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June 15, 2020

Transitions accelerated by the COVID-19 spread

I contributed an original Japanese version of this piece to my school’s special short article series on COVID-19: https://www.meiji.ac.jp/mugs2/journal/serial-article-covid19/article07.html

1. About transition studies

I have been focusing on “transition” as a study of policy processes. In the Japanese language, it is sometimes translated as henkaku or ikou. Transition is a concept developed by researchers and practitioners mostly in Europe, especially in the Netherlands, and it begins with depicting the society using a three-layer structure.

Figure: A conceptual diagram of the Multi-Level Perspective

Long-term trends (e.g., global warming, population decline, and aging population) are placed in the top layer, various social systems (e.g., legal system, culture/norm, and infrastructure) are placed in the middle, and individual persons are placed in the bottom layer. Individuals act by being constrained by social systems, and social systems cannot be sustainable unless they fit with the long-term trends. On the other hand, individuals collaborate for improving the social systems, and the social systems may influence the long-term trends.

If this “interaction” between these layers is occurring continuously, a balanced society in equilibrium can be achieved. 

In reality, however, because the social structures in the middle layer often resist change, a number of social problems emerge. For example, even if we know that it is necessary to deal with global warming (for example, the “decarbonization” of the Paris Agreement), our institutions that depend on fossil fuels, which has evolved since the time of the Industrial Revolution, are having difficulties in transforming themselves.

A “transition” is a change in social structure that goes along with the long-term trends. The focus of transition (management) research is the ways of accelerating societal transition in the right direction, especially in the context of global warming. In the past few years, I have also been conducting a few action research projects on transitions, such as the ones for promoting bicycle usage and sustainable city.

Nevertheless, societal structures do not change so quickly. There have been no visible transitions in my few years of practice. However, due to the current COVID-19 spread, we have experienced a few societal transitions in just a month or two.

2. COVID-19 spread and transition

1) COVID-19 as a trigger for a sudden, massive transition

In January, the news stories about local outbreaks in the People’s Republic of China was already there. However, in Japan, it was quite difficult to imagine that the infectious disease would make such a huge impact on us. When I was on a recreational fishing boat in Yokohama in the mid-February (BTW, caught 50 mackerels that day!) and saw the cruise ship, Diamond Princess, anchored to Daikoku Pier, I felt like that the threat was at the opposite side of the sea. However, in late February, the number of infected people started to rise, school closure was ordered out of the blue, and measures were rapidly expanded to “80% reduction in human contact.” In a blink of an eye, the structure of our society has changed.

This is a kind of transition. Our economy and “normal” social life all changed drastically. If the spread of COVID-19 is entirely temporary and our lifestyles will be completely restored in half a year or a year later, these changes may not be a real transition. But this COVID-19 spread may have brought about permanent changes to our society, rather than temporary effects.

2) Unexpected acceleration of our work style reform

For example, one of them is the so-called telework (remote work) introduction. Telework has been promoted in the last few years in order to release us from the “commuting hell” and to enhance productivity, but most businesses did not adopt it. Various reasons hindered telework‘s introduction, such as the management of employees based on the physical attendance in the office and the psychological discomfort with online communication. After the COVID-19 spread, however, almost all business entities in Tokyo were forced to adopt telework because the typical Japanese cramped office environment and the crowded commuter trains were identified as a potential cluster of infections.

With the introduction of telework, the way we work has changed dramatically over the past month. If you’re at home, it’s a waste of time just to sit in front of the PC without doing anything. It’s better to do something else to improve your productivity. In addition, since it is impossible to make decisions by using traditional Japanese stamps hanko, the demand for electronic signature systems is increasing rapidly. Furthermore, it seems that business meetings through video conferencing systems have become our new normal, and the ways of moderating the meetings and the conventional hierarchical relationships inside the companies are beginning to transform slowly.

Will these changes disappear when the COVID-19 subsides? For example, once the electronic signature mechanism has been adopted by a company, there is no need for it to return to the previous hanko-based system. Telework will probably be adopted by some companies several days a week, or for the whole week. In the face of the recession, it is also expected that everyone’s awareness of productivity will rise significantly. I don’t have a time machine, so I can’t say for sure about the future, but I suspect that our way of working in the post COVID-19 world is quite different from before February 2020. In other words, a certain degree of irreversibility is embedded in the suddenly accelerated work style transition.

3) The world after the COVID-19

In addition to the way of working, it seems that some areas experienced major transitions as a result of this COVID-19 spread. For example, in the medical field, the scope of online doctor’s visit using smartphones will likely be significantly expanded. In the field of education, in addition to improving the ICT infrastructures, legal instruments for using copyrighted materials in online lectures were implemented as a emergency response, and also most teachers have overcome the discomfort of giving lectures online and acquired ICT operation skills. Furthermore, in the near future, the tourism and transportation industries will have to face major transitions. Of course, in some areas, it is hoped that these impacts are temporary, and our “normal life” will be restored. However, if you can identify the transitions that were suddenly accelerated by the COVID-19, you should be able to envision a post COVID-19 world and be prepared for it

3. Conclusion

Although the COVID-19 spread has accelerated societal transitions, it is definitely better not to have the COVID-19 at all. There is no “good side” of COVID-19. Instead, the governance study researchers must identify the governance mechanisms that can identify much-needed sustainable transitions and accelerate these transitions during the regular times. In addition to pandemic risks, our societies have to respond to many other kinds of long-term trends, such as climate change and population decline. As a researcher, I intend to continue exploring such governance mechanisms through a number of field experiments.

Category: COVID-19,Transition — Masa @ 11:46 am