As I construct this blog post I am sat at my kitchen table, the front door is open, the sun is out and I can hear birdsong. For some readers the fact that I can hear birdsong will not be that startling, however for me and where I live this is very unusual. I live near a busy road and on the direct flight path for Leeds Bradford Airport. The arrival of COVID-19 and the restrictions on movement have removed the aircraft and vastly reduced the traffic – the birds are returned to their place, I’m joined most mornings by bumble bees, butterflies and the sounds of neighbours’ children playing in their gardens.
As a member of Leeds Trinity University’s Business School and with substantial experience in the cut and thrust world of retail and then the hospitality and leisure industries, much of my teaching and that of my colleagues is around the concepts of ‘profit maximisation’ and ‘economic growth’. The texts that we use predominantly espouse this as the model for business. Of course, this does us a disservice as we are a close-knit team, we care about one another and we particularly care about our students. We seek to offer them a more rounded consideration of the world in which we live and work.
During the current crisis our elected leaders and leaders in all walks of life, the NHS, the local authorities, supply chain/logistics firms, food producers and retailers and all others are having to take decisions, take them more rapidly than they would normally do and realise that their decisions are now potentially life and death decisions. This is normally the domain of the NHS, they are constantly taking life and death decisions but now others are having to join this unenviable club.
Many decisions by the Government are being made to protect the economy, to try and retain as much as possible of what we have/had. Technology is enabling many, like myself, to continue working and doing what we normally would albeit in different ways. As such, my workload has actually increased not decreased. Meanwhile the volume of new claimants for Universal Credit is showing the real-life cost to so many who have already lost their jobs and there will undoubtedly be many more to come.
I don’t know what will happen next week let alone in twelve months’ time, but I would like to think that the crisis will have an impact on people’s thinking, behaviours, actions and values. As we come out of the crisis can we perhaps find an alternative to profit maximising? Doesn’t profit maximising in a global economy rely upon the plundering of the worlds resources, depleting these resources at an unsustainable rate. Indeed many years ago an associate in Wales changed his business model from profit maximising to profit optimising as his concern for the environmental damage we were doing became his key focus. This chimes with the current language around shopping for what you need rather than the norm we have developed of buying what we want.
Perhaps the crisis will allow us to have something of a new renaissance where we have opportunity to take a look backwards, perhaps to realise that we don’t need that new coat, that new phone or even that bar of chocolate. We may really grow to appreciate the sound of nature on our doorsteps and seek to lessen our travel and use of cars and planes. We may even start to slow down our hectic lives. The idea of slowing down reminds me of a vox pop with the late Manfred Max Neef, the Chilean born Economist best known for his taxonomy of fundamental human needs and human scale development.
The vox pop I recall was one entitled ‘In Praise of Slow’ and now sadly missing from online platforms following his death. In this vox pop, he referred to a group of workers breaking for their lunch in Cologne shortly after the cathedral there had been destroyed by fire in 1248. The workers talk turned to how their time on earth would be remembered. Over subsequent lunch breaks in the following weeks this concept of legacy formed into the idea of leaving behind a magnificent new cathedral and they started to sketch how it would look. As their sketches became accurate impressions one of the workers said, but this will take hundreds of years to complete and another replied by saying we had better get started then. Max Neef then turned to the present day and asked viewers to consider how many of todays buildings will still be standing in 800 years’ time?
Do we therefore, now, have the chance to design a new way of doing business, a reconsideration of what is vitally important to the human condition, a move away from nationalism and toward being truly global citizens collaborating with each other to build a lasting legacy from our generation where perhaps we use less of the worlds resources and pay a fair price for this rather than seeking the cheapest and greediest route and perhaps refer to this as ‘Capitalism 2.0’?
I appreciate that this is a fanciful concept, however five months ago the concept of a virus being responsible for a right-wing conservative party deploying essentially socialist policies would have been considered fanciful.
If we take on the challenge to develop ‘Capitalism 2.0’ it could take some time to design and longer build this and to be ‘hard-wired’ into our way of living and if so – hadn’t we better get started?
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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