OPINION17 February 2021

How will we emerge from Covid-19?

Covid-19 Opinion Trends

Looking through the lens of emergence, rather than focusing on the individual, allows us to better understand an increasingly complex world, says Adam Chmielowski.

Butterfly nature_crop

At a time of year when trend predictions are rife, the most sensible hunch comes from anthropologist Gillian Tett, who writes how post-pandemic life might resemble the ‘Schrödinger’s cat’ problem (where the cat was neither dead nor alive): “We expect normality to resume, but also not to resume, all at once.”[ 1 ] 

Tett recognises that an already complex world has been made even more so by Covid-19. The marketing industry, however, isn’t very good at dealing with complexity. Instead, a trio of theories of change dominate the scene, all tackling complexity with certainty. 

There is the ‘acceleration of trends’ theory, which works when looking at adoption of online services but is less useful in explaining why women, according to the UN, are seeing decades’ worth of progress lost to the pandemic. There is the ‘people love normal’ theory, which predicts how life will snap back like an elastic band to its old ways, ignoring the fact that the elastic was frayed to begin with and, for many, has already snapped under the pressures of the pandemic.

The third, and loudest, is the ‘unchanging man’ theory. It hinges on this quote from Bill Bernbach: “It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man.”

This focus on instincts as predictors of behaviour and change shows how the marketing industry, informed by the psychological tradition, tends to see the world revolving around the individual and what’s inside their head, rather than consider the social world they’re embedded in. These instincts are presented as immutable, as if humans operate like pre-programmed robots. Instead of working with complexity, it glosses over ineradicable uncertainty with predict-and-control thinking.

A less fixed, more fluid way of understanding an uncertain world is through the lens of emergence. It not only helps us think differently about changes unfolding in society, it can give marketers a new mental model to tackle sustainability challenges, where ‘unchanging man’ better describes the problem rather than the solution.

1. Emergent properties: when the sum is greater than the aggregate of its component parts

Emergence theory, rooted in sociological analysis, explains how collective phenomena possess emergent properties not found in the separate parts. An ant colony is more than simply a collection of ants; no matter how closely you look at the behaviour of individual ants, you can never see the wondrous workings of the colony. Yet once the colony forms, each ant acts with the intelligence of the whole.

As researchers, we should be paying attention to the emergent properties of collective phenomena which are reassembling at this time, forming the new rules and contours of our lives. Is it time to think more about ‘community insights’, as Faris Yakob argued in his book Paid Attention (“What do we know that matters to the community we wish to engage?”), especially now people become more embedded in local communities, as well as participating in online sub-cultures[ 2 ] formed around interests?

2. Study the interactions, not instincts

If you take a group of carbon atoms one way you get graphite – soft, dark, great for making pencils. Connect the same carbon atoms and connect them another way and you get diamond – hard, clear, perfect for jewellery. In social systems, we should be paying less attention not to the ‘instincts’ inside our heads and more to the interactions and connections being remade over the last year.

Covid-19, like most disasters, reveals our interdependencies. We certainly seem more acutely aware that our wellbeing is dependent on our connections with others. Are our friendships for example, as some have argued, becoming more dominated by stronger ties, and so more intimate? Then there are the new family rituals which have been re-created in our homes – will that all simply ‘snap back’ or will the emotional investment in those interactions ensure their longevity?

3.) Learn as you go vs predict and control

Emergence asks that we learn our way into the future. Emergent systems, whether ant colonies or neighbourhoods, are self-organising around principles of bottom-up collaboration and decentralised authority. Patterns and rules may emerge by accident rather than by design.

The lesson for governments and businesses, according to writer Margaret Heffernan is: “Safety doesn’t lie in certainty but in the confidence to explore, experiment and prepare together.”[ 3 ] The challenge for researchers is how to help a marketing industry oriented around certainty better navigate a world full of messiness.

Emerging into a more sustainable future

“In spite of popular slogans, the world doesn’t change one person at a time. It changes as people interact and work together. When local efforts connect as networks, then commit to work as a community of practice, a new system emerges at a greater level of scale.”

These words from activist organisation The Berkana Institute reflect how emergent strategy is at the heart of many environmental movements: thinking beyond the individual, collective sense-making, observing and experimenting with new connections to create ideas and properties more powerful than each individual can imagine. 

The vital reframe for our industry, whether trying to understand change or find ways to make more sustainable changes happen, is to see society as an organism instead of reducing it to its component parts. Instead of looking at individuals and their instincts and saying we don't change, can we learn to look at how we collaborate and interact to imagine how we might?

Adam Chmielowski is co-founder of Starling


[ 1 ] https://www.ft.com/content/d5efe5e0-7dfa-11ea-82f6-150830b3b99a

[ 2 ] https://zoescaman.substack.com/p/the-future-of-fandoms

[ 3 ] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rI3jc2Y9bM0&feature=youtu.be?