Geopolitics is the kind of discipline that makes fools of those of us in the risk assessment business. Take the New Scientist magazine’s podcast, which kicked off in late January with a conversation about an ‘emerging’ virus. They may have gotten a huge amount right, but it was still only glimmer of the crisis to come.
What can you do when all short-term predictions and timelines can be upended in the space of a few short months?
Now skip back a few years to 2014 and the conflict that started between Ukraine and Russia. Sitting in a hotel room in a very nervous Odessa, I found myself amazed at the turn of events. If my future podcast-listening self had time-machined back to when I was a teenager living in Stuttgart in 1989, what would’ve I thought? I’m pretty sure that if 1989 politics nerd me had been told that in 25 years’ time there would be war in Eastern Ukraine, I would’ve drawn two possible conclusions.
First, that future me might have substance abuse problems and very active delusions. Second, that there was going to be a third world war. Because that was one of the only pathways people like me could have imagined between the Red Army being camped across the border in East Germany, and a future that involved independent Ukrainian and Russian states at war. The idea that the Soviet Union would soon dissolve itself and shift its military 2,000 kilometers eastwards without a single nuclear warhead going off wasn’t a possibility.
What can you do when all long-term predictions and timelines can only be found in science fiction?
Thomas Homer-Dixon, a Canadian professor in international relations and complexity theory, describes times like the current ones as ‘moments of contingency’ – ‘nothing is definite, and everything is tentative… Fear, hope, and greed are unleashed at the same time that social reality becomes fluid.’1
And yet for all that lack of definition, the beguiling swirl of geopolitics can have us looking for certainty and reassurance; a theory-of-everything to hang a plan on.
I wonder, however, if part of the answer to planning and building resilience is to not get ‘macro’ at all, but rather to travel in the opposite direction to where we can learn and influence the most: local communities where risks to people from companies and governments are extremely tangible. Those kinds of insights can be invaluable - the canary in the coal mine stories of Michael Lewis’ superb dissection of the GFC The Big Short were many, but I remember this one: the hedge fund manager who discovers that his nanny owns six townhouses.
It’s at the local level that we will detect the first signs of geopolitical pain or recovery or both. As Homer-Dixon puts it, during times of economic and political dislocation ‘we’ and ‘they’ stereotypes become attractive and those who are most receptive to them ‘are people who already feel humiliated or victimized… who believe, as a result, that they have no stake in society and no peaceful means to express their unhappiness.’
The CEOs who ride this micro-is-macro wave are unlikely to see it, be anywhere near it, or personally experience it. Nor will their management teams, directors on their boards, ministers in government, or the next five layers of managers and officials below them. They might have some understanding of social risks to the organization, but they will have little understanding of how the short and long-term of Covid-19 is playing out in communities where employees, customers, factories, and critical infrastructure are.
The people who form the ‘sensing capacity’ in organizations, who understand that kind complexity, are so far forward on the frontline that most CEOs will have never met them, and may even be cut off from them. And yet they hold valuable and actionable insights on social and geopolitical risks in their hands.
So, what to do when all short-term and long-term timelines and predictions go out for a walk, wave goodbye and don’t come back?
Follow them on to the street, on to a bus, and then another bus, and another. Off the bus and across the road – that is where you can hear those most impacted by global political change. They’re the kind of voices that often aren’t heard until it’s too late. And there, you might finally be close to a type of geopolitics that you can learn from and do something about.
Sefton Darby works in KPMG Banarra in Australia, the firm’s human rights and social impact group. He helps organizations to listen to communities and manage social risks.
1Thomas Homer-Dixon (2006), The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilisation, Vintage Canada.