Interview with Dr Melissa Sterry

Dr Melissa Sterry is a transdisciplinary design scientist and complex systems theorist. In a recent interview she reflects on how the pandemic may redefine our futures.

‘The pandemic has really pushed and prototyped that model’

The pandemic has caused us to re-examine how we engage with other people. And that has direct relevance to how we work.

Many people are used to not being in a physical office now.

It’s forced businesses to where a lot of start-ups have been for years. With distributed teams, not necessarily all in one place. The pandemic has really pushed and prototyped that model.

In the corporate sector this is coming through in terms of candidates’ requirements, but also a more hybridized model.

And this capacity has enabled people to have more flexibility in their lives.

‘You can’t do that online’

While there are many things that people can do more efficiently at home, there’s other activities where you really need to meet people.

It affected me during the pandemic. I was speaking at both online and physical events. Previously I hadn’t thought too much about the difference between them.

I now know that I don’t find it nearly as rewarding online. It’s incredibly important for me to get feedback. I need to see the room, hear and feel how people respond. I need to engage with them – so that everyone in the room feels excited or interested. There are limits to the extent that you can do that online.

The value of that physical experience is now so much more important to me than it ever was before. The experience of being confined to delivering talks online made me reflect on how important non-verbal communication signals are in human interactions, and on how, even when one person is doing most of the talking, they are having a conversation – a two-way process.

Certainly, leading-edge digital event technologies are exploring integration of all the senses, not just hearing and sight. But even at the cutting-edge, digital technologies don’t come close to replicating in-person experiences.

‘The minimum amount of infrastructure needed to sustain growth’

The companies that thrived in the pandemic had a realistic sense of risk.

We need to have more agile, adaptable, businesses. The pandemic is just one of many factors that have necessitated this move.

The challenge for businesses now is finding the right balance. What is the minimum amount of infrastructure needed to sustain growth over the medium to long term.

In the agency market, some companies are trying not to retain anyone. Instead, they have a network, wherein they can just pull people in.

But they cannot guarantee that they will have access to them – sometimes key people will get snapped up elsewhere, and especially in fields where demand for expertise outstrips supply. So, talent management becomes a major challenge.

It’s about finding the balance between efficiency and vulnerability. Especially because the level of risk in digital now is so high. Criminals have always been creative!

We must understand what’s worth it and what isn’t, and that’s quite difficult because it’s still a new frontier.

‘A reinvention of how we acquire the things’

It’s a very exciting time for cities, but it’s a complex picture.

People have said that the high street is dead. I don’t think it’s dead – but I do think the model was dead.

In retail there’s been a chronic absence of creativity. The pandemic has allowed space for more creativity – so much scope to experiment with new ideas.

I see a physical re-emergence. Partly for shopping, but for other things too. There are many scenarios where you actually need to feel and see things. We need feedback and we want to make social occasions.

In the next 10 years I expect to see a reinvention of how we acquire things. It’s going to be augmented, mixed-up with tech. But culturally it will be driven by our experiential – and particularly our sensory and social needs.

‘There’s a need for change’

The pandemic has been a conflicted experience for many people. We need to consider what is the rhetoric and what’s the reality.

On the one hand, there is enormous opportunity and excitement about what’s coming. But on the other there’s immense discontent. Many people have got the short straw and are really struggling.

On a human level there’s a need for change. People want fluidity and agility. They don’t want to be stuck in historical boxes.

At the same time, we’ve seen the rise of the right and conservatism – the things that always come out when people are fearful.

These two worldviews are juxtaposed against each other, leading to conflict, distress and unrest. Historically, reconciling polar positions within society takes time, and a lot of it. That’s one of the things I find most concerning, because the global crises we face are unfolding at a pace that makes time of the essence.

‘A suppressed narrative about personal autonomy’

There has been a rapid and ubiquitous change in many ways. But there’s massive complexity in terms of how we envisage and create the future.

We’ve seen fundamentally different views about what a pandemic is and how we should address it. There’s a suppressed narrative here about personal autonomy.

The methodologies that most nations have used for dealing with the pandemic would have worked, perhaps even flawlessly, in the past. Because back then global society was many times less connected. Of the many lessons the pandemic has delivered, one is that the convenience that high connectivity of people and goods creates comes at a cost – that cost being the speed at which pathogens can now spread around the world.

For all the successes in tackling the pandemic so far, there have been serious mistakes. As with other complex challenges, the picture is messy, which has led to debate. Through the lens of some, government shouldn’t have made so many decisions about our lives – it’s a trend that some people view as unnecessary and circumspect.

As a scientist that anticipated a pandemic was imminent prior to its advent, I understand and respect some of the decisions that were made by some governments. But, equally, I consider it imperative that, as a society, we find better ways to debate decisions that have an effect on all our lives.

Though I think some social media platforms failed to enact an ethical responsibility to stop fake news on this, and other issues, the latter is a symptom, not cause. The data appears clear – many only turn to social media as a platform because they don’t feel they have anywhere else.

They feel that something is wrong, and they can’t trust mainstream sources for information. Trust has been lost. Finding ways to empower not the few, but the many to have their concerns heard, and to be part of the wider debate is vital.

This is about creating conversations where people feel comfortable to express their fears, to ask questions, and to find common ground.

And the psychology of responding to the pandemic mirrors what we’ve seen towards climate change. There are distinct patterns in how people respond to rapid change – some embrace it, others fear it, and the extent to which individuals, and in turn communities, do this tends be consistent whether that change is environmental, social, or political.

These tendencies are inherent. Hence, ours is a simple choice – either we learn to live with our differences and respect them, or we continue to argue. I think most people have had enough of arguing and would like to find way to work together on the things that matter to us most.

‘It’s made people aware that big change can happen’

We aren’t making the kind of environmental progress we need in order to avert some very bleak outcomes.

But there has been one big change in the media narrative. Roll back to three years ago, you would never see the worst-case scenarios in the mainstream press.

The pandemic has helped – it’s made people aware that big change can happen. It’s no longer something they just read about, or see on the TV, everyone, everywhere, has collectively experienced rapid and global change.

I don’t put the wider shifts in public opinion down to Extinction Rebellion or Greta Thunberg. They have certainly gained visibility for the environment. But, across both my personal and professional networks the only people that think the heighten levels of activism of late have pushed the needle far are the activists themselves.

More generally, it’s not the people calling for change that are making the biggest impact, but it’s the people building that change – the people that are making the scientific, technological, and other discoveries that can help us live and work more sustainably.

Which isn’t to say activism isn’t important, but that it’s part of a range of activities which, though seeking the same fundamental outcome – a healthy planet and society – have different types and levels of agency. A highly distributed team effort.

The reality of the pandemic has shown that sometimes the scientists get it right and the risks can be huge. That has forced many people, and many businesses, to re-evaluate. Though the nature of my work has always involved working with companies at the edge of innovation and change, as the pandemic has progressed, I’ve found that most are now even more open-minded than they were before. The boundaries of what are considered possible have expanded.

‘Industry is requiring expert knowledge’

A decade ago sustainability was seen as an add on. And while it was already building momentum, the pandemic has changed that. Companies now consider it to be fundamental to their business offer.

Looking at the current market, we’re seeing a lot of vacancies for chief sustainability officers and senior sustainability roles. We’re in a situation where industry is requiring expert knowledge at a time when there simply isn’t enough at the high level. In that sense there are parallels between sustainability and start-up enterprise in emerging sectors: supply can’t yet meet demand.

Some will struggle to find the people that really understand not just where we’re at now, but where we need to be, and why that journey is complex. A particular challenge for the market place is the fact that the sustainability goals aren’t set in stone.

This is a dynamic space where new information, new policies and new technologies can change the business risks and opportunities very quickly. A particular challenge for businesses seeking to find expert-level sustainability expertise is the fact that they are now competing in a global market place. In which many companies hire senior executives that are based remotely, either working from home or from national or regional hubs.

More generally, ‘the great resignation’ that’s been witnessed in nations including the UK is part of a bigger trend. In a 2019 report on the future of work I stressed that employees are seeking purpose-driven roles in companies that seek to solve, not worsen sustainability and social problems. Post-pandemic companies will need to work harder than ever to attract and to keep good staff. But, the upside is that happy and fulfilled staff are productive staff – so it’s definitely worth making the extra effort!

‘The pandemic has been a livestreamed case study’

Before the pandemic people would typically come to me when they wanted insights about how we’re building an exciting new innovation-led future. It was all very positive.

Now the tone has largely changed. They’re not necessarily wanting positive outlooks, or what will be the big new breakthroughs, technologies, or shifts more generally.

It’s revealing a deeper level of reflection on how we process the possibilities. That’s much more interesting. Our outlook is not only complex, but there are many variables. Even for someone that, like me, has been studying both worst and best scenarios for much of her career, be it as a scientist, or start-up founder, author, or designer.

It’s one thing to think about those scenarios – to see them in the abstract, and entirely another to experience them in the here and the now. For me the pandemic has been a livestreamed case study – a chance to compare the theory and the reality.

Intellectually and creatively that’s hugely interesting and enjoyable. But, emotionally, it’s been just as sobering for me as for many. As with other global crises, the pandemic has raised a mirror to contemporary society – to its strengths and fragilities.

Technically, our civilisation is highly advanced, indeed so much so that some even compare us to ‘gods’. Yet, for all our wonderous technologies we are still every bit as vulnerable to forces far greater than us as our ancestors were.

The dominant narrative of the Global North is that we are invincible. But, we’re not. The pandemic highlighted that, and in the process, pushed us to re-evaluate what it means to be human. Who are we? What are our limits? Why are we here? These aren’t new questions, and they aren’t questions with a definitive answer – for our reality is ever-changing.

How people navigate this emotional space has been becoming more varied. Historically, many turned to religion. But, today some people turn to religion, or to spirituality in a more general sense. Others into themselves or elsewhere. As with the other challenges we face, we don’t have a one-size fits all solution, and that’s particularly problematic given that mental health issues are at an all-time high in some places.

We don’t need visions about futures that might never come. What we need are pragmatic insights into what our options are and what are the challenges in delivering those options. And, at its heart, every futures work needs to rest on an understanding of human needs, not just wants.

For far too long we’ve seen a lot of interest in futures proposals that show no interest at all in human cognition, psychology, emotions, and health. At times, it’s seemed like some companies are creating futures for gadgets, not humans.

Those that struggle to accommodate human needs have neither the knowledge nor skills to understand environmental needs. As the same set of methods, approaches, and thinking is needed to address the one as the other.

We need to see more people step out of their disciplinary, industry and mental silos. The pandemic has helped some to see the world beyond their own experience. But now we need to see a lot more of where that came from.

Humans have extra-ordinary powers of invention. We know of no other creature that can be so creative in finding solutions to problems. We have the potential to build a better future, but only if we make more effort to see he world through the eyes of others.

Back to Interviews

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.