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Roll Out The Diggers, They Cry. I Say No

Roll out the diggers, they cry. I say no. Roll out the 70% off sales. I say no. Rather than blindly re-build our communities and businesses based on solutions from last century, let’s consciously create a future we want. A happy, resilient society, where people live out lives of purpose. An equal society where people create together and solve problems together. A society unafraid of the future.

In the many conversations I have had over the last few weeks, people have shared about their increasing anxiety about the “return to normal”. The lockdown has cost a lot but it would appear we’ve also got a lot back.

Going to the office, the daily commute, buying a coffee; many of the things we used to do have faded from importance. Granted, many of us miss our daily coffee from our favourite cafe, but would we trade it in for the extra time we got back for ourselves, the time with family and time in nature. The joy of a “slower life”, a more self-determined life (ironic, given that the pandemic on first blush took away many of our freedoms) should not be forgotten and I am curious what lessons we will take from this experience that will inform us as we build the future.

I recognise the experience I paint has not been afforded to all. Our front-liners, our supermarket workers, our medics, our security guards and many others. They have stepped up in ways I am incredibly thankful for. Our homeless, our elderly and our immunocompromised; this has been an incredibly hard time for many. The perspective I share is one that comes from privilege. And it is the privileged, with the time to think, the time to reflect and the time to consider, who are ultimately going to dictate how the future looks.

What kind of society would you build if you didn’t know whether you would end up at the top or bottom of the social ladder? Would our politicians, business leaders & people of influence rush into stimulus packages that “gift a shovel” to put men and women back to work, digging up roads, water pipes, and sewers for the next few years? Is it jobs that the millions of unemployed or marginally employed need or is it purpose? The answer is both. We need jobs and we also need people living with the benefits of a life of purpose. If we are going to build infrastructure, why not make it infrastructure fit for a future we want rather than based on a model of a society from the past.

Society building is no easy business. No matter where we place our investment dollars, there are always going to be hidden “alligators” and costs that we won’t see until they hit us sometime in the future. What will the cost be on putting people to work with a “shovel in hand” on mental health, on innovation, on our climate? Is there a more balanced, more purposeful and more innovative approach?

Do our cities need new roads, new water pipes, new buildings and new bridges? Yes. And we also need holistic health centres, rocket launch pads, regenerative farms, geothermal server farms to power the future of our digital lives, artistic expression & innovation too? Before we rush into only building things that society of old says we need, let’s look to the society of the future and ask what does it need?

If we invested a portion of the money we were going to invest in new water pipes into emergent water harvesting technology, would we get the same outcome of “fresh water to every home” without the cost of digging up our cities? The health and safety hazards, the air pollution, not to mention the future cost of maintenance and having to do it all over again in 50 years would be avoided.

What about building a truly digital-first social learning platform or university. We could educate everyone on the planet in real-time and expose them to new ways of thinking and working that would allow them to contribute to solving some of the many problems we face. Would this not be a good infrastructure investment?

If we built one less highway and instead invested that money into an entrepreneurship wage, what would be possible? The arrival of flying “cars” and localised drone delivery networks that connect us? These technologies are waiting in the wings and only need a little focus and additional investment to finally land. How about solutions to our looming climate and mental health crisis? Entrepreneurship is an innate human discipline because at its core it is a creative sport and human beings, when given the time, space and structure, are incredibly creative.

Creative expression and innovation during the lockdown months has been at an all-time high; collective clapping from balconies in Europe, balcony orchestras, car factories being turned into ventilator factories, the facebook challenges, music and dance performances, the students delivering groceries to the elderly.

What about an artistic wage? What would the social benefits be if we unleashed the millions of frustrated artists, who suffer because of a lack of self-expression? Better mental health. Increased volunteering. Stronger and more resilient local communities benefiting from people living happy lives.

In some ways what I’m talking about is an investment in a Universal Basic Income of sorts balanced with infrastructure investment. The artistic and entrepreneurship wage coupled with a structured programme of personal & social development could help individuals & society break free of the limitations that keep us stuck, frustrated, disempowered & unwell.

My greatest fear is we take the easy and obvious route. We pull the blueprint up from the past and blindly march our way toward new roads, new water pipes and sewers. I want to run into the locked room of politicians and decision-makers and scream stop. I want to know that we are not blindly marching forward.

I had a nightmare last night that compelled me to write. It was one of ships rolling into my local port of Lyttelton, Christchurch, New Zealand. All the ships were filled with diggers and building materials. There were so many ships that they had to park them in parts of the harbour that never normally take ships. I looked out on the scene from my nightmare and shuddered.

So what world are we going to create? Will we be bold and brave? Will we take a moment to pause and create a vision for society that is inclusive of all, both those here today and those coming in the future? We have the opportunity to build a society that provides the kind of life & experience that some of us have tasted in the last few months.

If you were in charge, if you had all the money, where would you invest? What kind of society would you build?

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