On Wednesday 8 April’s 7.30 on the ABC, Leigh Sales asked internationally renowned infectious disease expert Dr Michael Osterholm why the world has been so woefully unprepared for COVID19 when he and others have been warning us of a global pandemic for decades.

His response? Because “we really lack creative imagination.”

Despite those repeated warnings, he continued, we’re told by politicians that “no one could have envisioned – or so they say – all the constellation of things that have happened.”

And yet the capacity to envision a complex set of possibilities is fundamental to good governance.

It’s also, of course, the fundamental skillset of the artist.

Creative practitioners are adept at testing new models, jettisoning assumptions and experimenting with alacrity. They actively seek critical responses and opposing views. They are at home with conflict and risk. Their minds are agile, taking confident leaps in new directions, rather than getting bogged down in unhelpful frameworks and obsolete ideologies. They’re sensitive, curious and inventive.

That’s why the World Economic Forum, the International Monetary Fund, and even the Australian Government’s Bureau of Communications and Arts Research, rate creativity at the top of the list of skills needed for the future of work.

The fourth industrial revolution may very much be on hold right now, but the skills we need to create the economy of the future are the same skills that we need to be able to envision it at all.

Creative imagination may not be prevalent politically, but it’s deeply valued in the corporate sector. Governments have been struggling to keep up with industry responses to COVID19 because while we’ve been getting on with it, they’ve been trying to work out what on earth to do.

Large-scale and multinational corporations have been engaged in creative risk management methods for decades. They take a sophisticated approach, bringing in futurists or artists in residence to facilitate that scenario-planning, making sure that their own thinking truly innovates.

At any scale, a business knows that in order to make widespread, radical change, you can’t take the sledgehammer to fixing a specific problem. What you need to do is change the organisational culture.

To create behavioural change – like expecting people to stay at home – you need to offer compelling alternatives that mean people can still do all the things that keep them confident, inspired and connected to others. All the things, that is, that make up our culture.

If we can still do and see and make the things that are important to us, if we can still express ourselves and find meaning in our world, then we will feel more confident to change our behaviour without risking our sense of identity, our cultural ties or our mental health. All of that, of course, protects our physical health, as well as the health of the entire community.

To foster a stay-at-home culture that means we’re not aching for the galleries and theatres and cinemas that we love, we need to make sure we can experience the very best new Australian work at home. We also need to make sure that the arts remain robust enough to get us through this period, and then welcome us back out into the world.

Instead, the creative industries are being overlooked at this critical time. The industry has united to outline what’s urgently needed given the ineligibility of too many in the sector for the measures already announced. Artists have been clear in articulating what’s at stake.

The creative industries contribute $111.7bn to the economy – that’s 6.5% of GDP. While a couple of valuable funding announcements have been brought forward, overall there is no strategic approach to redressing this most debilitating disruption to our cultural lives.

The government also has ditched the tv quotas that ensure we’re seeing great Australian dramas, docos and kids’ shows right now. This threatens the viability of Australian screen content producers who’ve already been hit hard because of COVID19. Every major industry body has raised the alarm including Screen Producers Australia, APRA AMCOS and the Australian Guild of Screen Composers.

Curiously, the reason given for letting the quotas go is that screen production has been suspended due to physical distancing requirements. In reality, the work we see on our screens was filmed at least a year or two ago; it then undergoes numerous postproduction steps before we get to enjoy it.

Countless unseen shows now sit on dark shelves because of this unimaginative decision, consigning Australians to consuming whatever bulk-purchased imported product is easiest for broadcasters to air. That’s not the kind of cultural change we need right now.

That’s why, in a time of crisis, the creative imagination needs to be the first thing we fire up. Engaging the creative industries should be a first port of call, not an afterthought, certainly not an abandonment. Not just to help government think through the steps of its crisis plans, but also, to make sure the industries that create our future are strengthened.

We urgently need expert creative industry input on the National COVID19 Coordination Commission, so that Australia can responsibly plan our way through the most debilitating disruption to our cultural life we’ve ever experienced.

At stake is the creative imagination and cultural life of an entire nation.

Unless, of course, these are the “quiet Australians” that our prime minister had always envisioned.



IMAGE: Leigh Sales interviewing Dr Michael Osterholm on 7.30. Screencapture from iView.