Adapted image by Jordan Wozniak on Unsplash

The perils of perma-crisis

Times are hard. We know the headlines: climate crisis, the enduring impacts of Covid, the cost of living, war in Europe, the near-collapse of the NHS in winter. The word crisis is used so often for so many issues we even have a new phrase. We are in, we hear, a state of perma-crisis. I agree. All of us can feel this at a personal level, not just a societal, political or global one, though as ever, some are far more affected than others.

And yet I think this narrative is dangerous. It feels overwhelming. It is wholly negative. It makes us feel anxious. And, importantly, it crowds the sense that we can take action that might help, or even that some of the conditions could change naturally over time. It leaves no space for hope. It is well-established that when under stress, we enter a survival-focused, hand to mouth, short term mentality in our day to day lives. It is harder to look far ahead. (See for example this JRF research on the psychological effects of poverty, 2015.) Our observation at Collaborate is that this mentality manifests not just at an individual level, but also in our public debate; our media, our politics, our institutions, the actions we prepare to take at the collective level. 

This matters, not just because it’s depressing to listen to the news, but because it limits our collective thinking about how we can respond to the realities we face and any meaningful debate about what a better future could look like.

Paying attention to what’s already changing 

It also crowds out our attention on what is already changing for the better, despite all the challenges. At Collaborate we often reflect that the ‘perma-crisis’ narrative feels out of step with the energy and action of the individuals and organisations we work with. This also matters, because even in the most challenging of situations, there are always strengths to build on, not least people’s intrinsic motivation to improve lives, which is one of the biggest assets we have in public services and across society. The people we work with at Collaborate ask: how can we support people and places to flourish? How can we work differently – collaborating across organisations and services, working with the human richness in our system, leading with humility, supporting people’s agency, changing culture and practice, learning and adapting, building relationships? 

The pressures on them are immense, and yes, the wider financial, economic, political conditions pull them backwards. They should not have to push so hard. But push they do, thereby creating a small but critical counter-force to the prevailing narrative, and signs of what a more positive future could look like for all of us.

Building a vision for a collaborative future

Back in January 2020, just before Covid hit, Collaborate published its Manifesto for a Collaborative Society. Drawing on projects we worked on that year and conversations with our partners and networks, the Manifesto set out why we think collaboration matters so much in the face of the complex and interconnected challenges we face and described the fundamental mental shift required away from a sense of competitive individualism towards a worldview which acknowledges connection, relationships and interdependence, between people and between people and planet. We described what collaborative communities, public services, organisations, leadership and a collaborative economy would look like.

All that has happened since we published the Manifesto has only reinforced our sense that a Collaborative Society needs to be the direction of travel. We cannot and should not pretend we can stand alone. We live in an age of hyper-connection, complexity and interdependence, and although this can seem overwhelming, these qualities can be positive. Challenges such as climate change show us that this connection and interdependence has always been there, but we’ve chosen to ignore it at our peril. In stepping forward, we have to work with these qualities, not fight against them.

Three years later, in January 2023, we are around 18 months away from the next General Election. We have a government that has – arguably – stood for a falsely appealing vision of the past and appears to be simply pedalling more of the same. There is a window of political opportunity to look further ahead, to sketch a vision for an equitable and sustainable future, built positively on a sense of interdependence and mutual responsibility, on the values and behaviours of collaboration and care.

A plan for 2023

In 2023 we therefore want to do two things at Collaborate, raising our heads again beyond the framing of perma-crisis, looking forwards and playing our small part both in creating and shaping a positive debate about the future, and in taking practical steps towards it. 

Firstly, we want to build on our Manifesto. We have three years’ more learning to add to those conclusions, and our understanding of that vision has moved on. We know, for example, that we need to centre equity far more in how we think about the future, not least because inequality is widening and people already experiencing the most disadvantage are disproportionately affected by challenges such as the cost of living. And, after three more years working with our partners to build on the optimism for collaboration experienced during the pandemic, we’ve realised we need to do more to make the case for deep collaboration that isn’t just about papering over the cracks, but genuinely shifting the ways we work together to tackle complex challenges we can’t meet alone. We want to make space for ideas, dialogue and engagement about what a collaborative future would look like and how it can be built.

Secondly, we want to support this transition in practical ways, both by continuing our support for collaboration with partners across sectors and across the country, but also by sharing more of what we’ve learned about how to collaborate. We will shortly begin this with a simple Collaboration Primer that sets out the core building blocks, drawing from all the reports we’ve published in recent years. Through the year, we will publish regular pieces, both on our platforms and on others’, which capture learning from our work, and share tips, tools and insights that will help others to collaborate effectively.

Being bold

As ever, we will not do this alone, but in collaboration with our partners and fellow travellers. We’ll share more about that in due course, but in the meantime, please get in touch if you want to discuss any of the above. We’re clearer than ever that we need to understand and position collaboration both as a means and an ends – not a nice to have, or something that sits behind other priorities, but a fundamental pillar of a future that will result in better, more equitable and sustainable futures for people, places and planet.