Why we must reflect, re-energise and re-purpose as a society to ensure that the Coronavirus cloud has a silver lining.

Before the news of Covid19 came out of Wuhan, China we had started a new decade full of hope and varying degrees of optimism. The pace of change of the previous decade had been fast and furious but for many change was too little or too late. The changes to how we lived, shopped, worked, travelled and socialised are well documented and the central catalyst was technology be it the internet, cloud computing power and storage, growth in data or universal access to smartphones, PCs and tablets. I began the year with my hopes and aspirations for this decade with the LinkedIn post below having no idea as to what was coming.

What started as a health issue from a wet market in Wuhan has resulted in a global crisis that the majority have never experienced or could ever have imagined. How many of us when carrying out disaster recovery or business continuity planning had rehearsed or even thought out about a global pandemic that resulted in LOCKDOWN – staying at home for what could be 6 weeks or more. Whilst books, horror films and a few visionaries such as Bill Gates have talked about such a scenario no one could ever imagine it happening let alone the devastating impact it would have socially and economically. The only silver lining thus far has been the environment from the reduction in all forms of travel and the resulting pollution reduction or the lack of human activity. This has resulted in a number of photos of animals appearing in towns and cities where they were not seen before such as the example below from Wales as reported by The Guardian newspaper.

No one can disagree that the current situation is critical to humankind across the world. It is unseen, indiscriminate and can be fatal. It has revealed the very best in humankind in terms of selfless sacrifice for others be it those on the front line such as the NHS staff to others in transport, food or putting their 3D printers into action to make masks be it at home or on a mass scale in a repurposed factory or the 750,000 people who answered the call to be volunteers and are registered on the SAM app. It has also sadly in a very small number of cases seen the worst of humankind – crime on closed business premises, disregard for the plea and critical need to stay at home to deliberate profiteering when people are most in need. It is, however, the vast majority of people in this country and indeed our fellow global citizens who are fighting together to respond and hopefully eradicate the deadly Covid19 but to also ensure we are ready and prepared should another follow in time, which is what history shows us.

There is much debate about if or how much it will change the world, our country, our NHS, our towns and cities, our high streets and our communities. Often for significant change to happen across a whole nation or community there needs to be prolonged change and we do not know how long we will be in the current crisis state but hopefully not as long as the historical physical crises of the two world wars or the Spanish flu which lasted from January 1918 to December 1920.

The Great British NHS

The impact has been profound and to the thousands of people of who have lost family, friends and colleagues in just the last month my thoughts and prayers are with you all. The response, dedication and resolve of so many has been incredibly humbling for those of us staying at home. Thank you!

We will emerge from this crisis and I for one believe that we will emerge stronger than before with a greater resolve and focus on what we need to do. Never have we seen so many interventions or events across every aspect of our lives and we must take the opportunity to reflect on these. Our shops are closed, our high streets are deserted, offices are empty, our transports systems have no passengers and many people are getting to grips with remote working or in many cases the sudden loss of their job, their income and the reason to get them out of bed in the morning. Dramatic times require dramatic and hard reflection.

A deserted Trafalgar Square, London.

Whilst many businesses have closed others have adapted or created new ways to connect to customers remotely be it by establishing a delivery service or ramping up an online proposition where it is safe to do so for staff. The internet has been our saviour be it to communicate with loved ones, to educate our children or to connect and serve customers as well as enable experts from around the world to combine their efforts in fighting the virus.

Global connectivity and communication

The impact for our high streets is profound especially at a time when many thought that things could not get any worse. The billions of pounds pledged to support our towns and cities will be delayed in its implementation and if we are clever we should use this time of such fundamental change, be it temporary or permanent, to re-energise our plans for high streets and communities. The way that we currently function, the economic consequences and the environmental impact deserves pause for thought. There is a great quote by Viktor E. Frankl that says “When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.” Perhaps now is the time and Coronavirus the catalyst that will challenge us to change ourselves individually and collectively.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.” Viktor E. Frankl

Small businesses have a great opportunity to change and bounce back from this challenging time. Unlike larger businesses it is easier to innovate, change, pivot and adapt whilst remaining closer to your customer or cause. Since 2009 The Local Data Company (LDC) has tracked the fortunes of Britain’s retail centres and in the nine years that I worked there the thing that was least known by others was that c.65% of all the shops, restaurant and leisure outlets were independents (c.365k businesses). For example, in 2018, LDC reported that a total of 70,305 independents opened or closed in the year which was up 4% on the 2017 numbers. By independent I mean having less than five outlets nationally and not part of a larger international business. The second thing that many were unaware of was the propensity for these independent businesses to expand quickly but also to close just as quickly. Being on short leases, entrepreneurial, tight on cashflow and very susceptible to their local economy and national taxation policies resulted in this ever-changing profile of the sector.

The Great British High Street

Small businesses have the potential to bounce back from this crisis and re-populate physical space in our towns and cities. The connection between small local businesses and their communities has never been stronger. The challenges for many have been overwhelming but with the right support from government through fair taxation (read as business rates!), support in growing your business through organisations such as Enterprise Nation and a business that is relevant and connected to the customers in its community’s needs then we will see innovation, vibrancy and community back on our high streets in 2020. The resilience of many towns and communities is extraordinary. You see it now with how councils have responded to the current crisis which for many follows hot on the heals of flooding not once but twice in the last 6 months. The collective energy created by communities, stakeholders (landlords and investors), local and national government can defeat any crisis when everyone is aligned and working to a common goal. Now is our time to do this and we have heard that big business such as Facebook, Amazon, Square and Google are all stating a commitment to the success of people and their places post Coronavirus. I have seen this type of commitment first hand with the “Clicks and Mortar” initiative which has seen shops open with businesses who have never sold in a shop before, businesses gaining access to training that they have never had before and to working alongside fellow SMEs and learning in the most powerful way which is from each other. This was made possible through the support and action of corporates working with local authorities and landlords.

So as we remain in lockdown and in the heat of battle with Coronavirus let’s us take this opportunity as businesses and human beings to reflect on what works best and what we and our customers value. Let’s prepare to re-energise and leverage any support available in order that we can repurpose for the future after Coronavirus. Every tunnel has a light at the end and if we are to succeed, for ourselves, our families, our colleagues, our friends and communities, then we must take action now. Take the hard decisions after reflection, derive energy from communication and working with others and ensure that you adjust your 2020 mission to reflect what changes you believe that this crisis will have on your customers, community and high street. I leave you with this quote from Nelson Mandela;

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”


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