockdown, the suggestions of those who have all the answers, and the reality on the ground happens. It’s also where we are fortunate that we have a leader like Jacinda Ardern who can articulate themes like kindness and empathy.

It strikes me that we’ve got a huge number of people who have built success off the back of this concentration of wealth and whose perspective is biased towards the status quo. And, like all people who have enjoyed success, it’s hard to think within the context of a different paradigm. And when that success is built off a system that sees financial distribution ever more inequitable distributed, you see successful people who have lost touch with everyday people.

As a friend said to me this afternoon:

One of the reasons the US has become so dysfunctional is that almost everyone there thinks they are only one lucky break away from becoming a billionaire and so they end with a political system where making life better for people isn’t on the agenda

And you add that lack of awareness of inequity to this sense of infallibility. It becomes even more damaging. As my friend continued:

And that’s what I mean about completely out of touch, it’s at the point where it becomes almost toxic. Make that toxic and forget the almost. The other part of [their] success, is the sense of infallibility. I come across a lot of tech entrepreneurs who simply can’t be told anything because they know everything.

Coronavirus is a global crisis. As a smart man said to me, social change always comes after these things. It can go either way, a flowering or a return to something feudal. I think and hope NZ will flower.

Our opportunity is to rethink the economic models, to think about everyone, not just those with the luxury of privilege. Let’s engineer our new society to be one in which we value not just financial results, but social and environmental ones. Let’s create a society that uses our finite resources with respect, and distributes the benefits of that resource use to all. Let’s think about businesses driving for impact, not just profits. We have the opportunity to make our world and the world generally, a better and fairer place. Let’s not waste it.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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