By Elena Panaritis
How can we best describe 2016? It was a year of confusion, emerging trends and new ideas. A year that also challenged our preconceived notions – not just in Europe, but on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the European Union, 2016 was marked by the revelation that expectations for a swift economic recovery from the Eurocrisis were misguided and overly optimistic. After seven long years of applying the traditional fiscal remedies, the crisis of the Eurozone continues with a lagging average growth of close to zero percent. While Eurozone member Greece remains stuck and hope of recovery has all but faded. Of further consequence, the United Kingdom is on its way out of the EU, and the result of the recent Italian referendum has further challenged the development of the European construct. Meanwhile, refugees and immigrants continue to stream into the West by the thousands, having already flooded the Greek islands.
All the while, economists are busy analyzing economic sluggishness, large sovereign debts, and irresponsiveness to interest rate changes. Many explain these observations in terms of “slow growth” scenarios.
So what’s the deal? Will 2017 be all gloom and doom? Or maybe it’s a long-awaited call to action for us to make the changes that we so desperately need in order to ensure a substantive and positive outcome for all?
It’s time to innovate and leave behind broken systems…
Let’s start the New Year with some optimism. Humans, by nature are evolutionary beings with the ability to reinvent themselves and transform their environment. All that is needed is a bit of imagination, a reframing of the problem, and the willingness to challenge long-held assumptions, all of this coupled with a bold vision of sweeping improvements and prosperity. Societies and countries follow similar evolutionary paths regarding the types of governance structures and economic policies that they adopt, as well, as the type of research and development (R&D) that they promote.
However, countries with large, burdensome bureaucracies tend to be inflexible and resistant to the adoption of new ideas, let alone their promotion. This results in an institutionalized resistance to evolution and the adoption of new ideas. Another certain consequence of such a resistance to innovate is, at best, economic vulnerability and an eventual societal stagnation.
Based on economic development theory, and drawing from my own first-hand experience of transforming crisis-stricken countries, it is easy to discern that broken institutions and outdated economic and governmental systems reduce individual and societal prosperity. These broken systems include those of administration, management, production, accountability, among many others. It is these broken systems that grind political leadership to a screeching halt, making it appear and eventually become null.
Given time, broken systems erode individual’s trust in their society and their government. Confidence in one’s self also becomes undermined. People no longer believe in their ability to realize their dreams and fervently innovate. Worse still, both trust and confidence are extremely difficult to rectify and rebuild. They comprise the soul and conscience of our existence as human beings. Once betrayed, it is tough to regain.
Thus when innovation reaches a standstill, the flow of ideas runs dry; leadership becomes fragile; and political systems break down. When systems break, prosperity grinds to a halt. In the vacuum that is left behind, there is no consistency, no predictability, no stability, and no certainty. And this spells crisis: a lack of trust, the dearth of ideas, the absence of leadership, and a complete loss of one’s belief in the present and future.
Broken systems make for bad ecosystems. The result? Spiraling crises.
One way to address a crisis is to change the narrative into one that boasts a culture of innovation and the fostering of leadership that will shift the storyline from complaining to constracting solutions and action. To ensure success, leaders need a vision that transcends beyond the media headlines that scream daily about rising unemployment and devastating poverty. This is the first step to innovation.
But what is innovation?
When most people think of innovation they think of Thomas Edison’s light bulb or the invention of the microchip. Others think of the internet and social media applications. I think of disruptive innovations that yield the power to change how we live for the better. Innovation must exist in economic and social policy and politics, as much as in science and technology. Around the world, there are cries for innovation – demands to step away from the old business-as-usual operations that have delivered us more of the same slow growth scenarios, ever-threatening global crises, mounting sovereign debt and yesterday’s politics. Certainly, now more than ever, there are cries for innovation. All we need to do is to listen and engage.
Changing the narrative
Each of us at Thought4Action (T4A) possesses personal experience in successfully changing the narrative and transforming crises. How do we do it? We begin by identifying the positive assets within a country or society, and we catalyze this hidden potential. We then proceed by building a critical mass of leaders who believe in and are willing to engage and prepare to make the revolutionary turn. At the same time, we are transforming the narrative in order to uncover and foster solutions and break away from old and asphyxiating systems and make these assets a secure formal wealth base.
One way to go about this change is to follow a traditional REFORM model. This model seeks to affect change through fine-tuning, patching-up and attempting to fix the existing system (through reforms). We have observed the implementation of this model over the past seven years throughout the Eurozone. However, the reform model finds itself lacking in ambition and does not result in real change. Reforms simply “kick the can down the road” and fail the people, who demand real change, restitution of confidence, and lasting growth.
Another way to go about affecting change is to trust EVOLUTION. This requires the creation of a new system of management and administration – one that encourages and sustains new ideas and allows innovation in economic and social policy, politics, and of course in technology and science. Such an evolutionary model requires a strong, visionary leader who is not satisfied with simple fine-tuning and minor reforms, but who is willing to radically push for the creation of a new ecosystem of innovation and growth.
This visionary leader must be willing to act, even when faced with negativity or potential unpopularity. The visionary leader must anticipate the social discontent, unrest, and stagnation produced by asphyxiating, broken systems. In response, they must seek to quickly create security in the form of prosperous, solid economic structures and policies that guarantee prosperity in the present, as well as, in the future.
The case of Greece: is a revolution of economic change and innovation possible?
Take for example the case of Greece. What could we do differently to spearhead much-needed change? In the case of Greece, it is worth noting that, although the country counts less than 0.2% of the world’s population, the Greeks represent approximately 3% of the most influential scientists in the world (John Ioannides, 2015.)
Data show Greek scientists are competing in academic citations with countries like Israel and Denmark – countries that invest many times more than the Greeks in R&D. Only 0.6% of Greece’s GDP is invested in R&D, compared to 4.9% in Israel and 3% in Denmark (2015.)As a country, Greece boasts an astonishingly high 6.2 physicians per 1,000 inhabitants. This is the third highest according to the World Bank. It is impressive. The bad news, however, is that the economic crisis has forced thousands of Greek doctors to emigrate to Germany and other countries where there are more jobs that pay higher salaries.
Therefore, one can reasonably conclude that innovation is a serious asset for the Greeks and an asset that needs to be developed and further explored. Greek leadership should promote and further shape this proven capacity for innovation and seek to develop further links with other innovative countries, such as Israel and the US.
Ultimately, Greece has the potential to evolve into a global tech hub and revitalize the economy around this ecosystem of innovation. This potential transformation for Greece carries the further potential to transform the way that we view the on-going crisis, as well as the Greek political system. A successful outcome could help reverse the increasing flow of young graduates who move abroad each year. Data show that 80% has emigrated over the past five years, compared to25% in the early 1990s.
The bottom line
Globally, we are on the brink of a revolutionary era. We have witnessed this in segments (in specific countries and in specific sectors) that have inspired a fresh wave of innovation in politics, economic and social policies, science and technology. We learned about this radical and lasting innovation at the T4A global event in Athens in December 2016. Speakers included Avishay Braverman, who led the transformation of a debt-stricken Israeli university into what exists today as the Silicon Valley of Israel. We also heard from Ruth Richardson, who, as Minister of Finance, lifted New Zealand from exhibiting terrible economic performance and mounting sovereign debt to being ranked number one in global economic performance and innovation, with high wellbeing standards for the past 21 years.
Without a doubt, there is plenty to learn from the pioneers of these revolutions. Just as they were faced with a choice, so are we. We can either jump in, ride the waves of change, take the lead and shape our future, or we can sit back and remain stuck in continuous temporary solutions, quick fixes, superficial reforms, and austerity measures while allowing yesterday’s system to hold us captive in a perpetual decay.
It’s up to us! In 2017, let’s be committed to real change.