As we emerge from eighteen months of restrictions, Gareth Hart (Director, Iridescent Ideas CIC) considers what a new, digital world could look like.

Amid the rhetoric of recovery plans and the cries to ‘Level Up‘ and ‘Build Back Better’ there seems to be a missing component: the role of all things digital. In this article I’m going to explore how our social enterprise has moved to online delivery; the challenges we faced and the unexpected benefits arising from this brave new, almost exclusively, online world. 

As we emerge from eighteen months of lockdowns and restrictions, I want to talk about what a new, digital world could look like. What should we keep? What should we lose? What is the wider context for digital in the Build Back Better narrative?

Our business, Iridescent Ideas, is a social enterprise based in Plymouth that delivers business advice to help social entrepreneurs start and grow brilliant social enterprises. This helps build our vision of a more socially enterprising, inclusive economy.

The impact of moving to digital

We used to deliver most of our business support and training face-to-face in numerous cafes in our great city. Mostly at the amazing Moments Café – a café right in the centre of Plymouth taking on the likes of Costa and Starbucks and using its profits to support families affected by dementia. Much tea has been drunk there. 

When the pandemic hit, we moved all our one-to-one advice services to an online model with reasonable ease. In fact, we’ve been recommending more digital and remote delivery to a number of our clients for some years now. 

Putting our group training online took more work and we have had to re-think our delivery considerably. We have had to learn quickly sometimes via awkward errors. We messed up a few breakout rooms. One person stayed on their own in a Zoom room, bewildered for about ten minutes! We joined calls wearing name tags ‘rebranded’ by children. And we listened to a bit of unmuted family bickering. Yet I hold my head high and proud: I’ve never (so far) been to a meeting in my pyjamas and I still iron my shirts for important Zoom calls.

We have found some positives in this entirely digital model. We have far more reach. Whereas previously only Plymouth-based folks joined our sessions, over the last year we have had attendees from Singapore, Australia, USA and from all over the UK. 

We have also been able to attend and speak at national and international conferences that we wouldn’t have been able to access before. Last year we gave talks at the Social Enterprise World Forum, held for the first time entirely online, and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Social Enterprise in the UK, and we recently presented at a Latvian symposium on social enterprise. We have attended several national conferences that we would never have gone to in the past – the main barrier being the cost of travel and time; something digital access solves in a femtosecond.

I certainly don’t miss the eight-hour round train trip to London for an hour or so meeting every few weeks. And why spend thousands of pounds on travel and accommodation to go to a conference overseas - not to mention the environmental impact this would have - when you can access world leading thought and insight from your home office?

We are starting to get back to a mixed - or ‘hybrid’ - model. We desperately missed meeting people and networking in person (and drinking tea at local social enterprises) but we also find the ability to reach more people and access stuff globally presents a lot of opportunities for our business. And as we go back to face-to-face, I miss the cats pacing across keyboards and the everyday insights into people’s lives. 

Looking at the wider role for digital in the context of a dire need to rethink economic strategy, we seriously need to consider embracing many of these cyber advantages despite the fact we all want to meet, greet and, maybe, hug/handshake again. In these benefits lie some clues to help us deliver a greener, healthier and fairer economy.

Greener

Digital is showing us that we can run virtual offices and hold local, national and international meetings without the massive carbon footprint of planes, trains, buses and cars. I travelled a lot across the south west and beyond prior to lockdown - by train where I could. A carbon assessment of my business showed that most of our emissions were caused by lots of small trips – often to those coffee shops for short meetings – around Plymouth. I really need to get on my bike more.

Well before COVID, we often had debates with clients where we were arguing to deliver via Skype (how anachronistic does that seem now?) but they insisted on face-to-face delivery. The trains there and back, the transfers, the lost time waiting, all for an hour’s meeting was unproductive and ungreen.

Healthier

We think that as a country we have barely scratched the surface of the opportunities for digital in health and the idea of recovery post-COVID.

We published research which found that the policy of austerity adopted after the 2008/2009 financial crash did not take into account considerations of health. Significant funding cuts led to an increase in social inequality and ultimately in 2020, disadvantaged groups being disproportionately affected by COVID. 

Clearly improving health and wellbeing should be a fundamental aim of the economy. Yet economic policy making - particularly at a regional level - too often does not include any reference to, or focus on, health. One notable exception is Greater Manchester’s Local Industrial Strategy. This plan aims to tackle ‘population [ill] health’, which is explicitly identified as a barrier to improving economic performance. The strategy mentions health over two hundred times. The Greater Manchester Local Enterprise Partnership website states that they have ‘realised that the health and wellbeing of our people and our economy are in fact intrinsically interconnected.’

The potential of digital in health delivery clearly has implications for the way we work. GP consultations online can be more accessible - where done well - and businesses can get advice, support and information for their workforces much more easily.

We need to consciously embed health and wellbeing into economic strategies and explore digital opportunities to do this quickly and easily for businesses. A healthy workplace is more productive.

There’s so much more

There are so many other ways digital can help with the ‘build back better’ narrative and delivery, even in more tangential ways. The potential for better use of data is immense. In my lifetime I’ve seen a remarkable upsurge in access to information. I recall a conversation I had with someone advocating for online encyclopaedias during the first, stumbling, baby steps of the world-wide web in the early 1990s. At the time I just didn’t see it. Oh, for the prescience to have turned that into a version of Wikipedia well ahead of time!

In the past, information was power but now most people can access huge amounts of knowledge on a tiny device. The challenge is working out what information is useful and how to use it. In the few seconds it takes to refresh my Twitter feed the number of links to interesting stories that zip past is astronomical. I want to read them all but just don’t have enough download speed in my brain. Then there’s the wading through fake news and disinformation and critically assessing this information. If we can get data, access to data, analysis of data and transparency right we can achieve amazing things. Data can save lives and save the planet.

I’m a huge fan of online learning. Over the past few years, I’ve taken several courses on FutureLearn and been consistently impressed with the MOOC concept (it stands for massive open online courses). During lockdown I’ve been re-learning French on Duolingo - other language learning apps are available - and taken any number of digital guitar courses. All of this is pretty much free too. With the right tools we can advance our lives, our learning and our ambitions at the swish of a thumb.

The implications for universities and other eminent seats of learning are profound. Why charge those huge tuition fees, with all the associated expensive buildings, staff and other costs, when you can deliver top quality education with the world’s leading thinkers via online platforms? I think the future of learning has to be a blended model – sure personal tuition and face-to-face contact is essential – but, as this last year has shown us, we can ultimately deliver so much more online than we thought possible.

There are still many questions to ask like: how company ownership and ethics can drive inequality/equality; how cities and towns can shape digital services and vice versa; how technology can help create a fairer world and more. I’ve explored only a few here. How we tackle these questions and how we emerge from the COVID crisis is a challenge for us all. 

I’m optimistic that we can rise to this challenge and a future, fairer, greener world is possible with digital at the centre.

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22.9.2021
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Gareth Hart
Gareth Hart