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What Christchurch’s recovery has to teach us about post-lockdown NZ

Business after Covid: In the second of a series featuring business leaders assessing the world that will rise after Covid-19, consultant Roger Dennis looks at the lessons that can be learned from the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake.

Never waste a crisis. 

This should be the mantra that guides political decisions for the foreseeable future. The world is facing an unprecedented crisis, but this shouldn’t stop New Zealand emerging stronger from the situation.

In a well-shared column last week, Rod Drury outlined some of the opportunities for New Zealand. He referred to a framework that I developed to help leaders respond to the Covid-19 outbreak. Given the volume of feedback that article attracted, the framework is what I’m concerned with here.

The structure requires three waves of simultaneous work. It creates a way for leaders to get ahead of the crisis, rather than simply reacting to it. 

The first wave

The first wave covers the immediate reaction to the situation. This is a natural focus area for leaders in a crisis and includes a variety of responses. In the context of Covid-19 these measures are focused on preventing the health system from collapsing and supporting the economy.

While this is a necessary reaction, it cannot be the only response.  Leaders must also temporarily remove themselves from the urgent to consider the other two other waves of thinking.

The second wave 

The second wave is focused on the near term. In January and before the global spread of the virus, this would have referred to a 12-18 month timeline where the future was relatively easy to navigate, and resources could be allocated accordingly. Many corporate strategy teams work confidently on this type of timeframe using well-understood techniques.

Now, however, the near-term focus has shortened considerably, and an appropriate timeline is four to six weeks ahead. To illustrate the challenge and the opportunity in the near term, let’s look at the response of two organisations immediately after the Christchurch earthquakes.

The first of these, the Earthquake Recovery Commission, was an organisation that was optimised to collect levies. When the earthquakes struck, well-meaning officials tried to scale up EQC using their prior knowledge. However, because the leadership team had no experience of dealing with this type of situation, their efforts created a dysfunctional organisation.

The contrasting story in the post-earthquake environment was the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Recovery Team (SCIRT). It was an alliance between local government, central government and private contractors that was tasked with rebuilding the below-ground infrastructure.

The team realised that in order to function in this novel environment, they needed to think carefully about how to proceed and how they could learn from international best practice. It took the best part of three months to design and implement the organisation.

The resulting organisational approach meant that SCIRT installed below ground infrastructure at an incredible speed – fully 12 times faster than the Christchurch City Council had managed in the previous year. 

While the EQC’s approach resulted in a royal commission, SCIRT won numerous international engineering awards and endorsement from the auditor general.

The third wave

This focuses on how New Zealand can emerge stronger from the crisis. Understanding this requires a serious piece of analysis examining what the world might look like in 18 months. This is an important timeframe because that’s when a vaccine is likely to be available in large quantities. 

While it’s now impossible to accurately forecast this far, it is possible to ask the right questions that examine possible post-Covid worlds. 

For example, which countries will emerge first from the crisis, and are they trading partners? What changes will we see in consumer behaviour that will shape future business opportunities? What new global institutions will evolve from this crisis, who will control them, and what role could New Zealand play? 

By understanding the implications of these questions, it’s possible to consider the opportunities for New Zealand. In the pre-Covid world – just a few weeks ago – there were global trends emerging that were relevant to New Zealand’s future, such as smarter agriculture, data-enabled infrastructure, plant-based protein, renewable energy and electric aviation. 

When the world starts to reemerge from lockdown, New Zealand could be ready to offer innovative products and services that address some of these global opportunities.

Lessons from past disasters

The outbreak of Covid-19 will change the world forever. The way ahead is not clear and holds many risks. The future also presents opportunities, and to make the most of these, leaders need to start thinking about three timelines simultaneously. 

It’s not easy, but we only have to look back a few years to see how a lack of perspective creates failure. 

After the Christchurch earthquakes, the government of the time failed to take advantage of what was New Zealand’s largest infrastructure spend in memory. Instead of a city that was fit for the 21st century, that attracted talent, and benefited from foreign investment, taxpayers funded a slightly better billion-dollar version of the old city.

Let’s not make the same mistake again.

This is the second article in a five-part series about recovery in the post-Covid world. 



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