A 20th century adage with a COVID twist

Kate Kearins

09 Feb 2021

Headshot of AUT Professor Kate Kearins

As I write this article it’s December 2020, the final month of what arguably has been one of the most challenging years most of us have ever experienced – as individuals and members of a worldwide community.

It’s rare that I seek (or find) comfort in cliches, but there’s an adage that strikes me as particularly relevant, as a philosophy and a practice: think globally, act locally.

In searching the Internet for the source of this saying, I learned that it was coined in 1915 by the so-called father of regional planning, Patrick Geddes. Wikipedia describes him as a Scottish planner and conservationist whose holistic approach to urban issues was hailed as revolutionary. He combined big-picture thinking with astute financial analysis and great attention to detail. In so doing, he helped transform run-down housing and urban areas into valued spaces and places to live and work.

Today, Geddes’ slogan has become part of our daily lexicon, featuring on bumper stickers, tee-shirts and placards, as a rallying cry for social and environmental activism, and as praxis in academic coursework. It’s also increasingly embedded within business frameworks and corporate responsibility goals.

Three key priorities

“Local” for me is AUT, so I offer these thoughts based on the experiences of my own professional backyard in the hope they might resonate as 2021 begins.


At the most fundamental level, New Zealand’s tightly managed borders mean we might most easily look inwards to build our collective capacity, the strength of which will be key to weathering the economic, equity and health challenges of 2021. Resources are stretched (that's a given) and times are tough for many. Within the tertiary sector, life and ledgers without international students are challenged. As for so many other organisations and industries, COVID has stripped us to the bone, forcing us to examine and become crystal clear about who and what our priorities are.

For AUT, staff and student success go hand in hand. Pre-COVID, there was perhaps a tacit assumption that most of our students could access the fundamentals of tertiary life - food, space to study, technology. The virus ravaged such assumptions.

During and after NZ’s lockdowns, we heard sobering stories of students forced to give up their studies in order to help feed their families, of others driving to hilltops in order to find a decent internet connection, and still others writing essays in a corner of the garage – the only quiet space in overcrowded homes. Our staff proved time and again their dedication to our students, delivering food parcels, laptops and data cards, as well as virtually (and virtual) 24/7 access to academic support and pastoral care.

For other organisations, COVID will have forced a similar self-examination of their key stakeholders and their respective needs. While tough to do, these internal audits can serve us in the long-term, helping ensure that we prioritise the people who reflect and respond to our core businesses’ goals, values and objectives.


2020 has been the year of the pivot. For many, that feels like a hackneyed euphemism that does little to describe the apprehension and exhaustion that comes from months of lurching, reeling and sidestepping as the world we thought we knew came to a halt. In 2021, it will be vital for organisations to have policies and guidelines that simultaneously allow for flexibility (WFH is a thing) and compassion (stay vigilant about staff mental health concerns and professional burn-out) while also underlining the need for business stability. There is increasing evidence about how companies can simultaneously nurture their bottom lines and their people through innovative HR approaches – my colleague Professor Jarrod Haar’s research, for example, is internationally recognised in this arena. Draw on a strong evidence base and the lived experiences of your people to inform your HR policies and practices in order to build robust and systemic resilience across your business.


The arrival of effective COVID-19 vaccines looks promising. However, the distribution and uptake of any such vaccines will continue to highlight vast socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic disparities around the world. In the face of such inequities, the challenge of and commitment to global health and wellbeing must inform our local actions and attitudes.

Here in New Zealand, that is arguably already happening: where other countries are battling social unrest against government approaches to controlling the virus, the Kiwi “team of five million” has largely accepted that our individual freedoms have been temporarily curtailed in the name of our collective health. As Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield has told us time and again: “People are not the problem. The virus is the problem. People are the solution.”

Perhaps that’s just another way of saying “think globally, act locally” - albeit with a 21st century, COVID twist.

Kate Kearins is Professor of Management and Pro Vice Chancellor and Dean of AUT's Faculty of Business, Economics and Law.

This article is published in NZ Management magazine