Living and working in an ‘age of ambiguity’

The pandemic is having a wide ranging impact on all aspects of people’s lives. From the massive shift to home working for many to the furlough scheme for others, employees have experienced a fundamental shift in the way they work and live.

According to a recent survey of workers, employee happiness has declined and there has been an increase in presenteeism during the pandemic, as the boundaries between home and work, which were once certain, have become blurred.

Blurred lines and a culture of presenteeism

The survey by Aviva, polled 2,000 employees in February 2020 and again in August 2020, finding that most people were happier before the pandemic and that a culture of presenteeism had emerged. Key findings included:

  • More than half (52%) agree the boundaries between their work and home life are becoming increasingly blurred – up from 40% in February.
  • The number of employees who are completely happy almost halved: 20% in February vs. 13% in August.
  • 43% of employees ranked their mental health between ‘very bad’ and ‘fair’, compared with 38% in February.
  • 84% say that they would carry on working even if they felt unwell.

A significant trend of presenteeism and the ‘always on’ culture was highlighted by the survey. The increased uncertainty and heightened anxiety has led to many employees working longer hours and taking fewer sick days. In February 2020, 67% of employees took zero sick days over a three month period; this increased to 84% in August.

Employees may feel the need to prove their productivity while working from home, particularly if they feel their jobs are at risk. But such e-presenteeism is likely to have a negative impact on productivity and inevitably mental wellbeing. According to the report “the ambiguity experienced is compounding behaviour that is detrimental to long-term employee wellbeing.”

Young people (18-25) were found to be particularly affected, with 53% reporting feeling anxious compared to the national average of 34% and 17% ranking their mental health as bad compared to an average of 11% across all age groups.

There have been changes in employee self-determination across the board and the main priorities for employees have shifted as they are increasingly looking for a greater work-life balance over salary – a trend which has increased since the pandemic struck.

Employer considerations

Most employers have implemented new ways of supporting employees, which has been welcomed, but the survey highlights that more needs to be done. Despite a majority of employees believing employers have made some effort to adapt, there is still a loss of motivation among employees. Just 15% of employees agree that their employer is trying really hard to understand what motivates them and only a quarter (26%) agree their employer is genuinely concerned about their wellbeing.

With research confirming a conclusive link between wellbeing and productivity – employees are 13% more productive when happy – no organisation can afford to ignore the issue of employee wellbeing.

Indeed, employee wellbeing was already rising up the corporate agenda pre-Covid-19 but the pandemic has propelled it further into focus for many organisations.

It is argued that a new partnership is required between employees and employers. Personal control surpasses employer control when it comes to what employees want and there is clear evidence that more tailored support, rather than a one size fits all approach, is required.

Aviva’s report argues that “now more than ever there is a case for employers to embrace the ‘Age of Ambiguity’ to support their workforce with their mental health, physical and financial wellbeing.” To this end, Aviva recommends five ‘employer considerations’:

  • Understand how they can deliver on emerging flexibility needs.
  • Personalise mental health and wellbeing support.
  • Create sense of purpose, clarity and autonomy in the workplace.
  • Prepare workers for fuller working lives and the transition from work to retirement.
  • Create more targeted interventions by understanding personality types.

Towards a happier future

As all personality types were found to desire flexibility, it is suggested that prioritising employee wellbeing as a ‘need to have’ rather than a ‘nice to have’ and incorporating flexibility into working life could be a way forward for businesses when it comes to recruiting and retaining the best workers.

The ‘age of ambiguity’ could be the perfect opportunity for businesses to make the necessary changes to support their employees, helping them to improve their physical, mental and financial wellbeing – for mutual benefit.

The pandemic has thrust the world of work into a period of intense change and uncertainty, but many of the trends were already underway, particularly the shift in employee outlook. Employees’ desire for flexibility continues to grow as they seek a better work-life balance and there is no sign of this abating. The Aviva survey has shone a spotlight on this trend and suggests that “employers who embrace their employees’ desire for long term flexibility will see the benefit of a healthier and happier workforce” – leading to a happier future for all.


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Could arts and culture hold the key to the digital divide?

The rapid shift to digital content creation, distribution, audience engagement and participation since the start of the pandemic has enabled the continued experience of arts and culture, despite cultural institutions having to shut their doors. But a significant proportion of the population still face barriers to digital engagement – 7 million people have no internet access at home, 9 million people struggle to use the internet independently and 17 million people only use the internet for limited purposes.

Previous research has shown that engagement with cultural institutions such as museums and galleries, both on-and off-line, “remains deeply unequal”. Perhaps more worrying was the finding that “the gaps between the haves and the have nots are even wider online than in the case of physical visits.”

During a recent webinar by the Digital Culture Network, presented in partnership with Google Arts & Culture and their Connected to Culture playbook, the scale of the digital divide was highlighted, as was the important role arts and culture can play in addressing it.

The discussion focused on three areas:

  • Digital inequalities, barriers and exclusion
  • Knowing your audience
  • Projects that have successfully increased inclusivity

Digital divide

Kicking off the discussion on the digital divide, Jane Mackey, Senior Research & Evaluation Manager at the Good Things Foundation highlighted three key areas when we think about the digital divide:

  • digital access (7million people in the UK are excluded on this basis)
  • digital skills (11.7million people in the UK don’t have digital skills needed to engage online)
  • motivation and confidence (people might have access and some skills but lack the motivation or confidence to use it)

The latest data from the Office for National Statistics shows that a perceived lack of need, followed by a lack of digital skills are the main reasons given for not having household internet access.  The focus has mainly been on engaging and upskilling those who already have access to digital technology. But, as the discussion highlighted, the excluded 20% would be likely to benefit more from targeted action.

Jane noted that the digital divide is not static, but is more of a spectrum that people can move along throughout their lives. Based on its current research, the Good Things Foundation recommends that the arts and culture sector commits to be digitally inclusive by default. This will help to overcome barriers to digital by engaging directly with the digitally excluded and partnering with other organisations.

Zak Mensah, Co-CEO at the Birmingham Museums Trust, similarly highlighted barriers to digital, such as the infrastructural barriers depending on people’s location. Some rural areas, for example, do not have the digital infrastructure needed for access. Even in cities, which tend to have faster broadband, much of it is focused on the centre and businesses rather than individual households.

Zak also highlighted the importance of motivation, and giving people a reason to use technology.

Role of arts and culture

While some think the key is to get everyone to have the internet at home, Zak suggested that arts and cultural organisations can help people’s access by using their physical spaces better and also by taking the technology to the excluded.

Libraries have been successful over a number of years in providing space for people to access technology with free internet and support in using it. Similarly, arts and cultural organisations are in a position to do the same through their digital tools.

One suggestion was not switching off the Wi-Fi at close of business; another was potentially reducing restrictions on what people can access using their Wi-Fi (while obviously maintaining some control) so people can use it for wider purposes.

One project Birmingham Museums managed recently involved taking digital kit out to care homes for digital arts sessions. This was not only great for wellbeing; it also showed how digital technologies can be adapted to connect with people within communities. As Zac said “ultimately we have to go out more, we can’t always get people to come to you.”

Zak also explained that collaboration is key – sharing resources, ideas and skills – to reach as many people as possible.

Inclusive practice

Jenny Williams, Project Director at Revoluton Arts in Luton, also highlighted the importance of new partnerships.

She noted that when lockdown first started the staff wanted to keep engaging, so moved online with the help of Zoom. Because they didn’t really know about how it worked Revoluton called upon people within the community to help teach others.

They now have a suite of materials online that can help artists and others.

Revoluton has also worked with Marsh Farm Outreach who ran lounge sessions every night with live music, working with local artists and reaching huge audiences. One session titled The Creative History of Marsh Farm was about reminiscence, memory, sharing stories of place, and engaged 6000 people. While acknowledging that such online communication is great for international reach, Jenny noted that it can also make a big difference locally.

They have also used digital tech to create safe spaces online to attract members of the community that might not have otherwise engaged. One of their residency programmes, Touch Commission, was co-commissioned with Wellcome Collection which explored the theme of touch through arts and creativity. The project was centred on Bury Park, a predominantly Asian community in Luton. The dialogue and understanding that was shown helped to engage with those most excluded.

Another project highlighted by Jane was the Power Up initiative, a collaboration between the Good Things Foundation and JP Morgan Chase Foundation, which aims to drive economic inclusion through digital in communities.

Other partnerships showcasing inclusive practice include:

  • Engaging older audiences – Birmingham Museums Trust & Arts Council Collection partnership programme aimed at reaching the over 75s in care homes.
  • Dance and Time with the Museum – Presented in a partnership between University of Cambridge Museums and local sheltered housing and assisted living services; this blog outlines how the project was safely moved online.
  • Bussy – Prompted by Revoluton’s experiences of creating safe spaces for everyone online; this is an example of a creative organisation doing the same.

Way forward

There were a number of key takeaways from the discussion for arts and culture organisations. These include:

  • it’s about knowing your audience, knowing what their barriers to access are and planning an approach to these from the start;
  • empathy and understanding that happens as a result can be important; and
  • it’s about understanding the resources you have and how they can be used, particularly through partnerships.

There’s no quick fix for breaking down the barriers to digital engagement: as Zak eloquently put it, “it’s a marathon not a sprint”. But, as the many practices highlighted during this webinar demonstrate, the arts and culture sector has the tools to make a difference on the digital divide.


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Are ‘dark stores’ bringing some much needed light to the high street?

As we pass the first anniversary of the initial lockdown and look towards opening things up again, will we see a change in footfall trends in favour of the high street as people yearn to get out again, or will it continue to experience a downward trend?

Judging by pre-pandemic trends, it would seem that high street businesses will need to do more than just open back up to entice people back to the high street. Indeed, there were signs of diversification on the high street before the pandemic in response to declining footfall. And the pandemic has led to many more innovating to survive the current challenges, such as creating pop-up ecommerce centres. Perhaps such moves could help save the high street, albeit not as we know it.

A downward trajectory

The recent news of permanent closures of big-named high street stores such as Debenhams, Laura Ashley, Top Shop and Dorothy Perkins after the collapse of Arcadia Group, and the closures of more John Lewis outlets, suggest a bleak outlook for the high street. And the pandemic has spurred the worst decline on record.

Recent figures from PwC reveal that an average of 48 stores, restaurants and other leisure and hospitality venues closed every day in 2020 – a total of more than 17,500 outlets.

This may be the worst decline on record but it is also a continuation of the downward trajectory that the traditional high street was already on. And it has been argued that this is actually a reflection of things that happened pre-pandemic, with its full impact ‘yet to be felt’.

In its quarterly footfall monitor, the British Retail Consortium highlighted in May 2019 that high street footfall had fallen by 1% year-on-year and that vacancy rates on local high-streets had risen to 10.2%, equivalent to one in ten shops having succumbed to the high street crisis. This was the highest vacancy rate in four years and it continued to increase in the next quarter.

Support through a crisis

It has become clear that trends before the pandemic have just been accelerated by it. The continued growth in online shopping and the impact of government policy costs such as business rates are just a couple of the causes of the decline in high streets over the years that see little sign of abating. But the urgency of the current situation has seen a huge increase in government support across the board which has helped many businesses stay afloat as they try and wait out the storm.

In December 2020, the UK government announced it would invest up to £830 million from the Future High Streets Fund in local high streets across England to help them recover from the pandemic and drive long-term growth.

In September 2020, funding was secured for England’s historic high streets through the £95 million government-funded High Streets Heritage Action Zone (HSHAZ) programme, which is delivered by Historic England. The aim of this is to help transform and restore disused and dilapidated buildings into new homes, shops, work places and community spaces, restoring local historic character and improving public realm.

And just this month, the government has announced a series of new measures to support a safe and successful reopening of high streets and seaside resorts, including a £56 million Welcome Back Fund to help councils boost tourism, improve green spaces and provide more outdoor seating areas, markets and food stall pop-ups. This builds on the £50 million Reopening High Streets Safely Fund announced in May 2020. Similar support schemes have been introduced by the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Of course, this hasn’t been enough to save the high street stores that have announced closures. But it brings to the fore once more that high streets are about more than just shops as each funding programme highlights the aim of transforming high streets into vibrant mixed-use places where consumers can enjoy social experiences.

Adapting to survive – dark stores bringing light to the high street

As the PwC study suggests, it is really about keeping up with consumer behaviours that is the challenge for retail, perhaps even more so in times of crisis. And there have been many examples of high street retailers adapting to survive.

With the huge increase in online shopping during the pandemic, many manufacturing and distribution centres were operating at maximum capacity which led to some retailers unlocking the potential of their local high street stores to provide local distribution hubs, known as ‘dark stores’.

Lush is one company that changed the way they used their retail space so they could continue to use it while their stores were closed. It created Lush Local, a pop-up e-commerce centre which used the shop as a local distribution centre so they could fulfil local orders and not let their current stock go to waste.

Some businesses have also partnered with others to make use of local unused space such as Crosstown Doughnuts which have been trialling the use of dark stores in Cambridge and Walthamstow, partnering with independent operators so it can provide on-demand deliveries and collections to customers.

As ‘bricks and mortar’ retailers try to adapt to support their online capability, providing efficient local deliveries, at the same time as utilising their physical retail space, the ‘dark store’ trend may be here to stay. Pre-pandemic, it was reported that using dark stores and offering click and collect can reduce delivery costs and increase profit margins. Analysis showed that if deliveries from dark stores increase by 50%, profit margins could grow by 7% as a result of lower delivery costs and higher delivery throughput compared to conventional stores (while also not affecting store operations).

And it has been suggested that this model can be further adapted to provide ‘hybrid stores’ as shops re-open. These hybrid stores enable local stores to combine space for their fulfilment centre with their physical shop so consumers can still benefit from the tangible experience offered in store that can’t be replicated online.

Final thoughts

Only time will tell if recent innovations will have the desired effect. What is clear is that the rate of change cannot continue at the pace it was before the pandemic if high streets are to have a fighting chance. Dark and hybrid stores could be part of the answer. But much more is needed.

The most successful high streets, it is argued, will offer a mix of retail, entertainment, culture and wellbeing as they focus on the experiential side of things, because, in the words of retail guru Mary Portas, “vibrant, innovative, socially dynamic high streets will help this country not just heal, but thrive.”


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“The infrastructure of everyday life” – has the time come for the foundational economy?

The last few years has seen growing interest in what has been termed the ‘foundational economy’ and its potential value for achieving economic security and social sustainability. Accounting for around 44% of UK employment, it has been argued that supporting this section of the economy could ultimately improve productivity. And the current pandemic has placed even more emphasis on the importance of the foundational economy – the part of the economy that cannot be shut down.

What is the foundational economy?

The foundational economy provides universal basic services built from the activities which provide the essential goods and services for everyday life, regardless of the social status of consumers. Primarily delivered locally, these goods and services encompass infrastructures, utilities, food, retailing and distribution, education, health and welfare. Because of this, it is thought to have considerable potential to regenerate the areas where the local economy is relatively weak – perhaps the perfect solution for the levelling up agenda?

The initial manifesto for the foundational economy from researchers at the University of Manchester resulted from dissatisfaction with generic industrial and regional policy focused on promoting competition and markets; with success measured in terms of job creation and GDP growth. According to the manifesto, the foundational economy is “the mundane production of everyday necessities” which is taken for granted by all members of the population. As such, it is often also referred to as the ‘sheltered’ or ‘invisible’ economy.

Scale and value

In providing the infrastructure for everyday life, the foundational economy is also very large. It has been noted that in all European countries, it directly employs around 40% of the workforce. In the UK, around 44% of the workforce is employed in foundational activities. In Germany, it is 41% and Italy it is 37%. The value of foundational output and volume and diversity of foundational employment is therefore much larger than in high-tech and tradeable services, with which policymakers are determinedly focused on.

Other measures of value have also been highlighted, such as household expenditure. The initial manifesto notes the importance of weekly spend on the foundational economy with nearly 30% of all household expenditure going on foundational activities.

Despite providing vital services, and employing a significant portion of the UK population, the foundational economy is marked by low-tech, low-wage, part time and often precarious employment and is potentially at risk from automation, despite the significant ‘human’ element to many of the different job roles which make up this part of the economy. Within society a lot of foundational jobs are still considered by many (often who don’t work in the sector) to be “jobs you move on from” where in reality, for many people, particularly women and migrant workers, this isn’t the case.

But where would we be without these roles providing for all citizens’ basic needs? Job creation and GDP growth may suggest a successful economy but this, it is argued, does not show the wellbeing of all society or sustainability. In the face of current, and indeed future, crises, it seems perceptions may be starting to change as more and more people become concerned with health and wellbeing and the environment. Indeed, it has long been argued that necessity is only recognised in times of crises.

Has Covid-19 shone a vital light on the foundational economy?

While many sectors were shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, the foundational economy remained open as it was considered systemically important for meeting basic needs. The pandemic has highlighted that this part of the economy is needed at all times, including at times of crisis.

Healthcare staff have become frontline heroes and food delivery drivers are recognised as key workers. But this enhanced status has also highlighted the poor pay and conditions of many key workers delivering these essential goods and services and the inherent inequality that exists in society.

Just like other crises, from natural disasters to large scale economic shocks, these bear most heavily on the poor and vulnerable. The pandemic has shown that these inequalities must be addressed so that basic everyday services are more equally available.

The pandemic has also shown that economies are about more than market economies. It has been argued that there needs to be a move towards meeting a population’s basic needs rather than on individual consumption.

Way forward

Advocates of the foundational economy argue that public policy should focus on securing the supply of basic goods and services for all citizens in a socially responsible way.

The 2020 manifesto for the foundational economy from The Foundational Economy Collective argues for the renewal of the foundational economy with a ten-point programme, including proposals related to:

  • better health and care
  • housing and energy
  • food supply
  • social licensing
  • tax reform
  • disintermediation of investment from pension funds and insurance companies
  • shorter supply chains in foundational commodities
  • citizen engagement
  • better technical and administrative capacity at all levels of government
  • international constructive responsibility

It has been widely agreed that a return to business-as-usual approach following the pandemic is not the way forward and that there needs to be a shift in economic policies in order to achieve a more socially and economically just society. Perhaps if such policy change is achieved, a more balanced economy that provides a good quality of life for all can eventually be realised.


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From rainbows to Banksy – have lockdowns created a new appreciation for the value of the arts?

Cultural and creative sectors are among the worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Recent analysis suggests that jobs at risk in the sector range from 0.8 to 5.5% of employment across OECD regions. In the UK, the arts, entertainment and recreation sector saw the second largest economic decline of all sectors of the economy during the pandemic.

While the negative impact of crises is justifiably focused on, there are often positive opportunities to arise from such shocks such as widespread collaboration and innovative behaviours to find solutions. Indeed, the current pandemic is no different. Amidst the myriad of reports of the dire economic impact emerges a much more colourful picture of a resurgence in arts and creativity across not only the country but the world.

Rising creativity

From the abundance of rainbows displayed in windows across the UK to singers and musicians entertaining their neighbours from their balconies in Italy and elsewhere, the global pandemic has led to many turning to the arts and creative activities in a bid to help each other’s wellbeing and to thank those on the frontline for their heroic efforts to protect us all.

Many young people found new ways to express themselves through creativity during lockdown, whether drawing or making things, creating music or videos to share on social media. Examples of what young people in England have been creating are presented in Arts Council England’s project The Way I See It .

All sorts of artists from across the globe have been sharing their coronavirus-inspired artwork via social media.

The infamous street artist Banksy has also been joining in, creating a variety of new work from rats encouraging people to wear face masks on the London Underground to a piece paying tribute to NHS workers in Southampton General Hospital.

And the industry itself has had to get creative finding new ways to reach people. Many cultural and creative organisations have moved to delivering digital content to keep audiences engaged, which has opened the door for many future innovations. Organisations and individuals have also been doing a variety of work to reach those most in need such as projects creating new programmes or adapting existing work to reach people who are shielding or vulnerable in their homes, overwhelmingly addressing loneliness and isolation. One participant described their experience:

“I found the process of drawing and painting both cathartic and healing at the most difficult time of my life.”

Economic and social value

While there has generally been a need to make the case for the value of arts and creative activity, whether in education or business, perhaps the impact of lockdowns has afforded the opportunity for everyone to recognise their value both at times of crisis and as part of recovery.

The sector is already an economic driver and source of innovation. In 2019, the economic output of arts and culture was equivalent to 0.5% of the whole UK economy. And despite the immediate economic impact of the pandemic, there is hope that the sector will recover quickly, albeit with significant government support. Recent research from the Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR) predicts that the sector’s Gross Value Added (GVA) will return to its pre-lockdown level of £13.5bn by 2022 with the help of the Culture Recovery Fund, a full year earlier than was anticipated without government intervention. The research also shows the sector is set to be worth £15.2 billion to the economy by 2025.   

As well as contributing to the economic recovery, the sector can also play a crucial role in the social recovery as indicated by the many examples highlighted above.

As non-educators, many home-schooling parents have moved towards cultural and creative enrichment for their children. It has been well-documented that arts and creative activities can help improve mental health and wellbeing and at a time when there are grave concerns about young people’s mental health, surely this can only be a good thing.

As previous pandemics and disasters have consistently shown, a major focus of recovery needs to be on mental health; something that the arts and creative industries can clearly help with.

Final thoughts

At time when we might all feel like social distancing from ourselves, the arts and creative activities can provide an escape for everyone. The value of arts and culture, both economically and socially, cannot be underestimated. Perhaps the most positive outcome of the current pandemic for these sectors, will be the newfound appreciation of them from all walks of life which will hopefully translate into decision-makers thinking twice before laying the brunt of budget cuts at their door.


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‘Bending the Curve’ of biodiversity loss – could Covid-19 be the catalyst for change?

dead forest pic

“The evidence is unequivocal – nature is being changed and destroyed by us at a rate unprecedented in history” (WWF)

The latest Living Planet report from the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) finds that 68% of the world’s wildlife populations have been lost since 1970 – more than two thirds in less than 50 years – with the most striking result a 94% decline in tropical subregions of the Americas. The report says this ‘catastrophic’ decline shows no signs of slowing. The cause – human activity.

Until 1970, the ecological footprint of the human population was less than the rate of the Earth’s regeneration. Explosive growth in global trade, consumption, population growth and urbanisation means we are now using more of the world’s resources than can be replenished:

“To feed and fuel our 21st century lifestyles, we are overusing the Earth’s biocapacity by at least 56%.” (WWF)

The environmental impact of human activity is hardly a new topic but the numerous warnings over the years haven’t had the desired effect of changing society’s trajectory. The stark warnings from recent reports including the 2018 IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) special report on the impacts of global warming, and popular programmes such as the Blue Planet II series which highlighted the devastating impact of pollution on the world’s oceans, have certainly helped heighten awareness and action has been taken across the world to address the climate emergency. Unfortunately, the progress made so far is not enough to reverse the current declining trends.

But the new report raises hope in that times of crisis new ideas and opportunities for transformation can arise and that the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic could perhaps be the catalyst for such change.

‘People and nature are intertwined’

COVID-19 has undoubtedly injected a new sense of urgency, emphasising again the interconnectedness of humans and nature. It has provided a stark reminder how unparalleled biodiversity loss threatens the health of both people and the planet.

Factors believed to lead to the emergence of pandemics – including global travel, urbanisation, changes in land use and greater exploitation of the natural environment – are also some of the drivers behind the decline in wildlife.

The report emphasises that biodiversity loss is not just an environmental issue, but also a development, economic, global security, ethical and moral one. And it is also about self-preservation as “biodiversity plays a critical role in providing food, fibre, water, energy, medicines and other genetic materials; and is key to the regulation of our climate, water quality, pollution, pollination services, flood control and storm surges.”

As well the pandemic, a series of recent catastrophic events are used to underline the intrinsic links between human health and environmental health, including: Africa’s plague of locusts in 2019 which threatened food supplies, caused by the unusually high number of cyclones; extreme droughts in India and Pakistan in 2019, leading to an unknown death toll; and Australia’s most intense bushfire season ever recorded, made worse by unusually low rainfall and record high temperatures, as well as excessive logging.

Alongside this, the “extraordinary gains in human health and wellbeing” over the past century, including reduced child mortality and increased life expectancy, are highlighted as a cause for celebration but the study warns that the exploitation and alteration of the natural environment that has occurred in tandem threatens to undo these successes.

Biggest threats to biodiversity

Clearly, biodiversity is fundamental to human life and it is vital that the drivers of its destruction are addressed; and quickly.

Drawing on the Living Planet Index (LPI), which tracks the abundance of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians across the globe, using data from over 4,000 different species, the report identifies the major threat categories to biodiversity:

  • Changes in land and sea use
  • Invasive species and disease
  • Species overexploitation
  • Pollution
  • Climate change

It may be surprising to learn that climate change has not yet been the main driver of biodiversity loss. In fact, globally, climate change features lower on the scale of threats than the other drivers in almost all regions. Changes in land and sea use is the biggest proportional threat, averaged across all regions, at 50%. This is followed by species exploitation at 24% with invasive species taking third place at 13%. Climate change accounts for 6% on average.

However, the report warns projections suggest the tables are set to turn with climate change overtaking all other drivers in the coming years.

But all is not lost yet. The report argues that it is possible to reverse these trends and calls for action to do so by 2030.

Bending the Curve’

This year’s report highlights findings from significant new research, the Bending the Curve initiative, which uses pioneering modelling of different human behaviour scenarios aimed at restoring biodiversity. It argues that this has provided ‘proof of concept’ for the first time that we can halt, and reverse, the loss of nature while feeding a growing population:

“Bending the curve of biodiversity loss is technologically and economically possible, but it will require truly transformational change in the way we produce and consume food and in how we sustainably manage and conserve nature.”

2020 has certainly made the whole world stop and think. And it has provided an opportunity to reset humanity’s relationship with nature. Encouragingly, there has been widespread talk of a ‘green recovery’ from the pandemic and the British public have recently backed a “fairer, greener Britain” amid concerns the government might be rushing the country back to a ‘business-as-usual’ model.

Achieving a balance with nature will clearly require systemic change, as the Living Planet report shows. In the words of Sir David Attenborough, above all it will require a change in perspective”.


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Guest post: How working from home could revitalise rust belt cities

RMC42

Michel Serafinelli, University of Essex

For years, we have been promised a work-from-home revolution, and it seems that the pandemic has finally brought it to pass. In April this year, at the height of the first wave of coronavirus, 47% of people in the UK were working from home, the vast majority of them doing so because of the pandemic. In a sense this is overdue: the work-from-home potential for UK employees is 32%; in France, Germany and Italy between 24% and 28%.

This structural transformation has the potential to at least partially undo another transformation from the previous century. With the decline of manufacturing in the United Kingdom after the 1970s, some cities – incuding Hull, Sheffield, Bradford and Stoke-on-Trent – entered a spiral of high unemployment and out-migration that has lasted to this day. This trend is echoed in other “rust belt” cities such as Saint-Etienne in France, Wuppertal in Germany and the American city of Detroit.

The rise of teleworking could end that spiral – if the right conditions are met.

The changing workplace

It’s unlikely that telework will end when the pandemic does – we will instead probably see workplaces encouraging a mix of in-office and home working. Some organisations may start asking workers to be in the office for only two to three days per week, while others may opt for a “conference model” (that is, a few consecutive days or a week per month for all employees).

This does not mean the death of big cities. London will probably stay attractive and innovative thanks to its very strong initial advantage. San Francisco and Seattle in US, Munich in Germany and Amsterdam in the Netherlands will all remain hubs for knowledge workers. Scholars believe face-to-face still rules when it comes to creativity, and such cities provide an environment that is conducive to innovation.

But rust belt areas are cheaper and can attract skilled workers to regularly spend more time there once the pandemic is over.

A busy street in Soho, London.
London will not lose its appeal. christo mitkov christov/Shutterstock

The job multiplier effect

How can formerly deprived cities thrive after the pandemic? To understand the potential for revitalisation of rust belt cities, we can invoke the job multiplier effect. This is where the presence of skilled workers helps create other jobs through increased demand for local goods and services. For example, after their day on Zoom (at home or in a local co-working space), skilled workers will want to go out. In this way they support a barista, a waiter, a chef and perhaps a taxi driver. Some will decide to renovate the house they live in, and ask a local architect. Once or twice a week they go for yoga. They may need a dogsitter when they travel.

This is not the only mechanism that could help with local revitalisation. Some of the people regularly spending more time in rust belt areas would be entrepreneurs, and we may see new business creation, as they seize new opportunities in industries such as culture, renewable energies, tourism, quality agro-food or handicraft.

In principle, therefore, our increased ability to work from home could lead to new growth opportunities.

Will it work?

But there are important caveats. Not all rust belt cities will be able take advantage of the post-pandemic world. After all, there were large differences in labour market performance after the 1970s, when the aggregate number of manufacturing jobs started to decline.

In the UK, both Middlesborough and Slough had 44% manufacturing employment in 1970. But their experience was vastly different in the three following decades, with Middlesborough employment declining by 13% per decade and Slough employment growing by 12% per decade. Places such as Norwich and Preston in the UK, Bergamo in Italy, and San Jose in the US were traditional manufacturing hubs that nonetheless performed well in the decades that followed the start of manufacturing decline in their countries.

To understand why we may see large differences across different cities again with the rise of working from home, we first have to think about differences in what economists call human capital endowments – this relates to the skills of the workforce in a particular place. For example, if locality A has a greater share of the workforce with a university degree than locality B, it has a higher human capital endowment and is more likely to recover from industrial decline.

The skill level of the workforce is important for the task of local reinvention – in our research team’s analysis of the reinvention potential for cities, we used the share of the workforce with a university degree as a proxy for this. To distribute these advantages across the board, scholars studying declining areas have called for measures aimed at boosting training and facilitating the assimilation of knowledge and innovation.

Another important challenge is the digital divide – the gap in speeds between areas with privileged access to the internet and the rest of the country. In the UK this is more than just a gap between urban and rural parts of the country – inner-city areas in London, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham are also left behind. A large reduction of this gap was important for job creation before COVID-19 – it should be a top priority now.

An overhead shot of a woman typing on a laptop at a table.
The UK’s digital divide affects cities too. marvent/Shutterstock

Local amenities also play a role. For skilled workers with family ties in a specific area, once they decide to regularly spend more time outside London, the choice of location is often pretty clear. For skilled workers without such ties, factors such as the cultural and recreational activities on offer in a new city become important, especially since they are used to a vibrant selection in London.

Overall, rust belt areas in Western economies face some opportunities for regeneration with teleworking, but there are also several important challenges. To maximise the potential for success, governments should consider measures that boost training, investment in high-speed broadband and improve transportation links between these cities and London.

These kinds of investments would help smaller cities such as Middlesborough, Hull and Stoke-on-Trent take advantage of the new opportunities presented by telework. Otherwise Manchester and, to some extent, other larger cities such as Birmingham and Liverpool could be the winners, among the rust belt, in the post-coronavirus work-from-home economy.

Michel Serafinelli, Lecturer in Economics, University of Essex

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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Garden communities – the sustainable dream or car-dependent nightmare?

Rather than being centred on sustainable transport, it looks like garden communities are to become car-based commuter estates just like any other – exactly what the government wanted to avoid.”

This is the conclusion of a recent report from Transport for New Homes, which examined plans for 20 garden communities around England.

The government’s vision for new garden communities, as set out in their 2018 Garden communities prospectus, is for “vibrant, mixed-use, communities where people can live, work, and play for generations to come – communities which view themselves as the conservation areas of the future. Each will be holistically planned, self sustaining, and characterful.”

But rather than the self-contained communities where there is minimal need to travel, the Transport for New Homes report warns England’s new garden communities are at risk of becoming car-dependent commuter estates – exactly what they are supposed to supersede.

Vision vs reality

Sustainable living, with walking, cycling and public transport playing a key role, is central to the vision of garden communities. Indeed, the documentation for each of the communities highlighted “very encouraging” intentions according to the report. Despite these visions, however, almost every garden community examined focused on major road improvements to accommodate the expected huge rise in car use:

  • around half of garden communities studied were associated with new or bigger motorway junctions
  • 90% of garden community plans appeared to be associated with road capacity increases
  • a popular model for garden towns was new estates on a new ring road. This was chosen rather than extending the town along joined up streets for easy walking or cycling into the town centre
  • a number of garden community locations appear to be actually selected to finance a new bypass or other new ‘strategic’ link

The researchers estimated that the 20 communities examined would create up to 200,000 households dependent on car use.

Far from the government’s vision of self-contained communities, “the vast majority of garden communities appeared to be put forward on the basis of fast travel out.”

Clearly, these results are at odds with the intended vision. According to the report, there were two main problems with the plans: building in the wrong location and around the wrong kind of transport.

Opportunity missed?

With the recent recalibration of how people live and work, the need for great places to live is even stronger than ever. The current pandemic has placed a new emphasis on walking and cycling, with the benefits of living more locally coming to the fore. It has certainly accelerated more sustainable and equitable trends – to which garden communities, in the intended sense, are ideally suited.

But while new cycle lanes have been popping up in urban centres along with wider pavements in a quick response to the situation, the planned garden villages were found to be largely unsuitable for walking and cycling as a result of their remote location, layout and lack of safe routes in and out; despite active travel being an aim for almost every case.

Every vision also recognised public transport but were found to fail in delivery. Only one garden community was in walking distance of a station.

A lack of committed funding for place-making, sustainable transport and active travel, it is suggested, “may well mean any transformational potential is lost”.  Could this be a real missed opportunity to move away from the old way of place-making and embrace a new sustainable norm?

Consequences

The report warns that there are several consequences to continuing with the current proposals:

  • layout for cars not pedestrians
  • lack of green environment
  • expensive for those on low incomes
  • local shops and businesses don’t open
  • higher carbon emissions
  • inactive lifestyles; more stress
  • isolation
  • you have to be able to drive
  • parking city, not garden city, with parking taking the place of garden and public space
  • money wasted

Clearly these are undesirable outcomes. It is therefore suggested that continuing along the current path risks putting the garden community visions in jeopardy. But, the report argues, there is another way.

Way forward

It is argued that there is a need for integration of sustainable transport and land use planning so they are no longer treated separately, inhibiting the coordination of new homes along public transport corridors. A change in transport funding is also called for.

The report makes several recommendations to achieve the garden community vision:

  • Complete overhaul of planning so that sustainable transport and new homes come together.
  • Build in the right places for sustainable transport.
  • Make the funding of sustainable transport a priority.
  • Transfer funds for roads to funds for sustainable transport – be modern!
  • Change the way we assess the benefits of transport infrastructure.
  • Streets and pavements; cycle networks – design new places with layouts for pedestrians and cyclists, and public transport routes, stops and stations.
  • Quality low rise flats, mix of houses. More green, less tarmac, less space lost to parking.

Perhaps the government’s proposals for reform of the planning system will help the true garden community vision come to life. Indeed, some of the proposals have been welcomed, particularly in relation to simplifying the system to enable more homes to be built. Others, however, have been criticised with concerns raised over measures to speed up new housebuilding not resulting in well-designed, sustainable places. With the consultation due to close next week, it remains to be seen whether the reforms will ultimately do enough for the garden village ideal to be realised.


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Food for thought: is Covid-19 a watershed moment in the fight against food waste?

Image by OpenIDUser2 via GFDL

Image by OpenIDUser2 via GFDL

Much has been said about the reduced air pollution levels during the coronavirus lockdown as a result of the drastic reduction in travel but what about the impact other sectors are having as a result of recent changes? With eating out not currently an option, more of us are tucking in to takeaways as an alternative, which has had an impact on food waste.

Food waste in restaurants rises but waste at home is on a downward trend

New research released by Just Eat and the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) has found that “fluctuations in demand and unpredictable ordering patterns” have led to a slight increase in food waste generated in takeaway restaurants during lockdown. According to the analysis, food waste from restaurants has risen from an average of £111 to £148 per week per restaurant. This means food waste has increased from 9% of all waste to 10%, since pre-lockdown – which equates to a £16.7m rise for the sector as a whole during lockdown.

As well as the variations in demand and unpredictability of ordering patterns, the survey found that disrupted supply chain and business models also had an impact on waste. Almost half (45%) of the restaurants surveyed said they throw most food waste in the bin, which is not good news for the UN target of halving global food waste by 2030.

On the flip side, however, consumers have seemingly become more aware of the food they waste at home and are now wasting less of their takeaway, down from 9% on average to 7.2%. The research estimates that, as a result, households have saved an average of £3.2 million per week during lockdown which adds up to £22.4 million all together.

Over half (59%) of consumers say that they have a greater oversight over how much food is wasted since Covid-19. And there is also agreement that food shortages have heightened awareness of food waste, with 84% agreeing that: “Stockpiling and empty supermarket shelves showed me how important it is to make the most of what we have”.

Changing behaviours and attitudes to food waste

Another recent survey conducted by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) of more than 4,000 participants found that almost a third of consumers said they were cooking more creatively while staying at home, while 30% have started saving leftovers. As a result of these new behaviours, the research shows that the public are throwing away a third less in food waste when compared to the average across 2018-2019, across four key products – bread, milk, potatoes and chicken.

Other changes in consumer behaviour and attitudes during lockdown, highlighted by the research include that:

  • 63% are shopping less often
  • 59% are buying more to create more meals at home
  • there has been a shift to more fresh produce and long-life products and less pre-cut veg, salad packs and ready meals
  • almost half (47%) are checking their cupboards more often before shopping, and 45% their fridge
  • 37% have been organising the food in their cupboards and the fridge
  • around 9 in 10 agree that “food waste is an important national issue” (87%) and that “everyone, including me, has a responsibility to minimise the food we throw away” (92%)

This shows there has been a small but significant change in attitudes towards food waste, according to WRAP, as this represents a 23% increase since November 2019 in the number of citizens that strongly agree with the above two statements.

Sustaining such behaviour and attitudes post-lockdown could certainly help in the fight against food waste, something the UK is already on target with.

Progress in reducing food waste

Indeed, before the current crisis, the UK had been making good progress in reducing food waste according to data from WRAP, with total levels falling by 480,000 tonnes between 2015 and 2018 – the equivalent of 7% per person and a reduction in emissions of 7.1 million tonnes CO2e.

The data shows there was a 27% reduction in food waste between 2007 and 2018, which has saved 1.7 million tonnes of food waste, equal to £4.7 billion. There was also an increase in the number of people that see food waste as an issue, rising from 26% in 2015 to 69% in 2019.

It is clear from the figures that we are moving in the right direction to meet both national and international targets on food waste, and that the current crisis has accelerated this, at least in the short term.

Final thoughts

It has been suggested that the current health crisis could perhaps be a catalyst for lasting air quality improvements. Could it also be a catalyst for a food waste revolution? The report from WRAP suggests it could be:

“This could be a watershed moment in the fight against food waste. There is a unique opportunity to embed these good habits into a ‘new normal’ – a culture which values food and reaps the maximum benefit from it. This makes good financial sense, at a time of economic uncertainty, but will also deliver significant benefits for the planet.”

Of course, the report also acknowledges that there are a range of behaviours that may require some level of support post-lockdown (particularly when citizens once again are more time-pressured). Similarly to the issue of air pollution, there will be a need to maintain certain changes and for new ways of thinking around tackling climate change across sectors when we once again shift focus back to the enduring climate emergency.

One thing is for sure, while we may begin to breathe more easily in the UK’s urban areas, it is no time to take our eye off the ball when it comes to tackling carbon emissions.


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An ageing workforce and growing emotional demands call for more sustainable employment

People Turning in Gears - Synergy

As a result of the global demographic challenge of an ageing population and the increasing diversity of working life, there has been a growing focus on sustainable work over the life course which has also placed greater emphasis on the importance of the quality of work and working conditions. As more and more people are having to work longer before retirement, it is important that they are able to do so.

A recent Eurofound report examined working conditions and their implications for worker’s health. Its findings confirmed a clear link between working conditions and the health and well-being of workers, highlighting the need to make work more sustainable.

Working conditions, health and wellbeing

Eurofound’s report found that this relationship can be depicted in a model based on the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS), showing that health outcomes are the result of two processes: health-impairing processes (exhaustion) and motivational processes (engagement).

Health-impairing processes are associated with exposure to adverse work demands which tend to increase exhaustion, while motivational processes are associated with access to work resources that support engagement.

Such demands can include:

  • physical risks
  • work intensity
  • work extensity (long working hours)
  • emotional demands
  • social demands

Such resources can include:

  • social resources
  • work resources
  • rewards

It is noted in the report that the demand and resources model partly explains how well-designed jobs – characterised by high rewards, high work and social resources and suitable levels of demands – translate into better health: “Whereas job demands are linked to higher levels of exhaustion (which, in turn, are related to poorer health), job resources are associated with higher levels of work engagement (which, in turn, are related to better health and well-being).”

It is therefore suggested that as job control, social resources and rewarding working experiences all have positive effects, employers should be encouraged to introduce initiatives that focus on motivational aspects of work.

As recently highlighted, the discipline of worker health has traditionally focused on worker exposures to various workplace hazards. However, this has more recently broadened to include the concept of worker well-being, which is seen as increasingly important. Not only is it important for the individual but it is an important determinant of productivity for enterprise and society as well. Indeed, the Eurofound report highlights this growing importance.

Emotional demands

While the report notes that physical hazards have a direct effect on worker’s health and wellbeing and are undoubtedly remain important, these have not increased, but emotional demands have. This, it is argued, underlines the growing importance of psychosocial risks. It argues:

“In the context of ageing societies and services-dominated economies, it becomes more pressing to address these risks as the incidence of exposure increases.”

Other research has also highlighted the significance of emotional demands at work in relation to health. One recent study in the Danish workforce, for example, found emotional demands at work predicted a higher risk of long term sickness absence.

With the growing need for long-term care in ageing societies, it is argued that these demands are likely to increase further and, therefore, require particular attention. Different groups of people also face varying demands and are considered in the report. In particular, gender differences are considered throughout – highlighted as significant in some areas

Gender

The report found that men tend to report better health and wellbeing, and fewer health problems and better sleep quality than women. Men were also found to report fewer days of sickness absence and fewer days of presenteeism.

This is consistent with other research findings that show ill-health is more prevalent in women. One study exploring the association between work-related stress in midlife and subsequent mortality, and whether sense of coherence (measured as meaningfulness, manageability and comprehensibility) modified the association, found that occupation-based high job strain was associated with higher mortality in the presence of a weak sense of coherence – a result that was stronger in women than in men.

The Eurofound report findings show that as women often work in sectors like health or education, they are especially exposed to the psychosocial risks associated with these emotionally demanding jobs.

The report also notes that workers under 25 are most likely to face high demands while having the least access to work resources, and health sector employees in particular, face high emotional and social demands. It is therefore suggested that there should be investment in working conditions for particular risk groups, such as occupations requiring lower skills levels, reporting job insecurity, or witnessing workplace downsizing. Measures to promote high union density, good employment protection and gender equality which are likely to improve working conditions and contribute to workers’ health and wellbeing are also highlighted.

Way forward

The findings of the Eurofound report, and indeed other research, highlight the need to look beyond the ‘traditional’, narrower framework of occupational health and safety to include the psychosocial risks such as emotional demands, along with motivational aspects of work. This calls for a reduction in health-impairing conditions and a fostering of health-promoting ones.

Of course, the world of work will continue to change, particularly in an increasingly digital world. However, striking the right balance between demands and resources through coordination between different policy fields could contribute to a higher quality of working life that is sustainable, regardless of the ever changing environment.


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