Trauma and change: will we do things differently?

July 2020

By Simon Eden, XCX Consulting

In his book “The Language of Cities” Deyan Sudjic, Journalist and Director of London’s Design Museum, suggests that: “It takes trauma to make a complacent city invest in its future”. It’s only when a major crisis – from a loss of a key part of the economy to a natural disaster – shakes a place from the conviction it’s doing OK that real, transformative change can happen.

The Covid-19 virus has certainly been a major trauma for communities across the world, killing thousands and leaving many more with long term damage to their health. In response, we’ve seen unprecedented levels of Government subsidy for jobs and businesses, and radical changes in how society functions and how we relate to our fellow human beings.

Perhaps that trauma is also encouraging us to think afresh about our future. A recent survey conducted for the not-for-profit advocacy group Positive Money by YouGov found that 82% of members of the public questioned wanted the Government to prioritise the health and wellbeing of citizens over economic growth as they shaped a recovery. In the same survey 61% of respondents wanted improved social and environmental outcomes to be the Government’s priority.

Writing in The Economist Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England, suggested that the events of recent months may have given society cause to reassess our values:

“Value will change in the post-covid world. On one level, that’s obvious: valuations in global financial markets have imploded, with many suffering their sharpest declines in decades. More fundamentally, the traditional drivers of value have been shaken, new ones will gain prominence, and there’s a possibility that the gulf between what markets value and what people value will close.”

Of course it’s easy to talk about a different set of values and priorities. The acid test comes as the Government eases the rigid rules of lockdown. Our medium and long-term plans for recovery will be the real measure of whether those aspirations for a different future will be sustained.

Green recovery plan

There are positive signs. Business leaders from the UK have called for a green coronavirus recovery plan, urging the Government to build “a more inclusive, stronger and more resilient” net zero emission economy. Senior bankers across Europe have argued that “this crisis offers us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild our economy in order to withstand the next shock coming our way: climate breakdown”.

Of course it’s essential our Government, leading businesses and our financial institutions change how they work and what they prioritise. But we also need individuals across our communities to act differently: to follow up the desire for change they professed to pollsters by adopting a different, less consumerist lifestyle.

Promising signs

Once again, there are promising signs. Bike sales have increased dramatically as people take more exercise, the challenge for the next few months is whether those new cycles become the preferred method of travelling to work. Research by PwC found that, since lockdown, more shoppers had been buying goods from small local stores, and promising to shop with businesses adopting higher ethical standards. Again, what matters is whether these changes, our professed good intentions, will be sustained.

How can we help cement those new behaviours? Organisations, institutions and leaders need to set an example: making sure their decisions and actions reflect a desire for a different, more sustainable way of working – what commentators call a ‘green recovery’. Short term recovery is no recovery at all if it simply gets us quickly back to over-consumption of resources, pollution and inequality. So they, we, must resist the temptation just simply get things moving again whatever the cost. They, we, must take the long view of where our best future lies.

Vision for the future

But if these organisations build the framework for a green recovery, individuals need to act within that. Each of us needs to have our own vision for a future where the environment and our health and wellbeing as just as important as the economy, indeed they’re an integral part of the economy we want to build for our future.

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