Looking back at the Covid MassSense; Part 2: What could change and how?

March 1, 2023

The response patterns to our questions suggest that COVID was a chance to re-assess the relationship between the collective, the individual, and the world around us. 

This relationship is crucial in climate change, where we continuously grapple with the ideas of action, motivation, and impact. To dig deeper, we will focus on how perceived impact combines with the image people chose to associate with their response. As a reminder, participants were shown a graph of CO2 emissions. The first question we asked them was to associate an image with this graph. The images they could select (seen here as a collage) represented different aspects of the pandemic experience: travel reduction, social movements, contact with nature, lockdowns, and remote work. The triad we will focus on then asked people to situate their collective impression of the emissions graph and the picture they chose in relation to three possible areas of impact: individual behaviour, the economy, or the ecosystem’s needs. The patterns you seen below represent the visual result of how everyone who participated saw the relationship between those three areas. They have not been produced through any algorithmic analysis or machine learning – they are simply the aggregation of multiple, independent human sensors.

From impact to relationships

What has been affected indirectly also tells us about what affects; if the elements the images represent are perceived as affecting some things more than others (for example, individuals more than ecosystems), this tells us that participants tend to link the theme expressed by the picture (say, travel) with some domains more than others. So what are some specific links we arrived at (pictured in the figure below)?

Impact on individual behaviour is associated with flying and (less exclusively) with the responses to lockdown and physical distancing rules. An interesting further implication to ponder is the degree to which we see the things we went through in the pandemic, the choices we made (freely or because of legislation), mostly through the lens of what happened to each of us rather than all of us – ultimately, were we in this together? 

We also asked participants follow-on open questions on the changes they feel they could keep up forever and on their visions of a utopic future. Responses to the former question (on changes) show that consumption habits are seen as a component of individual behaviour. These findings show parallels with the observations of a study from Sitra on how lives in Finland have changed after the lockdown. That study found that Covid has prompted a re-assessment of priorities and more consideration of the impact of small choices and behaviours, resulting in more readiness to take action and responsibility. Travel habits were cited as a part of that shift and are very prominent in the changes listed by our participants.

Going back to our patterns, an impact that bridges the needs of the individual with those of the ecosystem is primarily associated with collective action, while the ecosystem alone takes an even more prominent role among those focusing on nature. This link between levels (large and small, individual and collective) is another element featured in the Sitra report mentioned above, which identified the sense of shared responsibility as a bridge towards the potential for systemic change. Similarly, adopting more sustainable lifestyles is part of a socio-cultural project, not just a personal consumption choice. Another paper from the early pandemic days already connected change and collective mechanisms, such as citizens’ assemblies. Such collaborative action is a way to create a social mandate around individual change so it can be sustained and sustainable. 

Changes and visions of the future

So far, we have been talking about themes in theory. To close out this section, let’s take a look at peoples’ own words on changes they see as likely to continue, which reflect a lot of the themes discussed above:

“offering a Yoga class online every morning for 3 months straight; spending time without the need for entertainment with family and inner circle of friends; join talks with very different communities and networks globally with a sense of greater connectivity; the readiness to be open, vulnerable, ask open ended questions, admit to being wrong, support others without asking for rewards even in semi-formal groups (work-related, but not part of actual job); the flexibility and willingness to experiment i.e. in hybrid teams and working from home; the chance to stop running, stay home, and breathe”

And we can complement that with a vision of the future:

“Our American communities agreed at local and state levels to focus on sustainable living and eating goals, enabling all citizens to have a safe place to live, healthy food to eat. Cities are redesigned, with space repurposed primarily for housing, secondarily for commerce/organizations. Agriculture is rethought and localized, with a focus on seasonal, local ingredients and self-growing (small hydroponic/grow light devices are found in each dwelling to grow a selection of fruit and veg). Rural areas have local farms and greenhouses carefully planned to provide the food needed by communities in a 25-mile radius. Energy farms have replaced many large-scale agricultural spaces, with a focus on solar, wind, geo-thermal, and other renewable tech, again–providing energy needs for folks in a 25-mile radius.”

So, what does it all mean?

We see behaviour as primarily associated with the choices we could (or couldn’t) make: around going out, around travelling, around meeting with particular people in particular places and ways. Yet in collective behaviour and the pursuit of political goals, even when not explicitly described as political, we see more of a possibility to simultaneously impact the needs of the ecosystem and our behaviour. According to a participant, “We now live in a world, where we understand the need to act collectively for a brighter future, COvid has made us understand crisis needs to be addressed in time if we are to avoid disaster.” In our patterns, we see evidence that the lesson is there. Whether it has collectively sunk in is, unfortunately, a different question.  


Banner image by Tara Scahill on Unsplash

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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