US President, Joe Biden’s signature campaign slogan could alternatively be taken as a rallying call for a world that has seen just too much trouble in the space of a few summers. Or, it could be taken as that last hurrah before the world sinks into even more despair. How you take it depends on your personal convictions.
I would classify myself as a cautious but indefatigable optimist. And I suppose that is the required mentality for the times we are going through. We are in the second year of what is shaping up to be an epoch-changing pandemic. The great tide of global prosperity that swept the world for about three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the onset of turbo-charged globalisation seem to be fraying at the edges, with the colour of uncertainty stretching much farther into the core waters. In its wake are left high and dry the aspirations of several hundreds of millions of souls.
Dubai, in the Middle East, has been one of the children of this era of global openness, commercial freedom and profit-driven cooperation.
Multilateral cooperation and participatory problem-solving, which has led to the lifting out of material poverty of almost a billion people, seems to be straining as never before. The first crisis of the 21st century – the financial meltdown of 2008 – set the stage for a series of trends that have yet not fully abated more than a decade after its occurrence.
Suffice it to say, confidence in established notions and received wisdom has been wearing off for some time; to the point where it can be said that none exists. But the problems have not gone away. Indeed, new ones are cropping up, which call upon us to develop solutions for it in ways never imagined before.
Can we build back better?
If one talks about technological feasibility, then of course, we can. If anything can be learnt from the experience of the white-hot economic growth of China these past few decades, it is that humans can build. And how!
The question is, with strained national budgets and weakening financial credibility brought about by factors man-made as well as natural – the line is increasingly blurred – whether what is being built back counts for productive or real growth.
It is not enough anymore to build merely for the sake of building. “Build and they will come”, one of the favourite slogans of the heady days, will still be feasible, but not so straightforwardly. It increasingly depends on what you are building, what the net impact on the environment is, whether what is being built can be afforded to be bought, whether it can withstand the onslaught of technological changes as well as new work practices – such as remote working – becoming mainstream, whether they contribute to overall physical and mental well-being of the users of the built structures and whether, very importantly, it is interfering with the environment in a significant manner thereby contributing to accelerated climate change.
One supposes that the answer to these rests fundamentally with a related question: Does humanity need more building? And the answer to that is a resounding “yes”. With lifestyles changing, with ever more people transferring to the consumer class of the world and with greater lifespans, the way forward is to determine “how to make it better”. Existing structures have to be refurbished, new structures have to be conceived, mistakes have to be rectified and efficiencies created where they were previously absent.
And more people, more than ever before, want to live a life that is not merely satisfactory for themselves but also wish to leave as small an environmental footprint on the earth they will bequeath to posterity. This sentiment has been relayed quite emphatically with the declaration of the goals of the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference, scheduled to take place in November in Scotland, and the centrality of human activity-based climate change in the global conversation.
I get Biden. He wants to build back better. But he is not alone. And neither is he the first one doing this. What is the Saudi Vision 2030 programme if not in the spirit of Build Back Better? Indeed, there it may be a case of “Build for the Future”. In the same spirit, the Egyptians are building an entire new capital. The Chinese, not content with building up their own country, now want to build up much of the rest of the world, as well, through their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The National Infrastructure Pipeline (NIP) in India is also based on similar lines of thinking. And so much more. The financial resources being committed to these ventures amount to the trillions of US dollars over a multi-year period in the medium term.
Needless to say, much of humanity has been hit on the chin like a stinger from Mike Tyson by the coronavirus pandemic. Work patterns have been disrupted, and several projects have been delayed or rendered frozen. Entities that were relying on a ceaseless pipeline of payments to fund their priorities have also been upstaged, causing them to bleed resources, in the form of the workforce, or to cease operations.
Though we are yet to hear of a wholesale meltdown in the global economy, the pain felt is more chronic than acute; and the pain is much more dispersed than concentrated, as it was in the nearest experience of an economic depression which we had in recent years – the 2008 burst. In short, more people would feel the pain for longer. Not several are the opportunities in the world when we all get to indulge in a collective exercise of self-correction. But the current scenario presents just such an opportunity. Doubtless, several entities would perish for reasons unmerited as well as merited, but there would be several that outlast the temporary crises.
Those would be the ones that would reassess their core competences, refashion their strategies in light of changed circumstances and work hard to stay relevant in a world where operating procedures are no longer standard. They are the ones that would shed excess luggage, will become leaner, and more productive and efficient.
The entities that emerge on the other side of the challenges – whenever that may be – would be leaner, tougher and more in tune with the requirements of the new epoch. They are the ones that would have been humbled by experience. They are the ones that would have learnt, the ones that would have been born anew. They would build back, and they would build back better.
Krishnan Unni Madathil is a Chartered Accountant, a member of the ICAEW, and Audit Partner with Bin Khadim, Radha & Co. Chartered Accountants. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.