Let's rebuild stronger communities after Coronavirus

Posted 3 weeks ago by John Needham

The tech exists - so why aren’t the local tools available now to effectively respond to COVID? Our founder, Marcus Chidgey, explores this. (Advertising creative by Jack Arts.)

Coronavirus has catalysed the need for new systems to be implemented at breakneck speed across many areas of government, society and the economy. For the first time in many years we are implementing radical change to protect our wellbeing and quality of life , but has this all come a little too late?

Marc Andreessen recently published an essay in which he laments how ineffective society has been at dealing with the virus. He asks how can we have been so complacent not to have systems in place to effect money transfers, locally produce face masks and manufacture medicines? None of these things are rocket science, yet it appears we’ve all become happy with the status quo. Despite today’s available technologies, nothing is changing at a pace humans are remotely capable of. We’ve become used to an inertia borne of market inefficiencies, a lack of political will, vision, and the mechanisms to promote investment and new infrastructure.

Nowhere is this inertia more keenly felt than in town centres and local communities in the UK.

The High Street has been struggling for the past decade owing to high commercial rents, punitive business rates and intense competition from online retail. More than 16,000 stores in the UK closed in 2019 and this is projected to get worse with Coronavirus. The OECD predicts an 11.5% slump in GDP for 2020. 

In response, the government has launched the Future High Streets Fund, a £1bn package to revitalise 100 UK town centres. This has been broadly welcomed, but it seems the vast majority of this investment is going in to physical infrastructure not new technology.

If we cast our minds back to 2015, the Digital High Street Advisory Board (which arose from work sponsored by the Department for Communities and Local Government) came up with a series of recommendations to be achieved by 2020. These included widespread adoption of public wifi, a High Street Digital Health Index and centralising the aggregation of place technologies to provide a common platform for digital consumer services.

Unfortunately, none of these recommendations were implemented, and it doesn’t look as though they will be anytime soon. It’s in part, small wonder then why bricks and mortar retailers aren’t currently able to compete effectively against their online competitors. The digital infrastructure simply doesn’t exist. If the roadmap in the Digital High Street 2020 report had been delivered, it’s easy to imagine that we might, by now, have had some form of nationwide town centre communications system that could have kept local residents informed during Coronavirus. 

With Coronavirus we cannot afford to fumble this any longer. We have reached a tipping point where, if we don’t commit to some form of comprehensive strategy for digital place-making, then social, environmental and economic consequences are an inevitability.

We have to innovate, we can’t rely on the status quo. Traditionally local newspapers have been the lifeblood of local communities, but today they are in significant decline. People have become dependent on social media sites for local gossip and events. As we’ve come to learn, these sites promote conjecture, not fact. They will never be trusted or complete sources of local information.

The government is so concerned about the quality of local content that the taxpayer now subsidises news organisations by funding Local Democracy Reporters through the BBC to write content for private news companies to publish. This is clear evidence of market failure. 

If people don’t have access to information about what’s going on in their local area, they can’t participate in their community. If they can’t participate, they won’t feel any sense of ownership or belonging. We need to recognise that the social glue that has traditionally held communities together is crumbling fast. We have to rebuild better – but what does this look like?

Better is … kinder communities. We’ve seen extraordinary examples of community spirit during Lockdown – strangers volunteering to shop for vulnerable residents; weekly NHS claps bringing neighbours out to chat; families sharing resources for children; and photographers capturing free doorstep portraits.

Better is …supporting others so we can all prosper and thrive. We’ve come to realise just how important our local shops and services are. Many of us have welcomed the opportunity to pop to the local independent store rather than face a glut of people at the supermarket. We’ve got to know the owners and we recognise we have to buy locally if we want these services in the months and years to come.

Better is … creating a sustainable legacy for future generations. We now place a higher value on relationships and human contact because of an enforced period of abstinence. Lockdown has given us time us to think about what’s important in life. It’s also made us realise that the worst can happen – let’s not forget we are also in the middle of a Climate Emergency. We must accelerate behaviour change to hit net-zero carbon emissions as soon as we can. 

What’s abundantly clear is that Coronavirus has changed us. Lockdown has rewired our collective psyche to be more compassionate, more community-spirited and more determined to enjoy what gives us our quality of life. To rebuild better means we have to encourage and facilitate aspects of life that we wish to experience more often. We have to channel human behaviour, build in resilience and ultimately make our communities stronger. 

Thankfully we have new technologies that can help us with this. As the world around us becomes ever more complex, we have ways to process and present information that makes it relevant to our situation, whatever that might be at the time. Technology can filter out the noise so that we don’t have to do it ourselves. The right information can be given to us at the right time.

For instance, I’m more inclined to want to know more about what’s happening on the road I live in than a road several streets away. If I’m asthmatic, it would be good to know the air pollution level each day. If I want to go out for lunch, I’d like to receive offers at lunch time from the restaurants that are nearby. Information needs to be given context. When we do this, it becomes useful – and if we take this further and start combining information from different systems, it gets even more interesting. 

If air pollution is high and traffic will extend your journey time to work by 30 mins – would you prefer to work from home until this subsides and have a coffee and bagel delivered? A local platform for digital consumer services could suggest this and make the food order happen. Do this at scale and we’re lowering congestion and supporting local traders at the same time. 

We could take a similar approach in the community – why aren’t trusted neighbours alerted when an elderly person has a fall in their home or can’t leave the house to get food? Surely local residents could opt-in to a volunteer scheme, be DBS-checked in advance and contacted via a mobile alert when an issue occurs? We could do this all in one local community platform.

So when we think about future town centres and stronger local communities, we have to think in more holistic terms. We need to create a digital framework which can support all community stakeholders in a way that provides perfect information at a local level. We need to add value to people’s lifestyles by knocking down the artificial walls that exist between the public and private sector – aggregating all kinds of information to foster and instil good, old-fashioned civic pride.

For those people who love for where they live are exactly the kind of people town centres need to attract as they start to re-open after Coronavirus. Social distancing will mean a trip in to the town centre isn’t quite as convenient as it used to be. The prices will be a little bit higher than the online shopping they’ve been doing at home. Yet, if people can go out and enjoy life again with their friends and family where they feel most at home, they will. 

Let’s make sure they have all the information and tools at their disposal to do just that.

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