The good that comes out of calamities

The pandemic and climate concerns have spurred new research and global collaboration.

The global research campaign to develop an effective vaccine against Covid-19 has underscored what globalisation and capitalism can achieve. PHOTO: REUTERS

Over the past decade, globalisation and capitalism have often been made out to be key culprits for the problems we face. At the same time, the global research campaign to develop an effective vaccine against Covid-19 has also underscored what these forces can achieve when they are properly aligned and incentivised.

The "old game" - blaming others or blaming abstract concepts like globalisation and capitalism - may be convenient, but it certainly doesn't get us any closer to solving the hard problems we face.

We are also seeing that a true calamity - the outbreak of the pandemic - has triggered an intense wave of globe-spanning collaboration.

As at the middle of this month, a total of 240 vaccines for Covid-19 are in development worldwide, with several of them already in use for vaccination campaigns globally. This not only points to our collective problem-solving capacity, but also underscores the positive side of globalisation.

Calamities can also open up unexpected opportunities in other fields of the economy.

For example, while the production of new airplanes has come to a halt, some aircraft manufacturers are intensifying their research into hydrogen-fuelled airplanes. This technology could greatly reduce the emissions footprint of airplanes.

Immense progress is also within reach in the energy arena. In particular, so-called "power-to-X" technologies - that is, various processes that are key to move the world past fossil fuels by turning low-cost renewable energy into heat, hydrogen or synthetic fuels - can help industry worldwide to operate on a sustainable basis. This was deemed improbable only a decade ago.

To succeed with these and any other breakthrough technologies, the twin powers of collaboration and synchronicity - the essence of globalisation - are the essential building blocks.

As the global effort now under way to distribute the vaccine underscores, the global logistics industry is the linchpin for many of these cutting-edge efforts and for overall economic efficiency.

Setting up closely time-sequenced as well as resilient operational structures to organise reliably optimised supply chains of goods - whether global, regional or national in focus and in reach - provides a daily, hands-on example of the power of collaboration.

All indications are that the actual distribution of the vaccine by the logistics industry is working very smoothly, underscoring its ability to link the global with the local.

Obviously, any effort to move towards closer integration to advance efficiency is affiliated with risks. These must be managed prudently. Many companies have learnt that lesson while dealing with the enormous business disruptions triggered by the current pandemic.

But what we should all feel encouraged by is the fact that, in contrast to the situation over a decade ago in the wake of the global financial crisis in 2008-09, the world has quickly adapted to the pandemic. Most people are still willing to trade, collaborate and stay connected. They are just finding different ways of keeping in touch.

As a result, while the level of globalisation unsurprisingly is set to decline somewhat this year, it nevertheless has proven surprisingly resilient and robust. As the new edition of the DHL Global Connectedness Index shows, global trade, after a brief but sharp decline, has rebounded impressively.

Trade and digital information flows are playing a critical role to keep the world connected and generate forward momentum.

Obviously, the pandemic-related need for social distancing has resulted in an unprecedented decline in international travel. It is on track to fall to a level not seen in three decades. Meanwhile, data flows were up massively due to the vast increase in Internet traffic, phone calls and video-based communications which have allowed people to stay in touch.

For humanity to succeed in the future, focusing on the power of collaboration is key. To be sure, the specific way in which we translate optimally synchronised collaboration into reality is different in every field of inquiry and for every specific big problem to be solved.

But all promising solutions, whether for global health, climate change, inequality, mass migration or hunger, require smartly joined efforts that span national and regional barriers.

In a global context, the renewed belief in the power of global cooperation which appears to be at the core of the new United States administration is especially encouraging.

The challenges require many different forms of smartly mixing public- and private-sector actors. The way in which public- and private-sector researchers, scientific institutes and corporations across the world have been collaborating in the global race for a vaccine shows us the pathway to how we can - and must - proceed in the future. As long as these efforts are well aligned, there is little that human imagination and determination cannot solve.

This is clearly a transformative moment. While the world of politics can - and hopefully will - serve as a force multiplier, business needs to live up to its own aspirations and responsibilities. As business people, our task is to turn long-evident challenges into practical solutions and promising opportunities.

Ultimately, the solution to many of our challenges thus lies in rethinking globalisation and capitalism so that they address the pressing needs of the world's population in a more resilient fashion.

On occasion, this may even involve surprising forms of ownership. Remember how the inventor of the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk, famously responded when asked who owned the patent on it: "Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"

John Pearson is chief executive officer of international courier service DHL Express.

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