Looking to 2022: Building back better with trampolines

| By Professor Danny Quah |

Before the pandemic ends is when we need to debate how the world should look afterwards. Many “build back better” proposals are in circulation. In studying them, we need to focus on two ideas: first, resilience; second, social cohesion.

As The Resilient Society, a wonderful book launched at November’s Singapore Fintech Festival, argues, resilience is the ability to bounce back. It is a feature of systems that show elasticity. Resilience is, therefore, distinct from being strong and robust, and different again from being aware of or capable of dealing with risk.

When a society is only robust, it confronts any external force with its internal strength. The COVID-19 pandemic is such an external force, but one that quickly showed it could overwhelm even the strongest of nations: robustness here did not help.

Even combining robustness and risk aversion and seeking to guard against rare black-swan events wouldn’t have helped. Through mutation the coronavirus showed how it could overcome even the most closely-constructed and far-ranging of avoidance measures. Everyone no matter how risk averse in minimizing their own exposure was quickly drawn into the pandemic’s circle of effect.

By most expert accounts, COVID-19 is just one of a sequence of large threats to humanity. This coronavirus got through. Others are already on the way. The message from this experience should be, “You can run, but you cannot hide. Resistance is futile.”

The importance of resilience

Resilience, however, can help. Let known and unknown shocks hit: We will bounce back.

In economics we think of a pandemic shock as an exogenous disturbance: it emerges from outside the normal operation of the system. In today’s world, however, other large recent shocks have emerged from within; that is, they are endogenous. The global climate crisis today powerfully affects business operations, livelihoods, and relations across nations. But the climate crisis is not an exogenous disturbance. Instead, it emerged from everyday human activity normalized since the Industrial Revolution.

Geopolitical rivalry now profoundly affects technological advance, trade relations and the global supply chain, cultural and people-to-people ties, and education and scholarship. Geopolitical rivalry is a large disturbance but an endogenous one: Today’s US-China tensions come from a potent combination of China’s economic success in the era of hyper-globalization together with a growing musculature in its dealings with the rest of the world, and America’s perception of the challenge to its hegemonic position from a fast-rising challenger great power.

Social cohesion

Breakdown of social cohesion is real all around the world. By the 2010s global unrest — whether measured in strikes and demonstrations or in media accounts of social discord — had exploded to four times what it had been just thirty years earlier. In historical arc this increase is concentrated in sporadic short bursts, but when it occurs, there is rarely fall back to earlier levels.

Social cohesion is when people in society do not undermine or cheat but instead work with and help one another. One possible way to achieve social cohesion might be through providing a sense of trust and community to the group. But trust can also lead to moral hazard and free-riding: “If you really trusted me, you would not be looking over my shoulder all the time.”

Thus, a sense of belonging in the group is neither necessary nor sufficient for individual members to cooperate and help each other. In research by the Social Mobility Foundation at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS, we are exploring how what matters, instead, is that everyone sees they are engaged in a positive-sum game, where raising others lifts oneself.

When social cohesion deteriorates and populists agitate on nationalistic, racist, or xenophobic agendas, this impacts domestic politics and distracts policymakers from taking on important global challenges. Such domestic unrest is almost never due to an exogenous disturbance, but emerges endogenously from shortcomings within that society itself. Deterioration of social cohesion too, therefore, is an endogenous disturbance.

The consequentiality of social cohesion cannot be over-estimated. The US is the world’s largest economy; has the world’s strongest military; and runs excellent hospitals. Yet, in early 2020 as its divisive leader degraded America’s ability to have its people come together, the country’s responses to the pandemic resulted, by later that year, in death rates exceeding 1,500 per million, even as Singapore, China, New Zealand, and others kept COVID fatalities to under five per million.

Today, despite its far greater access to vaccines than many poorer nations’, America remains the polity with the world’s highest cumulative number of infections and deaths from COVID, ahead even of India or Indonesia, both with far lower per capita incomes, and the first with many times America’s population.

Elasticity and bouncing back

Looking ahead for possible post-pandemic social models, resilience and cohesion need to be central. Systems need to show elasticity. To that end, I suggest a metaphor for how we can build back better: the trampoline.

The Resilient Society mentions “trampoline” once in passing; the word does not appear in the index. Singaporeans will remember that moment at the 2015 St Gallen Symposium when then Deputy Prime Minister Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam was asked if Singapore believed in a social safety net, and he replied, “I believe in the notion of a trampoline.” The metaphor has been used since to evaluate specific policy proposals in Singapore.

More than just specifics, however, the trampoline provides the best conceptual model for both resilience and social cohesion, while simultaneously capturing both exogenous and endogenous disturbances.

Resilience is the elasticity and springiness in society that allows bouncing back from a shock. The trampoline is all about bounce-back. Social cohesion is when different sections of the community cooperate and collaborate.

So too the trampoline’s different components - the taut fabric, the steel frame, and the edge rings and coiled springs holding together support and bounce mat - all have to work together, or the entire structure fails. If a micro-tear appears in the fabric and is not quickly repaired, the entire bounce mat can rend apart as shocks continue to test the system. So too with social cohesion: small misunderstandings must not be allowed to fester or they will grow.

Next, you can’t draw a trampoline too tight or it’ll break; and you can’t draw it too loose or the user will break. Society cannot operate when it’s stretched to hyper-efficiency or pounded into robustness, or it won’t withstand an external shock. But at the same time society cannot be flabby or it won’t hold together and advance.

Third, as with global supply chains or ordinary physical chains, for trampolines the part that is least strong needs the greatest support. The entire national or global system is only as strong as the weakest link.

Fourth, a trampoline needs to be kept in regular use. Having societies be unchallenged for too long ossifies the O-rings around the edges of the trampoline. A string of small crises is to be welcomed, and provides valuable stress-testing. Successfully dealing with small shocks prepares society for the big disturbances.

Fifth, modelling ourselves on a trampoline changes how societies perceive inequality. Rigid egalitarianism demands high maintenance, and is not resilient. Instead, what is resilient is the dynamic fluidity when every part of society is able to bounce back after being hit by bad shocks such as disease or employment dislocation.

To go higher, one needs to take chances, not be risk averse and sit quietly. Social mobility is what gives people hope so that on that upward trajectory they see their children and their children’s children continuing to experience improvement in well-being, and even those currently deprived feel society continues to have space for them and they are not permanently excluded. Hope powers the positive-sum game.

Finally, a trampoline is not an F1-formula race car. The resilient structure is not built for speed. Don’t expect societies to operate at frenetic breakneck pace if what you want is something that’s going to bounce back better when it hits a bump in the road.

As the world seeks its post-pandemic equilibrium and tries to build back better, the model of a trampoline can help provide both resilience and social cohesion.


About the author

Professor Danny Quah is Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS, where he is also the Li Ka Shing Professor in Economics. He ranks in the top 1 per cent of scientists worldwide, in both 2020 and lifetime citation impact. Beyond recognition for his academic contributions, Prof Quah was also named in the list of the world's top 100 academics influential in government in 2021. His research interests include income inequality and international relations. On the latter, he takes an economic approach to world order — with focus on global power shifts and the rise of the East. Prof Quah was previously Assistant Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and then Professor of Economics and International Development at the London School of Economics, where he was also Head of Department for Economics.


This article was first published in The Straits Times on 17 November 2021.


Looking to 2022 is a series of commentaries on what readers can expect in the new year. This is the second instalment of the series.

Click here to read Professor Tommy Koh's commentary on three upcoming anniversaries that will be key to international geopolitics.