The Sunday Mail
Prof Innocent Chirisa
CHANGE comes in one of these three possible packages: Continuity, discontinuity or transformation.
Continuity implies that a noted trend will stay on the same path and perhaps in the same direction.
Discontinuity implies that things will not remain the same but a noted break will be experienced. In Shona there is a proverb that says anything that flies eventually lands. This means there is a huge possibility of change of direction in certain developments.
Transformation, on the other hand, is about metamorphosis. The Oxford Dictionary defines metamorphosis as “a change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one”.
Development and change are fraternal twins, they always go together. The only constant is change. Experience, actions and reactions change people, institutions, states and the world. They say once beaten, twice shy.
Klemens von Metternich, an Austrian politician, coined the phrase: “When Paris sneezes, Europe catches a cold.”
This same statement has been changed to speak of the American influence in global economic and political affairs.
Of late, however, China has been the one trying to take the lead in world dominance. Indeed, the Chinese people and products are everywhere on this planet.
Then, something terrible happened in Wuhan in the Chinese province of Hubei. The sprawling commercial centre became ground zero of the coronavirus.
The problem began small and eventually grew as the virus spread, sparking both morbidity and mortality in its wake.
What began as a mere Wuhan problem became a Chinese problem, then an Asian problem and eventually a global pandemic.
The measures suggested, in a bid to contain the virus and disease, range from personal sanitary hygiene and “dietary”, to limiting travel and crowd interactions. There have been quarantines, neighbourhood lockdowns, repatriations by some countries and border closures.
Along the continuum are a whole host of social and economic effects. The tourism, aviation and shipping industries have been affected negatively. Health, education and recreation, just to mention a few, get negatively affected. The whole socio-economic fabric gets shaken and disrupted.
The disruptive nature of Covid-19 got the systems thinker, and urban and regional planner in me thinking. What could have been done by members of my profession and other planners?
I strongly sense, scenario planning is the missing link. Arnab Chakraborty & Andrew McMillan have described scenario planning as a tool “used widely in various disciplines ranging from business strategy to military applications as a tool that allows participants to think critically about how the future might unfold”.
The description brings to the fore critical observations.
The first is that it has to involve a number of participants and secondly, the participants have to be critical thinkers or apply scientific interrogations in their thinking. There also has to be substance of critical analysis and focus in the future and this future is examined on the possibilities of what it may hold. It is, of course, not fortune-telling — it is a deliberate application of the mind. Interrogating how the future may look like bearing in mind that uncertainty is the key feature of this future.
Scenario planning needs to be a usual practice, not something done only in the event of crises. The guiding question should be the “What if?” question. At a personal level, one may need to ask themselves; “if I die tomorrow how will my children get to the top in life?” Pessimists, sceptics and heretics will, no doubt, chide you for lacking faith.
However, this thinking is very important because it puts you to think action and come up with strategies for action. With the world fast-urbanising and cities and towns fast-densifying and challenges of various disposition being experienced in them, eventualities like Covid-19 are unavoidable.
Environmental resource economist Marshall Burke of the Stanford University, recently announced that there has been a sudden drop in air pollution over China and Italy because of coronavirus.
His major argument is that air pollution kills more than the coronavirus. Therefore, he suggests that the same drastic measures being put in place because of coronavirus be applied in fighting climate change, which seems to be the chief trigger of extreme weather and environmental trends being noted today.
Emphasis today is also on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). The advent of coronavirus has punctuated adherence to the philosophy and practice.
More resources, effort, materials and time, are required by communities, neighbourhoods and urban centres in carrying out scenario planning.
As people live closer together, with communicable diseases on the rise, while there is increased reliance on nuclear energy — there is a need for more open and frank discussions. This is because humanity has learned to tame dangers and coexist with them.
Scenario planning is about asking what might happen if the “caged monster” — fire, virus, flood, to mention these three — gets loose. It speaks to how security has to be tightened and harm reduced.
Disaster preparedness should be a principal priority in decision-making and planning. However, preparedness is a product of imagination. Imagination breeds innovation. Challenges are seedbeds for sustainable innovations.
Professor Innocent Chirisa is the Acting Dean, Faculty of Social Studies at the University of Zimbabwe. He is a Professor of Environmental Planning.