Survive or reinvent?

I was speaking at New Local’s recent No Going Back session on this subject. As we continue to navigate the uncertainty of how the pandemic will evolve, it becomes ever more difficult to know what we should recover from before the pandemic — like physical connection, being able to see our family and friends or travel abroad — what we maintain from the changes we’ve had to make as a result of the crisis — like pedestrianising our streets, buying local or better valuing our frontline workers — or what we leave behind from before the pandemic — driving into work, deep inequalities — and what we need to invest for the future.

We can look to the past for how civilisations have tackled the longer-term impacts of similar crises. The Black Death may have helped end serfdom and feudalism while preceding the Enlightenment. Cholera outbreaks accelerated the need for sewerage systems and public health. World War 2 brought women into the workforce much more significantly than before.

However, we’ve also got deep-rooted changes that pre-exist the pandemic, in particular the structural inequalities that have become more visible than ever before, the polarisation between different communities and neighbourhoods and the precariousness of many people’s livelihoods. There are also emerging trends, like how the ability to use technology and the increase in people moving around to work and live could affect how they look after themselves and each other. The change in the family, friendship and work structures could affect how and where people live and work, affecting what infrastructure we design.

But we don’t have the luxury to spend too much time thinking about what to do, because the longer we’re in this situation of prolonged uncertainty, the more businesses won’t be able to generate income or charities fundraise or public services raise tax, and the more people will get into financial hardship, unemployed or at risk of homelessness, as well as the physical and mental health impacts that are taking their toll on people.

Local authorities have supported businesses and the voluntary sector with a range of financial support to keep them going, be it through loans, rate or rent relief or grants. Some councils themselves have needed emergency financial support to avoid them going bankrupt.

How do we balance the support for organisations and businesses to reinvent themselves for the new future?

Councils are working with charities to see if they can share workspace, mutualise digital tools and pool expertise and volunteers. Councils are working with businesses to adapt to new ways of providing services, be it through strategies, localised deliveries of online platforms to sell their goods.

These are relatively short-term ways to adapt to a changing world we can’t predict. For the long term, we can look to:

  1. Invest in working with local organisations to take agile and decentralised approaches to adapt to changing trends, like the Local Digital Collaboration Fund, CAST or the GLA’s Adaptive High Streets work
  2. Use foresight better to adapt & flex services to scenarios — such as anticipating exit/s from lockdown, future local outbreaks and different Brexit deals, and support to stress test policies to changes in government direction, like around community support, food provision or Brexit
  3. Mobilise whole local areas around big missions to pool resources and focus the purpose of organisations, like the London Recovery Board, the GLA’s Future Neighbourhoods or Greater Manchester’s Industrial Strategy is doing
  4. Create platforms to better attract and localise investment into our places to build greater community wealth and reduce dependency on central government austerity, like Barking & Dagenham’s Endowment Fund, Preston or Newham’s Community Wealth Building agendas are doing?
  5. Create spaces and communities to identify those changemakers in our communities, help navigate those changes and make difficult choices but also imagine different futures together, like U Lab, National Lottery’s Scanning & Sensing Network, or the UNDP Portfolio approach?

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