Agder After the Pandemic

Agder fylket i Norge

We Have to Cooperate to Find a Way Forward

This article addresses the consequences of the Corona pandemic, the short term ones (that we partly know), but especially the longer term ones ((that we do not know). The focus is on the Agder country in southern Norway (see map).

There are any number of views and predictions as to what will or could happen once life hopefully gradually turns back to normal (even if the pandemic does not go away). We already have to deal with unemployment, bankruptcies, decreasing trade, lower demand, and a weakened national economy. At the individual level there are reports on isolation and loneliness due to unemployment, layoffs, working from home, and home schooling. Social unrest has been mentioned as a possibility. We see an increasing emphasis on the state as a regulating and protective factor. Activities in internationalization and globalization have fallen sharply. In addition to these more or less dramatic scenarios there are also some more moderate points of view. They often state that the post-pandemic situation will be more or less normal, only a little worse. Myself, I tend to side with such positions.

At the same time, we have to separate between the situation in Norway, and to some extent in countries in Western Europe, on the one hand, and developing and transition countries, on the other hand. In several of the latter countries life will likely not return to a normal situation, with a possible dramatic increase in poverty, and the implications of this.

There have been some decidedly positive, and largely unexpected, effects of the pandemic that deserve to be mentioned. These are largely found in the areas of environment protection and health. Among them are benefits as regards biodiversity protection and decrease in air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions.

As a social scientist I am especially concerned with relations between people, as well as relations between people and the state. What does the pandemic due with the glue that holds complex societies together, for example, attitudes, morale, social values, and, not the least, the fundamental trust between people, and between people and the state?

All of the above not withstanding, what will happen is largely unknown. We, the citizens, are passive, we are waiting. On what? This is not clear, but possibly for "someone" to take an initiative? Who or what this "someone" is, is not clear. Is it the state, the county, or the communes? If so, any such initiatives will hopefully be made on behalf of all citizens. The private sector will likely in any case take its own initiatives. This passive stance in civil society and largely also in the public sector is of course the wrong way to address the situation. We can all contribute to what should happen on the longer term, and we should get involved.

I notice the changes in my own area of work, development cooperation. I work among others with projects in several countries in Eastern Europe that receive funding from the EEA and Norway Grants. Conferences and workshops are being postponed, while some projects face an uncertain future. This, in turn, have implications for traveling, and contribute to among others airline carriers and hotels having major economic problems. Further, it has implications throughout the value chain. It is fascinating how we now understand how everything is connected to everything else, and that we are all dependent upon each other to a degree we did not know possible. Regional, national, and international developments impact the local level, and vice versa. Who would have thought that bicycle repairshops in Kristiansand suddenly would get more work than they could handle, or that a firm that offers services in videoconferencing suddenly would attain a market value higher than all airline carriers in the United States?

Agder county – including public sector, civil society, and private sector – is integrated in and dependent upon what is going on elsewhere, nationally and especially internationally. The public sector collaborates with public sector in other countries. NGOs and organizations in civil society are involved in development cooperation, and people are going on vacation. The private sector imports goods and parts, and exports finished products, and may be more dependent than the other sectors on what goes on internationally. There is also tourism, which is important. The oil industry is in an uncertain position.

There appears to be two different strategies as to how to address the crisis. The government and its supporters in the political domain, together with the private sector, argues that the goal is to return to the situation prior to the pandemic. Political parties to the left of center, together with among others environmental conservation organizations, argues that it will not be possible to return to the situation prior to the pandemic, and that it in any case cannot be a goal. The pandemic has changed the premisses for how to plan for the future fundamentally. Their strategy is accordingly that this represents a unique opportunity to reconsider our future, including as regards the oil industry and energy production, in order to realize the so-called "green shift" and reach a low-carbon economy sooner (Note 3).

An important consideration concerns digitization. Working from home, as do I, is increasing. Information technology, streaming, and articificial intelligence have become important. The social and administrative aspects of working from home are formidable, and will only increase. The possibilities that digitization represents is the driving force behind this change. This alone will change work life fundamentally, in public sector, private sector, as well as in civil society.

Instead of just passively waiting for something to happen, on "someone" to take initiatives, we that live in Agder should take decisive action ourselves. And we should cooperate with stakeholders in public sector and civil society. Only in this way will we be able to realize our plans and dreams. Some among us have begun to talk together. But this has so far largely been restricted to informal talks in lunchrooms, or via cellphone or email. Voluntary work has seen a renaissance. In Agder we need voluntary work where people cooperate in a more structured way as regards, what to do, by whom, in cooperation with whom, and when, in order to reach specific goals. I am specifially concerned with Agder's international relations, broadly understood. I discussed the term "internationalization" in two articles in Fædrelandsvennen (12 September 2016 and 21 January 2019), partly in connection with "Agderkonferansen" (Note 4). This term is used primarily in economics and in the private sector. Agder's international relations are much broader, and the correct term would be "globalization." 

We have to discuss the future and how to realize it, including values, goals, and means, and we have to do it now. Why? Because a positive outcome will be more likely when all stakeholder take part. Further, because the longer we wait the fewer options or alternatives will be available for us to chose between.

We need a broadly defined process with these purposes. But where and how? The first Agdermøtet took place in January 2020. This was a closed event for specially invited persons. Agdermøtet could be a useful context for an event that discusses Agder after the pandemic, if it opens up participation, that is. Such an event should take place sooner rather than later, and would have to be a virtual event. Representatives of all three sectors, including civil society, have to be invited. The panel should likewise consist of representatives of all three sectors. Working groups, composed of representatives of all three sectors, should be organized in all communes throughout the county. Social media should be used. The overall process should be managed by Agder county. 

The whole idea with an open and inclusive process as presented above is that we all will be able to contribtue to realize a development and a future that we can identify with and accordingly accept.

Postscript

Rereading the article published in the regional daily Fædrelandsvennen on 30 April 2020, it is clear that I presented some more or less incorrect conclusions. The article was incorrect in believing that public sector and private sector in Agder necessarily will be interested in collaborating with civil society on identifying and implementing strategies with the aim to move from an oil-based economy to a radically different economy. It was also incorrect in assuming that Agdermøtet would be an optimal venue for discussing and initiating such a change process. In my defense I should add that I presented an ideal picture of the possibilities for cooperation across different lines of disagreement. As for Agdermøtet's position, the following quote, addressed to participants from public sector and private sector at a meeting, speaks for itself (Note 5):

We accomplish more together than separately. The new Agder county creates new possibilities for building a larger, stronger, and even more integrated region. Where we together cooperate better. Where we together find new solutions. Where we together aim to reach further, towards more ambitious goals.
    The new possibilities are out there. We must together determine how realize these possibilities. This work begins now
and you are invited.
    This is why you receive this invitation to participate in "Agdermøtet 2020". At this meeting 300 selected persons from different sectors and different locations in the region, will meet in order to exchange ideas, identify and promote good projects, and build new and stronger networks.

The fact is we are in a middle of a crisis, where seemingly everything is turned upside down. Accepted truths do not apply anymore. Old values, ways of working, and traditional relationships, together with means and ways of communicating, all are largely left by the wayside. The agenda is wide open – we can think anew. Actually, we should think anew. In fact, I do not see any other way than to think anew, to accept this tabula rasa, as it were, and rethink who we are, and how we want our future to be.

Crises and Social Change

A quote by Milton Friedman, probably the most influential economist in the 20th century, speaks to this (Friedman 2020):

There is enormous inertia – a tyranny of the status quo – in private and especially governmental arrangements. Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.

Of course, true to his beliefs, by “alternatives to existing policies” Friedman meant enacting radical deregulation, privatization of national industries and public-sector programs, and deep cuts to the welfare state. These are tools that will not be used in the present situation.

I disagree with a lot, maybe most, of what Friedman argued. The above quote, however, is correct in pinpointing the historical role that crises can play in producing change, and past crises have played important roles in reshaping and re-channelling societies and cultures. Crises are in and of themselves a break with a past structure and rationale. They invite – often even force – upon us to rethink and redo. This applies certainly to the Corona pandemic that we are in the midst of. I refer again to Friedman: only a crisis produces real change.

Innovation

What we need is innovation, less in technology and engineering, the traditional domain of innovation. We need innovation in the cultural and social domains. Technological and engineering innovation will follow naturally. We need innovation in how to structure our societies, in what we will work on, in how society produces food and surplus, in devising more suitable social relations, in how public sector and private sector relates to each other and, in turn, how both sectors should relate to civil society. Above all, we need innovation in how to identify and reinforce the values that guide our behaviour and relationship with both self and others. Furthermore, we have to address the near universal cultural lag in the relations between societies and people, on the one hand, and technological development, on the other hand. I believe strongly that the locus of the type and form of innovation we need is available right among us, in the relations between the collective/groups and its constituent members, that is, in civil society.

Cooperation and Partnership

This brings me back to my final argument in the newspaper article, namely that to succeed, we all – that is, civil society, public sector, and private sector – have to partner and collaborate. This is necessary in order to be able to realize our goals and dreams. Only in this way will we all come to accept whatever decisions are made on how to move forward in Agder, and, most importantly, learn to accept and live by these decisions.

Lars Soeftestad


Notes
(1) My artickle "Agder etter pandemien" was published in the regional daily newspaper Fædrelandsvennen 30 April 2020. The present article, that is, the first part, is a revised version. The postscript was written in connection with preparing this article to be publsihed on Devblog. The original article is available on Fædrelandsvennen (paywall), and on Academia.edu for free (se Kilder, nettsteder)
(2) A Norwegian language version of this article is available at: https://www.devblog.no/no/article/agder-etter-pandemien
(3) Low-carbon economy (LCE), is referred to also as low-fossil-fuel economy (LFFE) and decarbonised economy. This is an economy that is based on low carbon power sources, which has a minimal output of greenhouse gases, specifically carbon dioxide.
(4) Agderkonferansen was an annual event organized by several local, regional and national stakeholders in the public and private sectors. It has been replaced by "Agdermøtet", and is organized by: Agder County, Confederation of Norwegian Enterprises Agder, Innovation Norway, Kristiansand Chamber of Commerce, Kristiansand City, Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities, Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions, and University of Agder. Agderkonferansen, and presumably also Agdermøtet, appear to confuse the two terms internationalization and globalization, in that typical globalization activities are included under intennationalization. On Agderkonferansen, see Devblog (2019).
(5) Quote from Agdermøtet's website (see "Sources, websites"). My translation. Emphases in original.
(6) Image credit: Wikipedia. The maps shows the location of Agder Country in Norway.
(7) Relevant Devblog articles: (a) Agderkonferansen og internasjonalisering (in Norwegian), (b)
(8) Permalink: https://www.devblog.no/en/article/agder-etter-pandemien
(9) This article was published 19 May 2020. It was revised 20 May 2020.

Sources, documents
Devblog. 2019. "Agderkonferansen og internasjonalisering", by Lars Soeftestad, at: https://www.devblog.no/no/article/agderkonferansen-og-internasjonalisering
Friedman, Milton. 2020. Capitalism and freedom. Chicago, Illinois, United States: University of Chicago Press. (originally publ. in 1962.)

Sources, websites
Academia.edu. "Agder etter pandemien", https://lars.academia.edu/research#newspapers (Note: This article was published in the regional daily newspaper Fædrelandsvennen on 20 April 2020.)
Agder County, at: https://agderfk.no/
Agderkonferansen, at: http://www.agderkonferansen.no
Agdermøtet, at: https://agdermøtet.no/
Confederation of Norwegian Enterprises, at:
https://www.nho.no/en/
EEA and Norway Grants, at: https://eeagrants.org/

Fædrelandsvennen, at: https://www.fvn.no/
Innovation Norway, at:
https://www.innovasjonnorge.no/en/start-page/
Kristiansand Chamber of Commerce, at: https://www.kristiansand-chamber.no/
Kristiansand City, at:
https://www.kristiansand.kommune.no/
Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities, at: https://www.ks.no/
Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions, at: https://www.lo.no/language/english/
University of Agder, at: https://www.uia.no/en

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