John Eynon discusses the “Gen Covid-19” world in three acts – exeunt left with biting irony and cynicism… Snow, rain, hail, earthquake
Our anti-hero enters centre stage right, addresses the audience, soliloquy:
Act I: Gen Covid-19
We are living in unprecedented times. In fact, the use of “unprecedented” is probably unprecedented.
Having gone into lockdown several weeks ago, we are now set to emerge from our burrows like Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day in the States (not the film) and see what it’s all about. And like Groundhog Day (yes, the film with Bill Murray, love him and Scarlett in Lost in Translation) we have lived through day after day, blurring into repetition.
We are now a generation, defined not by age, but by common experience. 2020 will go down in infamy. Global economy paralysed, lives lost and changed forever. Some needlessly because of the chase for big bucks and austerity – it’s ok for some. “We’re all in this together” – oh yes, we are, but some more than others it would seem…
Not forgetting all those on the frontline: NHS, care workers, delivery people, retailers, takeaways, newsagents and emergency services everywhere for whom life has taken on an intensity, edge, emotion, sacrifice, cost and life all its own. – #GreatRespect.
But of course, for those with time on their hands and time to think, we’re wondering about the post-lockdown world.
We’ve seen the photos from space, the pollution has retreated. Fish in Venice, dolphins and unicorns everywhere, and wild goats and kangaroos roaming the streets.
Covid-19 has achieved more in that sense in a few weeks than Greta in several months. Apologies Greta – I love you really! Don’t we all?
Similarly, I’m sure we’ve seen the pleas for a kinder, fairer, just world coming out of this. I wonder how those that are holding the purse strings feel, watching the bank balances dwindling, debts rocketing and wondering how this ever will be squared up. I think we can guess. V-shaped recessions and all that. Nations, governments, businesses, people, families, we’re all in hock to the future now. And HM Gov and the Bank. They have us where they want us, boys.
Has our underlying culture really changed at all?
We will soon know very quickly. Humans backed into a corner revert to their underlying type, pressure mounts, heat in the kitchen increases and, like a teabag, the true essence oozes out. And the pollution sadly will return because profit will win out over planet, as it usually does, every time.
Act II: An industry in lockdown
In lockdown, we have experienced more and more the joys of the conference and video calls, webchats, screen shares, pets photo-bombing video conferences and all the rest. (Did you come across Goat2Meeting?
We have discovered we can get more done at “home” than we thought, and that will surprise some digital laggards. But also, we’ve discovered that sometimes we need to be together to collaborate effectively. Nevertheless, it’s opened up the possibility of more remote working, perhaps considering downsizing office spaces to something more adaptable and flexible, and of course more economic.
Our national IT and comms infrastructures generally seem to have coped with the strain perhaps much better than might be expected.
For some, this may well be the new normal and more remote working and flexibility will be the norm. For others, it will be the old ways are best.
We’ve seen 3D printers rolling out PPE instead of architectural models and parts, whole production lines re-appropriated to health equipment instead of aerospace and construction components.
So underneath it all, yes there is something better that brings out the best in humanity. But will it last? Can it survive?
Perhaps this now is the defining point, the fulcrum around which not only digital transformation but also community transformation begins to turn. People have been forced to stop and think, and suddenly they can see a better way.
A wholesome way of life, admittedly part-funded by HM Gov! Indeed, many are questioning if we’re returning to “normal” what kind of “normal” do we actually want to return to? Whether the politicians can see this or not who knows and if they can what can they do? Is there the collective will to do anything to change?
Act III: The great divide
At this point, we can see a divide developing on two fronts, I think.
Firstly, on the digital front.
Those that embraced the technology shift in this lockdown time have been able to continue working, perhaps achieve more than they thought, and with the full support and encouragement of their management. All the benefits analysis and RoI calcs have been turned on their head as suddenly this tech BIM stuff actually makes sense and has kept them in business. For this group, it will be more of the same please, leadership and investment fully onside, thrusters on full, and accelerating tech adoption and implementation.
And then those that didn’t. Oh dear.
They are already behind their competition. The choice is now to invest to catch up or move into different markets. Few businesses coming out of this will be cash-rich.
So I suspect we will see the digital gap opening up, between “those that do” who see the possibilities and potential, and “those that don’t”. For the second group, I think the future will be less than rosy. Blood, pain, frostbite…
Secondly, society divide.
Funny we haven’t discussed Brexit or IR35 for a few months. I wonder why?!
Coming into Covid-19, we had seen years of austerity. We have seen people in various parts of society marginalised and under-supported.
Suddenly, hey presto, HM Gov is funding a lot of the working population with extra billions for this, that and the other. But some on furlough now will return to businesses that no longer exist. We’re seeing it already in aerospace, automotive, entertaining, leisure, construction and retail. Many companies that were struggling in whatever sector suddenly have to sit on their hands for a few months with no income, bills to pay, leases and agreements to honour. It’s no wonder, is it?
So famous names that we know and love will disappear. Thousands, if not millions, will be unemployed. I think the job market and the new normal is going to be volatile and competitive like we haven’t seen for a while. A race to the bottom. And, you’ve guessed it, higher taxes, recession and all the scrabbling and infighting that comes with it.
Cash will be king again. And he who pays the piper…
Across our industry there are going to be a lot of casualties and all those people that sell you peace, love and nirvana will come and go. Believe them if you will but the reality will be quite different. So buckle up.
In conclusion, this has been a bit of a ramble. But what I can see is that something good has come to the surface: the potential for something better, a better normal, if you will, a collective consciousness. On the other hand, the conditions we’re going to face over the next few years will challenge that. Margins will be even tighter, investment and training will be cut back, as they always are when times are bad, so that will challenge the digital go-getters but they have real proof on their side now. So maybe those purse strings might loosen just a tad?
And remember, people still build in a recession, so sharpen those pencils, girls and boys!
So here we are, in our cyclical industry in yet another trough. Maybe the exit to this one will be faster. Circumstances are a little different this time round. The brakes have been manually applied to economic activity and everyone wants the foot on the accelerator PDQ. For some, the time is already running out. Was it Gordon Brown that said he would put an end to boom and bust?
The very nice people call for reform of our industry, to deal with the race to the bottom, to make things fair, just and right, but they won’t get their hands dirty. We need pan-industry collaboration on a scale never seen that puts all parochial agendas to the side for the common good – a construction war effort in peacetime if you will. But I ask again: has our culture really changed?
Whatever it is you do, the services you provide, the things you make or build, and whatever you maintain, there will always be that bugger down the road who will do it cheaper, faster and whatever. (Sounds a bit like a Pink Floyd song to me).
So as Seth Godin would say: “Whatcha gonna do with that duck?”
Our anti-hero exeunt left, pursued by a big brown hungry bear… weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth…
This was #EYNON. This time in a more reflective mood – itinerant design manager, architect and BIMster somewhere on the south coast. Peace out.
You can catch up with him at zenanddm.com