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Centre for Building Sustainable Value

Student reflection on optimism in the age of COVID-19

  • Gareth Gransaull
  • |
  • May 8, 2020
Student reflection on optimism in the age of COVID-19

Gareth Gransaull is an HBA Candidate completing a combined degree with business and international affairs. 

In times of crisis and rapid change, it is often difficult to remain optimistic. It is experts like Terry Irwin, a renowned theorist on systems-level change, who help me retain hope for the future.

At the third session of the Ivey Innovation Learning Lab, Terry explained to some of Canada’s leading innovators how COVID-19 is not just a public health issue but a crisis of our entire global system. COVID-19 has exposed many complex interdependencies within society, ones which link the current pandemic to broader social, environmental, and economic challenges. By encouraging business leaders to think in terms of systems, Canadian organizations can become more adaptive and resilient in the face of global problems, and plan for a long-term future that is more desirable for all.

One of Terry’s essential insights was that there is a profound connection between COVID-19 and our ecological crisis. The emergence of zoonotic viruses is a direct consequence of deforestation and continued encroachment on wildlife habitats, while climate change will only make further disease outbreaks more likely. In this way, systems analysis helps dissolve the false distinction between human health and the health of our natural environment – we cannot have one without the other. Terry also touched on how social divides continue to erode our collective resilience in the face of this crisis, as minority groups have higher morbidity rates as a consequence of structural inequalities. By showing us the bigger picture, Terry demonstrated the social context which helped produce the COVID-19 threat in the first place, as well as the rifts within society that make it more difficult for us to adapt. It is only through a systems-level understanding that we can begin to recognize these relationships and respond to the COVID-19 problem as a whole.

After the keynote address, Lab participants discussed Terry’s insights and their vision for a more sustainable future in small groups. I was uplifted to see that so many diverse organizations were unanimous on the need to create a more collaborative, interconnected future. Participants agreed that COVID-19 has built a renewed appreciation for the public good, fostering increased collaboration within and between sectors while helping us rebuild and enhance the social contract. As Terry explained, the COVID-19 crisis has shown that business is not insulated from larger social dynamics. Quite the contrary: businesses depend on the health and resilience of the human systems to which they are connected.

Participants reflected on how today’s businesses have transcended competitive dynamics to work together alongside competitors and federal partners to create a coordinated response to this crisis. In doing so, the COVID-19 crisis has also helped companies think beyond the search for short-term profit and reflect on what is valuable for society as a whole. It is clear that today’s organizations must become students of system dynamics in order to understand the complex, interlocking nature of our economic, social, and environmental problems, and imagine their role in the fight for a better world.

Above all, the Innovation Learning Lab has taught me that, even in the midst of uncertainty and rapid change, people are eager to come together to understand and respond to global challenges. Terry’s presentation gave me both the optimism for a better future, and demonstrated the type of holistic thinking we need to get there. With these tools in mind, I am confident that we can transition towards a future that is more sustainable, inclusive, and resilient.

Learn more about the Ivey Innovation Learning Lab.