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Illuminated offices

At the early stages of the COVID-19 lockdown, I wrote a blog entitled “A new renaissance delivered by a virus”. Once again, this next blog post is produced whilst sat at my kitchen table. This time however, the weather has turned, and I am therefore protected from the elements with my doors firmly shut and as such no birdsong, but the company of my radio instead.

I thought, over three weeks on and with so many changes in that time, that a follow up blog to develop my thinking was in order. I concluded that initial piece with the concept that if we take on the challenge to develop ‘Capitalism 2.0’, it could take some time to design and longer build, so – hadn’t we better get started?

What prompted me to write this follow up were two communications subliminally entering my thinking. First, a radio broadcast talking about the adjustments to contracts and working situations by British Airways to try and protect their business for the future. Second, an article posted by a colleague at Leeds Playhouse referring to an ancient wood of significant scientific importance about to be obliterated from the landscape as HS2 works continue.

In relation to HS2; it was a good idea even if the nature of the routes and the damage that it causes to such important historic and natural environments was questionable. However, things were changing, and the speed of change has hastened as a result of COVID-19.

The selling point of HS2 was speed of travel, however realistically it was more about capacity than speed. Alas, the concept of speed is now very weak ground as I can get to London immediately for a meeting on Microsoft Teams – try beating that HS2!  Similarly, the issue of capacity is now a much-weakened argument. Early projections suggest that road, train and plane journeys will reduce significantly post COVID-19 as businesses and individuals realise that they can comfortably conduct their business through online meetings and approaches. Indeed, a colleague, Professor Greg Marsden from the University of Leeds Transport Studies Unit has indicated that commuter journeys were already in decline prior to COVID-19 and that the enforced changes to working approaches can surely only add to this decline.

Will this Government learn from previous poor decision making and leadership of large-scale public investments (our money as taxpayers)? There is a substantial body of examples of ‘vanity decisions’ being persevered with by Governments. An example would be the project to create a national medical records system. Millions of pounds spent at ministerial insistence – despite warnings from those working in medical records about the flawed thinking behind the project. It failed dismally, but thankfully we have a working model across Leeds for medical records and this is a tribute to our City Council, the Hospital Trust, GP Practices and the medical technology industries with have in the region.

An earlier example was that of Margaret Thatcher’s insistence on all state benefits being delivered through one computer system (an early concept of Universal Credit). At that time computing technologies were insufficiently advanced and despite the civil servants in the respective departments advising the Prime Minister that it could not be achieved. Proffering the evidence for why not, she insisted it had to be done and at huge taxpayer expense, recruited top IT professionals from the USA to achieve the outcome. After 12 months of consultancy and millions of pounds in fees, the US team advised that it could not be achieved and proffered the same reasons why.

Could the multi-billion-pound expenditure on HS2 be better utilised to:

  • Equip individuals with remote working facilities
  • Provide training to maximise the use of these technologies
  • Improve infrastructure to develop superfast fibre more rapid than currently scheduled and maybe even adopt Jeremy Corbyn’s suggestion of nationalising this such that every household receives this free of charge?

In addition, this expenditure could be used to seed funding for the private sector to commence investment into Hydrogen production for use in cars, trains, busses and possibly planes for those journeys that do have to be made.

In this way, we could:

  • Protect the historic sites and the sites of special scientific interest from destruction
  • Spend taxpayer money on individuals and their skills
  • Avoid clogged roads and thereby improve air quality
  • Generate a new industry (hydrogen) and potentially become world leaders in this

Hypothetically then, in ‘Capitalism 2.0’, we could share our knowledge and skills with other nations such that they too can benefit and reverse climate change globally.

To do this would require bold leadership that:

  • Models the way
  • Inspires the vision
  • Challenges the existing process
  • Enables others to act

By doing so, this is likely to ‘encourage the heart’. For those of you familiar with leadership discourse you will recognise that these five leadership aspects are directly pulled from Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Challenge. There is nothing new about it, we just need our leaders to recognise that well thought through theory can be applied to practice to good effect.

Ian McGregor Brown is a Senior Lecturer in Business and the Programme Leader for the BA (Hons) Professional Practice in Management and Leadership. His initial career was in the retail trade where he worked as a senior buyer.

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