NewslettersNovember 23rd, 2021

PG #95: The possibilities of collective impact

Rachel Podbury
Rachel Podbury, Principal Strategic Designer

I’ve been thinking a lot about goals lately. Those that individuals and progressive societies seem to share like freedom, health, happiness and opportunity. Since the pandemic, we have been living in a world where our collective goals and efforts have never been more crystallised. Vaccination rates, case numbers, hospitalisations, ICU bed occupancy. These have been the daily measures of our public health successes and failures since March 2020.

The notion of collective impact has taken on a whole new meaning since then. As an approach, it has historically been the domain of governments and organisations seeking to address complex issues through collaboration. It’s characterised by five conditions: common agenda, continuous communication, mutually reinforcing activities, backbone support and shared measurement. But, since this virus came knocking, it seems we have all become part of the largest (albeit atypical and imperfect) global collective impact response the world has seen.

Practically every layer of society has aligned to halt the virus’ spread (common agenda). National border control and technology designs were shared (continuous communication). There's been global enforcement of mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing (mutually reinforcing activities). We’ve seen coordinated financial and personnel investments in initiatives like antigen and PCR tests (backbone support). And most of us are tracking a suite of public health metrics over our morning coffee (shared measurement).

According to the creators of collective impact theory, its defining feature is the ability to achieve previously unachievable solutions through improved cross-sector coordination. I’d say the design, financing, manufacturing, supply chain negotiation, and roll out of a life-saving vaccine that was previously deemed “impossible” to achieve in less than one year fits that bill.

We now have a modern day case study of what happens when practically everyone invests in a common goal in the face of a common threat. We are facing another common threat: climate change. Yet we have not seen the activation of every layer of society in the same way. There are a myriad of reasons for the gaping contrast in the global response to these threats, but one thing is certain: our ability to collectively align our goals, transparently communicate, implement new practices, and reach targets is demonstrably possible. The antibodies coursing through the vaccinated population is all the proof you need.

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