Future Proof

Six views on making stronger societies

If one thing is certain in these uncertain times, it’s that our resilience will be tested in ways that we have only just begun to imagine. However, as our social, political and employment systems are being challenged by the Covid-19 crisis, we are also in a position to learn how to adapt and improve those very systems.

The improvements can not only help us face future pandemics, but also pressing concerns such as climate change and social inequalities. With this in mind, we spoke with six specialists in Canada and Japan, in fields ranging from health governance and climate change to political science and disaster-related risk reduction, to gain a deeper sense of what we need to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Ellen MacEachen
Centre for Research on Work Disability Policy
Associate Professor
University of Waterloo, Ontario

What work system weaknesses is the Covid-19 crisis revealing?

Lack of preparedness. Our economies focus so strongly on short-term goals and needs that it’s too easy to dismiss longer-term risks. For instance, in Ontario, one of the first things our new conservative premier did was cut the public health budgets (as well as minimum wage and legal aid). These funds seemed expendable and non-urgent. And it caught us flat-footed. Ontario now lags behind all other provinces for Covid testing, for instance.

What can or should be done now to address these weaknesses?

We need to start thinking of the wealth of our country as tied to the health of our country. This means stronger consideration of working conditions for all. This is a context where income inequality has been growing; blue-collar jobs have been hollowing out amidst growing robotization. We have been left with knowledge workers at one end [of the workforce] and low-wage service workers at the other end. In the immediate situation, we have seen the federal government step up with income support for a wide range of workers, which is commendable. We have seen landlords give rent holidays. Basically, in the short term this is a time to share the wealth. Those who have more need to share with those in need.

We need to start thinking of the wealth of our country as tied to the health of our country.

How might sharing economy gigs be affected by the crisis?

The food delivery business is busier than ever. People are still taking Uber. But in general, this crisis is revealing the extent of our vulnerable population. It is interesting that the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) covers self-employed workers — this is a recognition that our social safety net, which has been geared to traditional workers, now also needs to protect our independent workers, such as gig workers. It is problematic though, that the gig employers have their contingent of workers protected by CERB without ever having paid a penny into employment insurance, pension plans, etc. as other employers would have done. Gig employers continue to get a free ride. That is not a fair arrangement and needs to change.

How we can improve work systems to prepare for future crises?

There’s increasing talk of a basic income. The reality has been that, with technological developments and robotization, we don’t have enough work for all Canadians and the job market will continue to change radically. A basic income would give people breathing space to upgrade their education or start a new business. It would also relieve us of a huge bureaucracy that has to check eligibility for this and that and monitor whether people are actively seeking employment. So that’s one potential “lesson.” 

Another relates to public health. We’ll have a much keener appreciation for public health and the need to prepare for potential illness. We may even come away from this with a third lesson related to the environment. Like the pandemic, [initially] it seemed fairly invisible, non-urgent. We might take it more seriously now.

Kelley Lee
Canada Research Chair Tier I Health Sciences
Simon Fraser University, British Columbia

What global health governance weaknesses is Covid-19 revealing?

The first is the failure of most countries to invest sufficiently in high-functioning public health systems. The alarm bells have been sounding for decades, to be frank, about the need to establish core capacities, as set out in the International Health Regulations, to conduct disease surveillance and reporting. In addition, all countries need robust public health systems, capable of swinging into action to control major outbreaks when they occur. What we are finding around the world is that most countries have not invested nearly enough. 

The second weakness is the failure to build up, rather than weaken, the World Health Organization (WHO). Again, the alarm bells have been ringing for a long time about insufficient resources and the need for greater authority to lead and coordinate a global pandemic response. The WHO has been starved of resources and politically marginalized for decades. It seems terribly unfair to now call on the WHO officials to do all sorts of things it has not been given the power or resources to do. 

How has globalization outpaced our public institutions?

Globalization since the 1990s has connected societies across the world to an unprecedented degree. Much of this has been driven by economic globalization — companies competing through increasing economies of scale, expanding into emerging markets through trade and investment, building global value chains, reducing labour costs and so on. What we have failed to do, alongside this rapid change, is make sure that we invest sufficiently in social and environmental protections along the way

The longstanding belief is that we need to reduce the state and let the market drive globalization. What advocates of markets fail to realize is that we cannot have strong markets without strong states. They operate together. It is like building a house on sand. Without a solid societal foundation, a crisis such as Covid-19 comes along and washes away that foundation. If we want to ensure the success of private companies amid economic globalization, we have to also build strong public institutions.

There is a real risk that some countries will want to retreat behind their borders after this pandemic subsides for fear of being vulnerable to future outbreaks.

Do any remedies not cause nations to retreat?

There is a real risk that some countries will want to retreat behind their borders after this pandemic subsides for fear of being vulnerable to future outbreaks. This would be a mistake. It is not that interconnectedness per se is bad, but that we have neglected to create the public institutions needed to manage the risks arising from being interconnected. It is this failing that we need to fix, through increased global cooperation, not less. We can do this by explaining to people why Covid-19 occurred and what collective action we all need to engage in to reduce future risks.

Do you have any advice for our readers?

For the longer term, I would encourage your readers to reflect on how they might become part of the solution to reduce the risk of a future crisis. What commitment might you make to how you live your life, or how you conduct your business? It might mean integrating health impact assessment into your business strategies, or creating a scholarship for a public health student. It might mean using teleconferencing more in your company and reducing the need to fly about the world less. Or it might simply mean filing your tax return with a different attitude. How might you contribute to solidifying the key foundations of society that we will rebuild once this pandemic is over?

Tove Kinooka
Director and Co-founder
Global Perspectives Japan

What challenges has Covid-19 presented your clients’ businesses?

One thing that they really are struggling with in general — and I think this is common to many companies — is just keeping people engaged and motivated. Some companies are finding it easier than others — particularly tech companies. For them, it was not an issue. They had the equipment, they had the knowhow and everyone’s used to using online systems, so they could adjust fairly easily to working from home. Others are finding that a lot harder, I think. 

One person I spoke to recently, who works at a large Japanese cor­po­ration, described it to me as a process of organizational un-learning, which I thought was a really interesting way of looking at it. All of a sudden, the way they usually do things can’t continue. And people are having to forget everything they know and do things completely differently.

How can teleworking team members communicate effectively?

I think it’s about keeping the personal connection, because if everything is online it can be very easy to assume that we can just email and say — “Can you do this?” Or, “Have you done that?” — and that’s enough. But we should not underestimate how it affects trust to actually see somebody’s face and talk to them, just to check in. And you know, I do this in my own company, we’re tiny, but we just check in and we go, “How is everybody?” You know, just how are things in general, not workwise. 

Actually, just maintaining that personal connection … I think we need to remind ourselves that this is first and foremost a human crisis. And leaders really need to make sure — particularly in times like this — that their teams are feeling supported as people, and are not just regarded as people who produce results for the team.

Every company needs to be saying, “What is our business continuity plan?”

What are some ways companies can “future proof” themselves?

Every company needs to be saying, “What is our business continuity plan? If something like this happens, what is our first step — who does what?” 

Bigger companies are usually better at that because it’s part of the structure. Smaller companies often don’t think about that — we just tend to hope that it would never happen. So having a plan in place is one thing and building resilience within the organization itself is another. And by that I mean the mindset; that people learn to work with uncertainty, take risks and deal with failure. This way, they’re not stuck in one mode of doing things, and are better able to adapt. 

As leaders, we need to learn to be open to that, and say, “Look, we don’t know if this is going to work, but we’re going to try it. And if it doesn’t, we’re going to use it as a learning point and we’re going to try something different.” Building in that mindset is something that can help you in any kind of change situation. 

Akiko Domoto
Japan Women’s Network for Disaster Risk Reduction
Former governor of Chiba Prefecture and W20 Advisor

How did you help foster more resilient communities as governor?

One of the most important contributions was shifting to a participatory framework for policymaking that aimed to include the voices of prefectural residents. This gave them access to public information and fostered greater transparency. We encouraged the participation of prefectural residents and helped ensure accountability and responsiveness in our policymaking. I believe that this moved the prefecture away from “top down” government and fostered a more grassroots, bottom-up approach.

Do you feel that Japan has become more resilient over the years?

Resilience is a challenging word to translate into Japanese and to really capture the image it conveys in English. I think we have to look back to the history of the Meiji period and how those deep roots have been carried forward. The first problem we can observe is the perpetuation of a very patriarchal societal structure. People talk about gender equality and the equal participation of men and women, but in fact, it has not been implemented. When I was governor, all of the top companies, the big companies in Japan were all male-dominated in their leadership. Women were mostly absent. When I arrived as governor, I was the only woman in that space. Small companies had a few women who managed to move further up in the hierarchy, but most companies were still very male dominated. Likewise, in the Diet and among senior bureaucrats, those spaces are very male dominated. This imbalance is not only in politics and the most influential companies, it is also still present within the family. I think that’s a key reason that Japanese society is actually not very resilient. Perhaps one sphere where there is perhaps less discrimination is within the field of education. There are many very high-performing, talented women in education, but their talents and genius are still not being amply invested to benefit society. 

We are definitely not using the full talents of the Japanese if we keep failing to honour women’s talents. We would be a much stronger, more resilient country if we solved the various forms of discrimination limiting women’s ability to contribute their talents fully. We are also moving backwards in terms of our efforts to include other diverse perspectives that would strengthen our society, such as people with disabilities and the views of foreigners. 

We are also moving backwards in terms of our efforts to include other diverse perspectives that would strengthen our society, such as people with disabilities and the views of foreigners.

How can we develop a globalized culture of resilience?

Global cooperation is at its most important phase right now. In order to defeat this pandemic, we cannot solve it in isolation of other countries. We need international leaders to really step up and build awareness around the collective nature of this struggle. We are not seeing as many top leaders with the qualities of leadership to really act in this critical way to inspire and mobilize populations towards a common vision. We have a population of about 7 billion, and we need every individual to become consciously aware of these challenges and how we can move forward collectively. We need all individuals to stand up and hear this call to action to protect their own lives, and the fates of their communities. That is what needs to happen for us to overcome this challenge. This struggle is one of humanity working together against a pandemic.

Jackie F. Steele
Founder, enjoi Diversity & Innovation Consulting
Governor, Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan
Political Scientist and Visiting Researcher and Lecturer,
Sophia University

Do lessons from the Tohoku triple disaster apply to Covid-19?

Many diversity and equality gaps were exposed over the past nine years of post-311 reconstruction. Had they been structurally addressed through effective law reform, Japanese society would have been much better positioned to face this pandemic. Unfortunately, law reforms since 2011 have been piecemeal in their approach and have not substantially eliminated status-based inequities that now further exacerbate the precarity of more economically vulnerable households. By comparison with Canadian policy-making, evidence-based policy-making for diversity and equity is still underdeveloped.

As with democratic self-government, resilience is a collective concept. While elected leaders are trying to signal more inclusion, they have also lacked sufficient political will to ensure law reforms that support diverse households (including common law and same-sex couples, single parents, irregular workers, dual working / homeschooling parents and entrepreneurs); those households are more vulnerable during this pandemic. Democracy is only a safety net in times of crisis, if it was already a viable safety net for all households in normal times.

What challenges does Japan face in creating resilient societies?

Within a Machiavellian worldview, laws without teeth are not meaningful statecraft. Public policies for women’s equality and the inclusion of diversity have not kept up with social evolution in Japan. Womenomics and the 2016 law aims at women’s economic empowerment as good for the GDP and the bottom line. It offers a minimalist utilitarian logic that lacks a roadmap for democratic evolution and implementation in practice. Laws are ineffective if there are no mechanisms holding leaders accountable. 

Similarly, the response to get more women into electoral politics was a new 2018 law that “encourages” political parties to recruit equal numbers of women and men, and yet the law has no compliance mechanism. The international research on women and politics shows that it takes a real threat of legal or financial consequence to motivate male elites to make their recruitment pipelines include diverse talent. 

It is easier to recruit from the old boys’ clubs. Independent-minded women and men are less predictable and loyalty is what is most rewarded in politics. The 2020 elections held after the adoption of the new 2019 gender parity law resulted in no improvement. Disappointingly, the LDP were among the worst offenders, and yet they could have unilaterally raised Japan’s 2021 World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index performance had they complied with their own law. 

As with democratic self-government, resilience is a collective concept.

How can resilience be strengthened and encouraged?

Resilience is a collective practice. We need leaders to design diversity and solidarity into the DNA of our parliaments, liberal market organizations, and capitalist practices of socio-economic cooperation. In 2020, the retention of global talent and women’s talent is an ongoing hurdle. Some corporate leaders are changing the structures that consciously discriminate against those who do not fit the 1950s “Japanese male breadwinner with housewife” assumptions of the lifetime employment system. Japanese companies have a pivotal window of opportunity to embrace the diversity of the talent pool to unleash innovation and employee wellbeing.

Japanese citizenship is also at a crossroads. It could be re-invented to include gender equality and multicultural diversity. This would drive freedom, innovation and inter-group solidarity, all keys to democratic and economic resilience for the Reiwa era. It will take diligent caregiving by political and economic elites for at least two decades, but of all societies, I think Japan is best equipped to usher in structural changes quickly to regain a competitive global edge by building a more inclusive and global-minded liberal democracy. 

Like bio-diversity, social diversity coupled with the power of radical individuality is what fuels the creative adaptation of human societies. Creating a sustainable space of togetherness on Earth must become our singular focus. It must become a collective project that inspires to action all the way to the grassroots. Great democracies and resilient cultures are not improvised; they are carefully curated and consciously built upon practices of individual freedom, respect for diversity and social solidarity.

Anne McDonald

Professor, Sophia University Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies
Project Professor, Keio University Faculty of Economics
SAG Member, UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) GIAHS Programme

How long before the world daily confronts climate change?

We’re already there. The last decade was the warmest ever recorded and the aggregate cost of disasters related to climate change in those years was US$840 billion, or an average of US$84 billion a year. Further, if we turn our attention to the challenges posed to human health and security, in 2019 disasters such as flooding, cyclones and other extreme weather events displaced approximately 24.5 million people in 140 countries. Climate change is not a future possibility, but a living reality that requires urgent action.

Is anything being done to improve the situation? 

For the past 25 years I’ve been working with field-based researchers, government officials and community leaders in agriculture and fisheries in Japan and more recently with the UN FAO on identifying the challenges that climate change is posing to food production, particularly among small-scale farmers and fisher communities who are among the more vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss. 

Though the challenges are daunting, there is also a lot of inspiring collaborative work on the ground among multiple stakeholders. For example, in Japan every prefecture has research stations that work directly with farmers and fisherpeople. Agricultural stations are working to develop new crop varieties that will hopefully be more resilient. They’re not only looking to science for potential solutions, but are trying to draw on traditional resource management practices that might reduce risks and contribute to dynamic adaptive management needs. There is a wealth of diverse knowledge sets and seeing these being integrated into practice and policy gives me hope for the future. 

We will need to change our mindsets to the new norm of not knowing how things will pan out.

When I think of Canada and Japan, it has been exciting to see our two countries come together as global leaders of marine environmental initiatives, such as those focused on marine debris and the blue economy. The ocean makes up 70 per cent of planet Earth. If we can tap into the estimated US$24 trillion of the ocean’s assets in an environmentally sound way, we might charter new frontiers of global sustainability. The blue economy is expected to grow at twice the rate of the mainstream economy by 2030, so with Canada and Japan leading this I believe we could initiate the paradigm shift needed to combat climate change and its myriad of challenges.

How do you recommend our readers deal with this crisis? 

Unfortunately, there are no silver bullet answers in times of crisis. With uncertainty as the new norm of daily life, for better or worse, we will need to change our mindsets to the new norm of not knowing how things will pan out. Not being able to “read the future” should not be a reason for inaction, but all the more incentive to become informed global citizens and positive actors of change.