What's New? Nothing? Or Everything?

The global pandemic has given us time to pause and think. Our normal lives have been interrupted, and many people in business have had to be fast on their feet to try and keep trading.

But now that we are seeing a move towards what was normal, the question to ask is, do we want to go back to the way things were done before Coronvairus, or is this an opportunity to reflect and improve?

Throughout history, major change has been brought about by innovation. The lives of the ordinary person in Europe was not significantly improved by the removal of serfdom until the arrival of the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution that followed. Whereas 90% of the workforce had been in agriculture, within 50 years that had switched around as people moved to the cities to work in factories. The arrival of the railways in the Victorian Age saw huge growth in manufactued goods as the ability to transport them around the country totally changed. Meanwhile luddites were trying to stop new working practices, and machinery was attacked to prevent the new.

Then in the 20th Century manufacuring jobs were surpassed by services. Automation, from the assembly line introduced by Henry Ford, to the development of interchangeable parts meant that industry no longer needed as many people, and costs were reduced by investment in technology.

Consumer goods from the 1950s have been the lifeblood of the economy. Television, white goods, cars and the resulting change in travel, then flight becoming a commodity not a luxury saw tourism move from local to international.

The latest changes are in technology itself. Computers became handheld devices, and everything has become digital, changing more and more every day. It has been an incremental development, as we got used to Erickson and Nokia phones, we were ready for the iPhone and the revolution in communication.

But the adoption of new technology is being resisted, and there are many that want us to stay in the past, returning to the ways of working that began in the 1850s with rail travel and then became motor car driven.

Opening hours, set in the late 19th Century, are still kept to by businesses that can surely see that their customers want flexiblity? Travel taking up millions of hours of potential productivity every day is being promoted, when only a year ago people were being advised to spend less time in their cars to reduce the damage to the environment. Offices that are a cost to businesses that are finding it hard to keep afloat are being promoted as the only place to work, so that the workforce is in the right place to buy coffee and sandwiches.

So what is new? What opportunities exist with new tech?

Working hours? Should they suit the company and the employees, or retailers and restaurants? And should the company and the employees also be flexible for their customers? So if I want to consult a law firm or an accountancy practice, should I suit them, or they suit me? The Northern Ireland Business Facebook Group is active from morning to night, so I am seeing flexibility in small businesses, and opportunity for service companies to be flexible. Does a store owner want to take time out of the trading day to visit their accountant? Should they have to visit at all? Whereas phone calls are seen as normal practice, Zoom or Teams is being luddited as "not the same as meeting in person". A fakery that suits the argument but is not real.

The rejection of the new is not limited to us locally. We are living in a world where history lite is used to remind us of the past almost every day. Anniversaries of this event or that, with the rose tinted glasses that blind us to the fact that the past was not a very comfortable place. The 'Fifites are presented as safe and secure, with nothing to remind of the social divisions, rationing, relaxed racism and sheer drudgery for women who had to "run" the home, while men ruled the roost.

Brexit is a backward looking process, a last hurrah for those that believe that the Great in Great Britain is real and not now exceptionalism that is no longer warranted, if it ever was for those that were the factory fodder and not the wealthy owning class.

So what might new look like?

Local stores selling locally produced goods priced realistically for both customer and producer? Will people pay more for less? If the quality is there, yes. Stores and restaurants realising that they are in this together and arranging opening hours that will benefit both? Home workers being encouraged to use the time they have saved not commuting to go and enjoy themselves. Mangement using Task and Trust, setting tasks and trusting the people to get it done, properly, by a set time, when it suits the workers. Then they can put in the hours to suit themelves and perhaps have a four day week, which means, hurrah, they can go shopping and eating! High Streets removing traffic and creating piazzas, with awnings and heaters? Services zooming and chatting whenever the client is available, within set times, with shifts for call answering, from home. Cars removed from the equation, with public transport being the norm, and driving seen as the luxury that it is, to reduce the envirnmental damage.

And that is only me picking up ideas from the Facebook Group. Set free the innovation and creativity that is out there to challenge and change. Technology that frees us from having to watch TV programmes at certain times can be used to free us to choose how our own lives are managed.

So is this the time? Looking forward and not back? Innovating rather than revisiting? Creating the new and not dusting off the old? You may have guessed where I am on this...

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2020 Tim McKane - on WIx. Belfast Northern Ireland