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‘Plans are useless, planning is essential’

In the face of radical uncertainty leaders and policy-makers will have to take planning and collaboration to whole a new level

The well-known military adage about the limitations of well-laid plans could hardly be more instructive for these Covid times.

The swaggering business canvasses, SWOTs and PESTLEs of just three months ago now seem faintly absurd.​

What we seem to be reaching for instead is something akin to the ‘scenario planning’ of the 1970s and 80s: a practice which assumes ongoing systemic shocks, multiple possible futures and the nimbleness to jump between them.

Planning at a systemic level like this means taking the entire ecosystem into account, not just the Darwinian struggle for survival of a single entity. As our favourite science writer, Ed Yong, says in The Atlantic:

In a pandemic, the strongest attractor of trust shouldn’t be confidence, but the recognition of one’s limits, the tendency to point at expertise beyond one’s own, and the willingness to work as part of a whole.

What is true for dealing with pandemics is equally valid for the process of recovery and renewal we are about to embark on. But do we have the imaginative capacity – let alone the political and institutional tools – to achieve this?

In this, the emergency stage of the crisis, countless collaborations have sprung up between artists, organisations, sector bodies. In the UK the new alliances being forged in the Music Industry and across the whole creative sector are truly impressive. The recent creation of a Task Force, headed by a Commissioner for Culture and the Recovery is a more topdown approach. These are necessary survival tactics and, who knows, may evolve into longer term arrangements.

Whether though Task Forces or other means, it will be the planning and collaborative capacity of funders and strategically placed actors like cities, which will really make the difference in next recovery and renewal phases.

The place-based work that funders like Arts Council England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund have done with Great Place puts them in a good position to plan collaboratively for the recovery: to think in new ways how to improve the system as a whole rather than simply to ‘save’ existing organisations.

Cities Mayors have for some years been thinking about culture eco-systems and infrastructure so they are in an ideal position to plan strategically in a world emerging from lockdown. (We will be offering more observations on this from a global perspective shortly).

Of course, planning by itself won’t provide all the answers. Human virtues of courage, skill, industry, and imagination come into play as never before. Echoing Peter Drucker’s celebrated advice, we need to find ways of creating the future rather than simply anticipating it. Planning systemically for a world still reeling from the impact of coronavirus will call into question all our existing assumptions and models. Having access to the widest range of possible scenarios and the robust data that supports them has never been more important.

Photo courtesy of City of Buenos Aires