Stop talking, start doing: The AGE to act

Our business is focussed on helping clients spot and respond to challenges and opportunities heading towards them that might require them to change to survive or grow. We are all about change and growth.

That’s why I was so interested in participating in the Steering Group for a recent piece of work to explore how ‘Shocks to the System’ might impact Scotland’s three principal cities of Aberdeen, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. How might the pandemic, Brexit, the financial crash, and climate change affect the future of these three great cities? Surely there are opportunities coming out of the various crises. Surely there will be a need for cities and those who rely on them to change in response.

I won’t try and summarise the Scotland’s Urban AGE 2022 report, nor its 2018 precursor. It would be doing a great disservice to an extremely interesting and insightful piece of work by the three authors Brian, John, and Mark. You can find the full report and the executive summary online.

Following the publication of the report, I now want to pose the question I find myself asking more frequently these days: ‘So what?’ It wasn’t the job of this report to answer this question, but rather stimulate the discussion.

AAB is a group of businesses who support thousands of SMEs, large businesses, and public sector organisations across the three cities (and beyond). So what does this fascinating report mean for our client base? That question requires deeper exploration. In the meantime, I’d like to share some takeaways from the report and suggest some actions.

I have three overarching observations:

  1. A lot has happened, but not much has changed,
  2. We need to stop talking and start doing, and
  3. There is a window of opportunity for business, government, and dare I say, the Chambers of Commerce who commissioned the report alongside the Scottish Funding Council, to be opportunistic, bold and brave.

1. A lot has happened, but not much has changed

It was clear in the 2018 report that cities were important. And, despite everything that has happened over the last few years, cities remain very important. They might just be important for different reasons.

The report notes that we live in an uncertain world. I think we have always lived in an uncertain world, and will continue to do so, probably forever. It is our ability to respond to uncertainty that is key.

In 2018, we were slow to react. How many of the last set of recommendations were acted upon? Not many, as you may have guessed. Governments proved during the pandemic that they could react quickly, whether mobilising health and care support, mobilising large scale communications, or mobilising grant support schemes that would normally take a year or so to organise. It remains to be seen whether we will go back to the slower pace of life in the future. Let’s take our newfound ability to act at speed into the future.

2. We need to stop talking and start doing

Previous and current Urban AGE reports talk about the need to be ‘fleet of foot’ – to react to change and take opportunities. That cities need to be more collaborative and need to move at pace.

All of this is right to say. But when will we do it? I’m not seeing swiftness and nimbleness as the norm beyond necessary responses to the pandemic. If anything, some recent economic initiatives focused on regional development have had a detrimental effect inter-city collaboration – e.g. the bidding war to secure Green Freeport status. Let’s seriously explore where cities can ‘borrow scale’ from each other as outlined in the report.

3. Where are the opportunities?

This requires some work following this report, but here are some starters. There are opportunities for business, for government, and for the Chambers.

For business

Here are some types of business we can see opportunities arising from what is outlined in the report.

  • Anyone with an interest in the ageing population (e.g. Housing Associations)
  • Retailers / anyone servicing retailers
  • Hospitality – if city based
  • Tech companies involved in AI / IoT
  • Construction companies – commercial and housing
  • Businesses based in city centres because they want to service other businesses in the city, or are there to attract employees

By helping these businesses explore the scenarios in the report, they can get on the front foot of commercial opportunities – for example, what are the supply chain opportunities for the retrofitting work that cities will require? How can businesses update their operations to take advantage of redesigned walkable cities? Or form alliances to become net zero cities?

I’d argue that one of the most important things in business or public sector service provision is to stay up to date with your customers and clients. This report can stimulate good discussions on how your customers and clients might be changing, and therefore help you think about how you respond.

Finally, for all of us who employ people: what does the city in the future mean for our employees? We are already seeing some major shifts in what employees want or expect following the pandemic. What is next?

For Government

Most reasonable people will understand the challenging circumstances we currently live in. And challenging situations often call for tough decisions that might not otherwise be accepted in so called “normal” times. There is a window of opportunity to be brave.

Governments have shown throughout the pandemic that they can move quickly. They have shown what is doable. There is an opportunity to take that pace into the future.

In times of uncertainty, businesses look for signs of certainty to inform their investment decisions. There is a key role for government, and its opposition, to provide confidence and certainty.

For the Chambers

The report talks about cities borrowing scale from each other. I can see potential for jointly going to market, bringing together complementary product or service offerings, or making introductions for each other. The same can apply to businesses who don’t have the capacity to individually hunt down some of the opportunities coming out of ‘shocks to the system’. Can the Chambers help the business community hunt opportunities? – for example, we hear about the retrofitting of buildings, transport infrastructure, and utilities that many cities face. Who is hunting these opportunities on behalf of the business base?

Is there a stronger role for the Chambers in developing relationships with the commercial opportunities and opening doors for qualified suppliers to have meaningful conversations? Can the Chambers work even closer with government to effect the changes required to provide the best opportunities for the best suppliers in the quickest time possible?

So there we have it:

  • A lot has happened, but not a lot has changed
  • It’s time to stop talking and start doing
  • And critically, now is the time to grasp opportunities arising from the most recent disruptions. I know colleagues across AAB will be doing just that.

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