2 July 2020

You can have any colour you want… as long as it’s green

The world has changed more in the past three months than in the last three years. When the Prime Minister announced lockdown measures on 23 March, few could have predicted the changes that would occur; from home-working to home-schooling – or the significant effect it had on our economy. At the end of the day, all that ever really mattered was the health of the people we love and the millions of people enduring hardships that we could never know.  

the new normal

As the conversation now shifts into ‘the new normal’, I find it fascinating to think about the aspects of normality that may be gone forever. Certain business models may no longer be viable. Consumer behaviour has shifted into a distanced form of transacting – apps to buy pints, mass adoption of e-commerce and individuals’ willingness to share personal data if it’s deemed for ‘public health’.  

Necessity is defined as the state of being required or being indispensable and Covid-19 brought into focus those parts of normal life that were absolutely critical. It also showed us what we could do without. While a crisis will always define what matters most, it can also spur a generation of leaders into taking meaningful action, tapping into those behavioural changes we’re all going through and striking to make positive, lasting changes to the world.  

The true measure of society’s strength is how we continue to support the most vulnerable 18 months from now, by working and caring in our communities with the same passion that we did in the height of lockdown. But it’s also about taking stock, learning what we did better, building a framework and implementing that into the new normal.  

so what happens next?

In my role at Siemens, I am responsible for many thousands of lives. Our core employee base sits at around 16,500 but we have a huge tail of small and medium enterprises, spanning suppliers, logistics and other dependent organisations. Our priority is the protection of these people, their jobs, their families and their health.  

I’ve read a lot of blogs citing the need for large-scale industry to simply ‘turn off’. It’s a simple argument; heavy industry is causing immeasurable damage to our environment and, during Covid-19, it wasn’t. Therefore, let’s take the world back to pre-industrial standards of living and forage for berries in the woods.  

I’m being deliberately facetious here but let’s face facts, this cannot be about junking what we’ve achieved so far. Instead, this is all about a greener, more sustainable restart – how can we keep all of the positives unearthed during the cessation of ‘business as usual’,  while not completely decimating our economies, standards of living, growth and ability to improve developing world supply chains?  

For me, the answers lie in the areas we proved we were bloody good at during the height of Covid-19. 

  • Mass cooperation between businesses as seen on the Ventilator Challenge – our ability to leave egos and logos at the door and use our vast knowledge from different sectors to solve problems for society.  
  • Realising the importance of community and ‘nearshoring’ complex supply chains. We showed that while not all elements of Far East supply chains are better here, our ability to scale-up and down certain aspects locally by remaining agile was hugely important.  
  • Digitalising more and more aspects of our physical lives to enable remote connections and modelling e.g. preemptive servicing, safe working conditions and faster ideation processes. 
  • And finally, and the most important, the realisation that business is people – above all else, the health and wellbeing of everyone in the duty of care of an employer is paramount. Everyone has the right to be safe at work.  
Siemens team members at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Broughton working on the Ventilator Challenge

the dirty restart, or something better?

We’re standing at significant crossroads. On the one hand I can see a mass-restart, much like the one that came after the 2008 financial crash. Let’s imagine this ‘dirty restart’ for a second. Data tells us that China’s ‘airpocalypse’—the horrendous (as determined by my first-hand experience!) smog of the winter 2012-13—was a direct outcome of the ‘stimulus’ started in 2008. But during Covid-19, China’s emissions dropped by 25% during lockdown. One analyst went as far to say that this period may have saved the lives of 77,000 children and old people because of better air quality. Large-scale industry has a nasty habit of obliterating any gains by ‘catching-back’ with such ferocity that it was like the switch-off never happened.  

Climate change is not a crisis (a time of intense difficulty or danger), it’s not a ‘foe waiting to be slain’ or whatever the current metaphorical language says – it’s the slow irreversible transformation and gradual erosion of the planet’s ability to sustain life and we’ve been sleepwalking into it for decades.  

Path number two at the crossroads leads away from a hydrocarbon-intensive means of power generation. It focuses on the very communities that sustained us during Covid-19 and imagines a world where low-carbon, decentralised energy is produced at a city or township level. The democratisation of energy could give us the resilience we need, creating multiple microgrids supplying people in their area.  

The Smart Energy Network Demonstrator at Keele University Campus in the UK

Our vulnerability to large-scale centralised operations was highlighted as the supply-chain rug was pulled out from under us during Covid-19, as goods from the Far East could no longer make their way here. The nearshoring activities underway across the country not only provide jobs and wages for families in the UK, they create new skills for forgotten corners of the country; ones that perhaps the digital service industries have long left behind.  

Manufacturing and engineering industries must be part of this revival. Mandated projects and new sectors, dedicated to supporting the ‘greening’ of industry to digitalise, decentralise and decarbonise our infrastructure. But this isn’t just about shelling out millions on new machines and new tooling in a ‘finger in the wind’ moment. It’s about being agile and able to respond to destabilising events, such as a pandemic, but also to address society’s most pressing issues. What we witnessed happening to global supply chains is highly likely to be just around the corner in the not so distant future. Adverse weather, rising sea levels, flooding, food shortages – much of ‘our’ world in the West depends on countries vulnerable to climate-related impacts around the globe. These impacts will be felt, not in a crisis-type pandemic, but in recurring and highly damaging cyclical timelines. This is a problem to be tackled now.  

we cascade purpose, not goals

For me, there lies the danger – that the changes being talked about are so far-reaching that they become meaningless. This has become part of the problem for the ruling party of the given period – it’s one thing to set lofty decarbonisation goals for 2050, but to hit those the pump needs to be primed now. Detailed sector by sector analysis shows that what works for one industry doesn’t for another. All the private sector is asking is, where do we place our chips? We did it with wind power years ago and we now have a strong wind industry providing many thousands of jobs to people who reskilled and companies that retooled and adapted.  

I read recently that the best organisations don’t cascade goals… they cascade purpose. 

Real leadership and clear purpose from policy makers will give us all the blueprint to jettison the old ways of thinking. To define the goals, sector by sector, business by business.  The collective will is there. Only then can we agree, as a society, on how to build back better once and for all, locking-into a smarter, cleaner and more profitable future for every person in this country.   

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