Let’s not resuscitate the Frankenstein economy

Covid-19 has given us a once in a lifetime chance to create a sustainable future society and business in the future. It’s a second chance that we can’t ignore, says Andrew Burke

As we start to plan and introduce measures to reignite business, we must be careful not to recreate a Frankenstein economy.

I say this because, before Covid-19, the economy was a monster of our own creation that was ultimately going to kill us and itself. It had created a climate catastrophe by selling goods and services that did not factor in the enormous cost to the environment in their production, distribution, consumption and disposal. It created a waste culture where perfectly good products from clothes, interior design and techy goods underwent ever more rapid forced obsolescence. In short, not only unsustainable but immoral consumerism in a world where inequality and starvation are enduring realities.

To deliver this performance the Frankenstein economy had created a work-life balance horror show where dual income and long hours became the norm for most families who wanted to own their own home. There was a lot of unhappiness in the workforce but the intensity of competition was propelled in an ‘up or out’ culture where even successful career trajectories involved navigating a minefield to navigate in order to stay in employment beyond middle age.

Then came Covid-19.

It stopped business. It sent us home to work. It demanded that schools were closed and so we had to take our children home with us. Our Frankenstein economy was put to sleep with the promise of resuscitation.

But then something unexpected happened while we were battling this disease while lamenting the loss of human lives and economic destruction that this deadly virus was causing. Amidst the emergency and chaos, a new socio-economic being began to emerge.

Driven by a rediscovery of the importance of friends, family and humanity, it provided the ability to step back from work to take a lifelong perspective on one’s own purpose and goals, values and importance of precious time spent with family/children and loved ones.

The Covid-19 lockdown became a trigger switch that recalibrated the work-life value exchange rate in favour of life. The same realisation occurred in a scenario of community spirit as well as admiring the brave front line workers who put their lives on the line to save others. The return to the workforce model of the pre-Covid-19 period not only came into question but into confrontation.

The appeal of resuscitating the Frankenstein economy was not only undesirable for society but it also doesn’t even make good economic sense. Remote working proved to be a productive surprise. Output not only continued but thrived. Facilitated by online meeting software such as MS Teams, Zooms, GoToMeeting etc, organisations not only managed to continue to function but in many cases advanced projects more rapidly. International projects and meetings were propelled forward and international business travel was shown to be far less needed than ever imagined before.

By accident, a key part of the solution to the climate change emergency became clearer. No need to commute to work every day, no need to take flights for meetings and less need for endless consumerism as people placed more importance on social well-being over the accumulation of possessions, short-term consumer hits and the hip status of always being at the forefront of the next consumer fad causing premature product obsolescence.

{10 years later….}

So, it’s easy to imagine that time has passed and disaster was averted by conscientious people who as business leaders, workers, consumers, investors and politicians actively chose not to revive the Frankenstein economy. In the new economy where remote working accounts for the majority of most firms’ workforce, the labour market became truly international and open to people all over the world. Global inequality receded as the geographic location of a worker’s residence became less relevant as an eligibility requirement to apply for a job. Third level education – facilitated by greater and more accessible online education – become more scalable and open to people all over the world and not just in rich countries.

A more educated workforce with higher standards of living placed less emphasis on having large families as a means of survival. The global population stopped growing and then declined to levels commensurate with a sustainable consumption which was no longer beyond the limits of the planet’s ecosystem. The climate disaster was averted as new eco-friendly economy and society emerged where the true environmental costs of products were embedded in all goods and services, where quality of life increased and mass consumption dropped to sustainable levels and where transport and travel became exceptional expenditures for business. A new globalisation occurred, this time not driven by imperial corporations, consumer cultures and political bullies, but more on a culture of mutual interdependence, welfare and co-operation; a view that ‘we are all in this together’ that can be traced back to a time when humanity across the Globe had to unite in the battle against Covid-19.

{Back to the present…}

So, let’s not revive the Frankenstein economy as we start to plan our economic recovery. Instead, let’s renew and create a new economy for all people across all of society, the World and in particular the future generations who are not yet here to make their voices heard but who will pick up the tab for our consumer behaviour. Let’s leave behind the black and white horror show movies and move forward in a more diverse world where colour flourishes.

What can we do to help?

Business Schools can all support this. We need to start to get our own house in order by reducing air travel and carbon offsetting the flights that we do take, ban disposable plastic from our buildings, adopt an eco-friendly veggie-first food policy, reduce commuting with more remote working and move towards a carbon neutral education provider.

We must also do what we do best and that is to shape the leaders of the future. For example, here at Trinity Business School we are starting to take the initial steps along this journey. We are adopting the above changes to our operations and will explore more ambitious options as we continue to develop. In addition, we want to help businesses secure a recovery pathway which is both financially and environmentally self-sustaining. While we want to get business back to life, we don’t want to bring the old ‘Frankenstein economy’ with all of its issues.

We have launched the Reboot & Reignite Series which is free and open to all business (see https://www.tcd.ie/business/ ). The aim is to bring the business community together to provide assistance to organisations and leaders, enabling them to better perform in this challenging economic, political and social landscape. This changed environment requires us to reboot and reignite businesses so they are aligned with the opportunities and threats that lie ahead.

We also want to share sustainable values where businesses are both inclusive and don’t exacerbate inequality. In many ways, the advice we impart reflects the expertise and values of our own community at Trinity Business School.

We will also be offering a thought leadership series that will be focused on the issue of rebooting the way in which businesses work and operate, in order to achieve a much more responsible way of working with a wider understanding of stakeholders and purpose.

And, in the second stage of the initiative, we will be offering webinar series with an emphasis on recovery and growth, providing viewers with a checklist approach to strategic thinking around recovery. Trinity will also be offering aligned executive education programmes to help leaders in shaping their business recovery.

By coming together, we can create a future economy that works for us all, our businesses, and the planet too.

Professor Andrew Burke is Dean and Chair of Business Studies at Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.

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