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Transforming crisis into opportunity

At its best, this is a time of “uncertain uncertainties” and “unknown unknowns,” said Sanjeev Khagram, director general and dean of the Thunderbird School of Global Management.

In countries around the world and at great speed, the COVID-19 pandemic is posing enormous threats to human health and safety and wreaking unprecedented damage on an already-slowing global economy.

It’s a moment that highlights our interconnectedness and the need to work together toward solutions, across borders and across sectors, underscoring that “multilateralism is still an answer,” said Norma Munguía, an environmental consultant.

In a webinar Thursday, Khagram and Munguía, who has held several leadership positions in the Mexican federal government related to international environmental policy, considered the role of the private sector in confronting global challenges such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The webinar, held in conjunction with the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI), was the latest in ASU’s Convergence Lab series, a collection of events and ideas journalism that brings together ASU community members and their Mexican counterparts in order to consider shared challenges and innovate cross-border solutions. The series has covered topics from science fiction and imagination to technology and education to social justice and sport, in collaboration with partners in Mexico like COMEXI, Letras Libres, Google and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

The speed and global reach of our current COVID-19 crisis, said Munguía, makes it unique from other crises we’ve seen.

“When we come out of our houses, I think the world will be different,” she said. “It poses a challenge not only to governments, but also to the private sector and to society itself.”

One of the most worrying results of the current crisis, Munguía and Khagram agreed, is that it will leave the people who are already most vulnerable even more so. Although globalization has reduced extreme poverty, we’ve also seen dramatic rises in income inequality.

“What the COVID-19 crisis has laid bare and naked for all of us to see is how deeply unequal the world is and different countries are,” said Khagram.

We also can’t forget, they said, that COVID-19 is not the only major, life-threatening crisis the world has on its hands right now. The global devastation of climate change and the threat it poses to our current realities and shared futures, is palpable — and must be taken into consideration as we chart ways forward on the COVID-19 front, Munguía and Khagram said.

“If the push for a rapid re-acceleration of economies around the world and the global economy in general occurs without massive attention to a transition to a green economy, we will have lost a great opportunity,” Khagram said.

Silver linings can be hard to find in the middle of a pandemic, especially given its enormous human toll. Still, Khagram said, crisis has spurred “tremendous innovation” and presented a chance to focus on how to “re-skill” the workforce to become more resilient given technological transformations. Thunderbird, which has 45,000 alumni in 140 countries, is focused on connecting innovation to future changes and “training and influencing a new set of global leaders and managers across the world,” Khagram said, equipping them with a “digital global mindset.”

Khagram is realistic about the long-term effects of the pandemic, which may include further pushback against globalization, increasing resurgence of nationalism and a misguided focus on “short term-ism” in restarting economies, rather than taking advantage of the moment to transition to more sustainable practices and retrain workers with the skills they need in light of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But at the same time, he said, he’s “always a possibilist.”

“The possibilism that I believe in is that we can create a world that is more globally interconnected, that is more sustainable as a planet, that has less inequality,” Khagram said. “Business has to play a central role, with government and academia and civil society, in new partnerships to do that. … It does require a new way of thinking, and a seizing of an opportunity to push through and really transform the 21st century.”

Written by Mia Armstrong