What goes around comes around: how the circular economy can reduce waste and address climate change

This week, the crucial COP26 summit gets under way in Glasgow. The meeting will bring together government leaders, climate experts and campaigners with the aim of agreeing coordinated action to tackle global climate change.

The discussions will be wide-ranging, covering major themes such as deforestation, renewable power generation, and electrification of transport. But although it might not hit the headlines, there’s another issue that could play a critical role in meeting climate change goals: the circular economy.

Producing, consuming and disposing of the products we use in our everyday lives accounts for nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions. Cutting those emissions means upending the conventional “take-make-consume-dispose” model of growth, and designing waste out of our economy altogether.

In advance of the COP26 meeting, The Economist magazine hosted a webinar which focused on the potential of the circular economy for emissions reduction.

The challenges of going circular

Introducing the event, Vijay Vaitheeswaran, The Economist’s global energy and climate innovation editor, explained that the essence of the circular economy is about keeping materials in circulation and maintaining their utility. But how much of a Utopian dream is this, and what are the practical challenges that need to be overcome if this elegant theory is to become a reality?

In response, Federico Merlo, managing director of member relations and circular economy for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, explained that, while changing business models to extend the life cycle of products would not be easy, the economic benefits of using and wasting fewer materials should drive business in the direction of the circular economy.

Jim McLelland, Sustainable Futurist at SustMeme, was concerned about possible resistance from consumers in changing their behaviour. Because many people equate consumption with ‘shopping’, they don’t consider the emissions generated during the journey of materials from design to finished product. This could result in friction in the transition to the circular economy.

But Kai Karolin Hüppe, sustainability & circular economy lead for Arthur D. Little management consultants, suggested consumers were becoming more curious about how the materials that made their products came to be in them. And once they know the impact of consumption, people can make informed buying decisions. 

She went on to explain how this is getting easier, thanks to new tools from the Greenhouse Gas Protocol and the Science Based Targets  initiatives, which can help to identify, measure and manage emissions throughout material life cycles. When the Kraft food company mapped out the sources of its own emissions, it discovered that over 90% were not directly generated by the business, but by indirect sources, such as suppliers and distributors.

Making plastic circular

In recent years, there has been much greater awareness about the environmental damage caused by plastic. One of the world’s biggest plastics manufacturers is Dow, and the company’s commercial vice president for packaging and specialist plastics took part in the webinar to outline how it’s addressing the issue.

Marco ten Bruggencate explained that, while Dow is taking sustainability seriously, the company needs to go much faster. Doing this means making sure the whole production process is addressed, from the way factories are powered to the use of renewable feedstocks to make bio based plastics. And now, Dow is looking at how to make plastics part of the circular economy by making sure that valuable waste is looped back into new packaging structures.

Raising awareness

Education has a vital role to play in the circular economy, and Jim McLelland highlighted an initiative that is providing the construction industry with greater understanding of sustainability issues.  The Supply Chain Sustainability School is funded by major construction contractors, and provides free access to training for suppliers and subcontractors in a range of disciplines, including common standards for sustainability. Jim noted that construction is responsible for 38% of global emissions, and a typical supply chain involves large numbers of materials and many microbusinesses in different countries and regions. The collective approach offered by The Supply Chain Sustainability School is an important contribution to a sustainable built environment.

Reversing the trend

Jim is one of the authors of the Circularity Gap Report, an annual progress report on the journey to a global circular economy. The first report, published in 2018, established that the world was only 9.1% circular. But the most recent report put the figure at 8.6% circularity.

It appears that the world is going in the wrong direction, but there are now signs that businesses are moving forward with their own ideas.

The packaging sector, for example, is exploring digital technologies that could drive a truly circular economy – such as blockchain to help with tracking material flows, and digital watermarking to enable better sorting of packaging waste.

And achieving circularity doesn’t mean a company has to completely rethink its business model. Global sportswear giant Nike was able to reduce the waste generated by one of its running shoes by 80% simply by talking to their supply chain.

Final thoughts

COP26 has been described as world’s last best chance to get runaway climate change under control. For all of us, the stakes could hardly be higher. Failure to limit global temperature increases to well below 2 degrees Celsius risks greater pressures on water and food supplies, increased hunger and poverty and more frequent flooding, storms and heatwaves that threaten plant, animal, and human life.

Yet if we were able to double the current 8.6% global circularity figure to achieve 17% circularity, that move alone would achieve the targets on global warming set out by the Paris COP meeting in 2015.

Whatever the outcome of the talks in Glasgow, it should now be clear that the circular economy is a vital element in fostering low-carbon growth. And it might even tip the balance in the battle against global warming.


Further reading on waste management from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Image: The Scottish Events Campus in Glasgow: location for COP26. Photo by Stephen O’Donnell on Unsplash

‘Culture towns’: how small towns are leading the way

Image Copyright Billy McCrorie via Creative Commons

There has been no shortage of headlines sounding the death knell for our town centres over recent years as they continue to suffer from the effects of growth in online shopping, government policy and now the pandemic. But while concerns over the future of town centres is nothing new, neither are the changes that town centres are experiencing.

Changes that affect industries, technologies and the way land is used – which in turn impact on the economy – have impacted communities for decades, particularly in smaller towns. From the loss of manufacturing to new industries and ways of working, towns have had to adapt to survive. And some small towns have been leading the way in reinventing their economic bases by using other assets to spur on their local economies.

Culture as a catalyst

One such example is Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town. Following the loss of a distillery and a creamery in the 80s and 90s respectively, Wigtown secured its designation as National Book Town in 1998. This acted as a catalyst for regeneration and inspired the creation of the annual Wigtown Book Festival which now attracts more than 20,000 visitors to the area and brings more than £4 million to the local economy.

Other Scottish towns have also been bestowed with cultural accolades. West Kilbride in Ayrshire, a once thriving mill town, is Scotland’s first accredited Craft Town and winner of a Creative Place Award in 2012. Dumfries recently became home to a new National Centre for Children’s Literature and Storytelling which aims to “establish itself as an international visitor attraction contributing to the regeneration of the town and region and providing Scotland with a world class tourism resource”. And Huntly in Aberdeenshire has attracted artists from all over the world for residents thanks to the Deveron Projects initiative set up in 1995 to connect artists, communities and places.

In England, Farnham recently became the country’s first World Craft Town and only the third region in Europe to receive World Craft City status. Recent research estimates that the value of craft to Farnham and the surrounding area is already in excess of £50 million.

With the aim of building on Wigtown’s success, plans are being drawn up for an open competition to create further National Towns of Culture across Scotland as proposed in the SNP’s manifesto. Suggestions include Scotland’s National Live Music Town, Folk and Trad Town, or Scotland’s Visual Art Town.

Numerous towns could be in the running to become a musical town. It has been suggested that Ullapool could be a frontrunner, after playing host to the Loopallu festival for 15 years, as could Stornoway, the host of the international Hebridean Celtic Festival (HebCelt). And of course, being home to Jimmy Shand and The Proclaimers, Auchtermuchty could equally be in with a shout.

Making the most of local assets

Now may be the ideal time for small towns to make the most of their local assets, whether that is cultural or otherwise.  Research has shown that some smaller towns have actually fared much better than larger cities during the pandemic as the importance of local has been emphasised. They have experienced fewer reductions in overall footfall and there has been an increase in footfall in some small towns as consumers look to stay local and avoid using public transport.

A report from Sustrans has recommended capitalising on the increased use of smaller high streets as a way to economic recovery. It highlights that this presents an opportunity to invest in other elements unique to these areas, arguing that “re-establishing the role of a high street as a hub for social connection and reinforcing and celebrating its roots and unique character could go a long way to encourage people to stay local and spend their money where they live.”

Lessons from the US

Research from the US has also shown how small towns can succeed by reinventing themselves through emphasising their existing assets and distinctive resources. Following the loss of various industries, these communities have moved away from trying to attract major employers as a way of attracting talent. Many have moved towards investment in creative infrastructure rather than physical infrastructure to make their communities more attractive to residents and businesses.  

Following increased suburbanisation and growth in out of town retail, Paducah in Kentucky, for example, changed its approach to economic development by focusing on developing and retaining the historic integrity of the Renaissance Area, which includes the LowerTown Arts District, the historic downtown, and the riverfront. Paducah’s approach aimed to develop a cohesive identity around its core assets: art, the Ohio River, and history. In 2013, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Paducah the world’s seventh City of Crafts and Folk Art.

While all the case study towns in this research drew on different assets, several successful tactics were identified that other communities can use:

  • Identify and build on existing assets
  • Engage all members of the community to plan for the future
  • Take advantage of outside funding
  • Create incentives for redevelopment, and encourage investment in the community
  • Encourage cooperation within the community and across the region
  • Support a clean and healthy environment.

Small towns leading the way?

All these small towns are exemplars of community-led regeneration and illustrate how drawing on unique local assets can be a real catalyst for growth. Perhaps the bigger towns and cities should be looking to their smaller counterparts for lessons on how to succeed in an ever changing world.


If you enjoyed this article, you may also like some of our previous posts:

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Revisiting the blue economy – a vital part of the world’s environment

This is the third in a series of republished blog posts from The Knowledge Exchange, revisiting important topics with ongoing relevance for public policy and practice, as well as for communities and wider society. This post covers the blue economy, focusing on why it is so important, the current challenges and what is being done to protect it. At the end of the republished article, we’ve updated the post to report on recent developments.

As the international community attempts to address the current ‘climate emergency’, increasing attention has been paid to the green economy. According to the United Nations (UN), “an inclusive green economy is one that improves human well-being and builds social equity while reducing environmental risks and scarcities.” Over the past decade, many governments have highlighted the green economy as a strategic priority, and since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C, action has been stepped up across the globe.

However, green economy strategies tend to focus on the sectors of energy, transport, agriculture and forestry, which leaves out a vital part of the world’s environment – the oceans. It has been argued that “a worldwide transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient green economy will not be possible unless the seas and oceans are a key part of these urgently needed transformations”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, a new buzzword in the international sustainability agenda is gaining momentum – the ‘blue economy’. Since the turn of the 21st century, there has been an increasing commitment to growing the blue economy but what exactly is it and why is it important?

What is the blue economy?

Similarly to the green economy, there is no internationally agreed definition of the blue economy. Its origins stem from the Rio+20 outcomes whereby member states of the UN pledged to ‘protect, and restore, the health, productivity and resilience of oceans and marine ecosystems, to maintain their biodiversity, enabling their conservation and sustainable use for present and future generations.’

It is further explained through the UN General Assembly support for Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14: ‘Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’ as set out in the UN’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

Various definitions have been used by different agencies.

According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health.”

Conservation International has suggested that, “at its simplest, ‘blue economy’ refers to the range of economic uses of ocean and coastal resources — such as energy, shipping, fisheries, aquaculture, mining, and tourism. It also includes economic benefits that may not be marketed, such as carbon storage, coastal protection, cultural values and biodiversity.”

Like the green economy, the blue economy model aims for improvement of human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.

Why is the blue economy so important?

Clearly, ocean health is vital to the blue economy. With over 70% of the world’s surface covered by ocean, almost half of the world’s population living in close proximity to the sea, the majority of all large cities being located along the coast and 90% of global economic trade travelling by sea, it is not difficult to see why the ocean and its resources are seen as increasingly important for both sustainable and economic development.

It is also a source of food, jobs and water, and contributes to the protection of the environment by absorbing carbon dioxide emissions. It has been estimated that the global blue economy has an annual turnover of between US$3 and 6 trillion and is expected to double by 2030. It is also estimated that fisheries and aquaculture contribute $US100 billion annually and about 260 million jobs to the global economy. In addition, over 3 billion people around the world, mostly from developing countries, rely on the world’s oceans and seas for their livelihood.

It is therefore not surprising that ocean pollution and the threat to marine resources have ascended the sustainability agenda in recent years, attracting increasing global attention and high-profile interest.

Sir David Attenborough’s popular Blue Planet II series highlighted the devastating impact pollution is having on the world’s oceans. It led to drastic behaviour change – 88% of people who watched the programme reported having changed their behaviour as a result, with half saying they had “drastically changed” their behaviour, and half saying they had “somewhat changed” it.

The recently heightened concerns over climate change have also highlighted the importance of the blue economy. The IPCC report warned that coral reefs would decline by 70-90% with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all (> 99%) would be lost with 2ºC.

Momentum building

Governments and organisations from across the world have been taking action to address the climate emergency with many strengthening commitments to growing the blue economy in particular.

The first ever global conference on the sustainable blue economy was held in 2018. It concluded with hundreds of pledges to advance a sustainable blue economy, including 62 commitments related to: marine protection; plastics and waste management; maritime safety and security; fisheries development; financing; infrastructure; biodiversity and climate change; technical assistance and capacity building; private sector support; and partnerships.

A new High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy was also established in September 2018, the first time serving heads of government have joined forces on a global pact to protect the world’s oceans.

The UN’s Decade for Ocean Science (2021-2030) will also soon be upon us and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has been tasked with ending harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020. New approaches are also helping countries value their small-scale fisheries. Scotland’s economic action plan, for example, makes a specific commitment to grow the blue economy which includes a new, world-leading approach to fisheries management with a focus on inclusive economic growth.

Way forward

The increasing awareness of the blue economy and the threats it currently faces provide an opportunity to change things for the better. As the global conference on the sustainable blue economy suggested, a sustainable blue economy strategy needs to be people-centric with ocean-centric investments. If momentum keeps building towards growing the blue economy across the globe, perhaps this will go some way to mitigating the global climate emergency bringing benefits for all.

What happened next?

Since this blog was first published in 2019, the world has been turned on its head by the global pandemic. But while COVID-19 has stopped many things in their tracks, the climate crisis is not one of them. The IPCC’s latest report has provided new estimates of the chances of exceeding the 1.5°C global warming level, warning that “unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.”

Of course, like so many others, the pandemic has also severely impacted blue economy sectors, which now need further support. The precise impacts of the disruption on the future of the blue economy remain unclear and it has been argued that building strategies that seek to maintain its potential pre-COVID will be challenging. However, the momentum that was building across the globe in committing to growing the blue economy has not halted.

We have now reached the UN’s Decade for Ocean Science (2021-2030) which provides a common framework to ensure that ocean science can fully support countries to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The 14 world leaders of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy have committed to sustainably manage 100% of the ocean area under their national jurisdiction by 2025.

Despite delays and constraints, progress has been made by the WTO on harmful fisheries subsidies, with the 12th Ministerial Conference now to take place from 30 November to 3 December 2021.

And following the Scottish Government’s commitment to growing the blue economy, it has since committed to developing a blue economy action plan which will take a joined-up strategic approach across the diverse range of Scotland’s established and emerging marine sectors to maximise the opportunities offered by its abundantly rich marine zone. It will also “seek to help marine sectors and coastal communities to recover from the COVID-19 crisis and grow sustainably whilst also supporting a transition through EU Exit.

If anything, the pandemic has succeeded in emphasising the enormity of the climate emergency and the action required to address it. And the world’s oceans still have a vital role to play in this fight.

As we approach COP26, often billed as our ‘last chance’, it is hoped that outcomes will include “greatly enhanced commitments and resources to meet the challenges presented by the ocean-climate nexus”.


Further reading: articles on climate change from
The Knowledge Exchange blog

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Covid-secure workplaces revisited: how businesses can help people get back to work

This is the first in a series of republished blog posts from The Knowledge Exchange. These articles will revisit important topics with ongoing relevance for public policy and practice, as well as for communities and wider society. The first revisited post covers the workplace, and focuses on the ways in which employers can ensure their employees can return to Covid-secure places of work. At the end of the republished article, we’ve updated the post to report on recent developments.

As well as being a public health emergency, the coronavirus (COVID-19) has had wide-reaching economic implications. It’s something of an understatement to say that it has had dramatic effects on all our working lives.

And while successive lockdowns have helped in reducing the number of COVID-19 cases, business cannot remain on hold forever. Gradually, carefully, workplaces have been reopening, and growing numbers of workers are preparing to return to their jobs in offices, shops, schools and construction sites.

In 2020, a White Paper produced by The Knowledge Exchange explained how the workplace has to change in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A redefined workplace

Before the pandemic, the workplace landscape was already changing. But now it is being totally redefined. Organisations of all shapes and sizes, in all sectors, are facing hard decisions. And how to reopen their workplaces, in a way that protects the health and wellbeing of their employees, is a key challenge.

The White Paper focuses on what employers have to consider when thinking about how to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. The most important challenges concern:

  • social distancing, including areas where this is more difficult, or not possible;
  • organising the workplace, including the location of desks and the installation of additional features, such as screens and hand-drying facilities;
  • cleaning and sanitising, including what needs cleaning, who will do it and when.

As well as complying with guidance, employers have to make sure their staff are confident in the plans for reopening workplaces. A survey for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in May 2020 showed that almost half (44%) of respondents were concerned about catching COVID-19 at work.

How businesses can prepare for reopening

Every organisation needs to introduce sensible measures to control risks. Therefore, before reopening a workplace, it is vital to conduct a COVID-19 risk assessment, in line with guidance from the Health and Safety Executive.

A risk assessment should:

  • identify what work activity or situations might cause transmission of the virus;
  • think about who could be at risk – paying attention to whether the people doing the work, or those they live with, are especially vulnerable to COVID-19;
  • decide how likely it is that someone could be exposed;
  • act to remove the activity or situation, or if this isn’t possible, control the risk.

During the risk assessment, it’s essential  to consult with workers and afterwards to share the results. Different industries and sectors may require specific measures. On construction sites, for example, access between different areas may need to be restricted, and high traffic areas may have to be regulated to maintain social distancing. The UK government has published guidance covering a range of different types of work in places such as offices, factories, shops and outdoor working environments.

Actions to make the workplace COVID-secure

The UK government and the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland devolved administrations have provided guidance on how to work safely. This gives practical advice on how the guidance can be applied in the workplace.

In planning to reopen their workplaces, every organisation should translate this guidance into the specific actions it needs to take, depending on the nature of their business. At the same time, employers must also ensure that everyone in the workplace continues to be treated equally. Discrimination against anyone because of a protected characteristic, such as age, sex or disability is against the law, and employers also have particular responsibilities concerning disabled workers and new or expectant mothers.

The White Paper contains a checklist of actions which all organisations need to take. These include

  • developing cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures;
  • helping people to work from home;
  • maintaining social distancing;
  • managing transmission risk where social distancing is not possible.

CAFM Explorer: an invaluable support tool for getting back to work

Much of the workload involved in ensuring a safe and effective return to work will be taken on by facilities managers. Keeping workplaces clean, managing shift patterns, ensuring availability of personal protective equipment and creating procedures for inbound and outbound goods are just some of the many considerations to be made.

The White Paper highlights the value of the CAFM Explorer software solution to help organisations manage and consolidate information on the vital elements of a COVID-secure workplace, such as one-way systems, desk spacing, cleaning, staggered hours and hand sanitising stations.

Developed by Idox, a trusted supplier of digital software and services, CAFM Explorer can also trigger work orders as a result of an action – for example, ensuring a desk is cleaned once it has been booked – as well as providing processes to support working at home.

Final thoughts

It is too early to say what lasting effects the coronavirus will have on UK society and business, but it’s likely we will all be living in the shadow of COVID-19 for the foreseeable future. It’s essential, therefore, that organisations make themselves aware of the steps necessary for preparing, implementing and managing the Covid-secure workplace.

To receive your free download of the Getting Back to Business White Paper, please visit the CAFM Explorer page or email marketing@idoxgroup.com.

What happened next

When this blog first appeared, in June 2020, lockdown restrictions in the UK were being lifted, and there were signs that more people who had been working remotely were ready to return to their usual places of work. However, in the autumn the emergence of a more infectious strain of the coronavirus – the Delta variant – forced governments to reimpose restrictions. For most of 2021, many people have continued to work from home, although this benefit has not been available to people working in key sectors such as health, public transport and retail.

The development of vaccines to prevent the worst effects of Covid-19 has resulted in governments again relaxing restrictions. Although, the guidance on returning to work from the administrations in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland may differ, the increasing numbers of people who are double-vaccinated indicates that by the end of 2021 more people will have returned to their usual place of work, at least for some of the working week.

While some employers are urging their staff to return to the workplace, others are stressing that no pressure is being put on their workers to go back to the office right away. In the United States, some employers may be planning to cut the pay of those who continue to work from home, while others are trying to lure their workers back with incentives. At the same time, as the UK government’s furlough scheme comes to an end, many employers must consider whether they can continue to employ their workers, or make them redundant.

It’s now clear that the Covid-19 virus will be part of our lives in the long term. What’s not yet clear is how we can learn to live and work with it. So, the guidance on returning to the workplace that was highlighted in our original blog post and our White Paper still stands. And the CAFM Explorer solution remains an important tool in ensuring that, when the time is right, people can return to their workplaces safe in the knowledge that they are Covid-secure.


Further reading: articles on employment and the workplace from
The Knowledge Exchange blog

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Supporting universities could be key to economic and social recovery

“Support for universities means support for businesses and jobs, for key workers, and for levelling up the UK’s towns and regions.” (Universities UK)

Universities have long been positively associated with economic growth, not only for the regional areas in which they are situated but also for neighbouring regions as a result of spillover effects. The total income of the UK university sector has been estimated at around £40 billion per year – 1.8% of national income.

Many universities are important anchors in their local areas, supporting community activity in various ways and working in collaboration with smaller businesses. And they have played a vital role in the response to the current pandemic through medical research, sharing of resources and community wellbeing efforts. 

With widespread agreement over ‘building back better’ and ‘levelling up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom’, it is no surprise there have been calls to ensure investment in this sector is a central priority. In forecasting the potential impact of UK universities over the next five years, recent research from Universities UK suggests that a well-supported university sector could be key to the economic and social recovery from the pandemic.

Supporting people

The Universities UK report outlines the ways in which universities support people, including by providing a pipeline of key workers and enabling upskilling for new jobs. It is projected that by May 2026, more than 191,000 nurses, 84,000 medical specialists and 188,000 teachers will graduate from UK universities. And it is suggested that these are likely to be underestimates. If these forecasts are accurate, the potential for universities to help address the skills gaps and shortages that the UK faces is clear, particularly as nursing and teaching have featured on the hard-to-fill and skills shortage vacancies lists.

It is also projected that demand for higher level skills will continue rising into the late 2020s. In the shorter term, 79% of employers with more than 25 staff anticipate a need for upskilling in the next 12 months, rising to 84% for firms with over 100 staff. No region sees the need for upskilling fall below 60%. In addition to educating students, universities are responding to this need with training and upskilling programmes tailored to employers and the community. Forecasts for each of the UK nations include:

  • universities in Northern Ireland will deliver the equivalent of 410 years of professional development training and education courses to businesses and charities in the next five years (and 90 years’ worth in the next 12 months)
  • Scottish universities will provide 3,490 years of training by May 2026 (over 600 years’ worth in the next year)
  • Welsh universities will deliver the equivalent of nearly 4,800 years of upskilling in the next five years (over 880 years’ worth in the next 12 months)
  • universities in England will provide the equivalent of over 549 centuries (54,936 years) of training by May 2026, and 10,580 years’ worth in the next year alone

As has been argued, “part of the effect of universities on growth is mediated through an increased supply of human capital and greater innovation”. 

Local economic impact

The local economic impact of universities is widely recognised. Universities have consistently attracted funding for local regeneration projects with significant economic and social impacts and the report forecasts that these will have a value of over £2.5 billion in local places across the UK over the next five years.

It is suggested that many of these projects will also attract additional funding from universities and businesses, resulting in even greater local impact.

Universities also have a direct impact on their local economies as large employers. It is estimated that 1.27% of all people in employment in the UK work for a university. Other recent analysis suggests that universities typically support up to one additional job in the immediate local economy for every person they directly employ.

The impact of universities on local procurement is also emphasised, highlighting the example of the Leeds Anchors Network, which is looking at opportunities to direct spending locally.  The report suggests that if anchor institutions in Leeds shift 10% of their total spending to suppliers in the region this could be worth up to £196 million each year.

Collaboration and contributing to research

The report also considers the role of universities in partnering with business, including providing advice/training and enabling cutting edge research and innovation.

It is forecast that UK universities will be commissioned to provide over £11.6 billion of support and services to small enterprises, businesses and not-for-profits over the next five years, ranging from specialist advice, access to the latest facilities and equipment to develop innovative products, and conducting bespoke research projects. It is also expected that universities will attract national and international public funds to spend on collaborative research with businesses and non-academic organisations, estimated to be worth £21.7 billion over the next five years.

The report highlights that this research leads to impact in priority sectors. In the East Midlands, for example, over a third of competitive funding received by research organisations since 2014 was for clean growth and infrastructure projects with businesses, a higher proportion than any other region. In Yorkshire 85% of funding has been for manufacturing, materials and mobility projects, and 53% of funding in London has been in the area of ageing, health and nutrition.

Universities have also been shown to be effective in commercialising their research via spinouts, an area that has a great deal of potential to contribute to economic growth.

Despite all universities conducting cutting-edge research, there are regional disparities in research and innovation investment. And there has been historic underfunding in some regions which has led to inequalities in economic performance across the UK, putting the levelling up agenda at risk. The report therefore argues that “research and innovation policy needs to be designed alongside, and be closely aligned to, local economic development policy.”

Of course, the higher education sector hasn’t been immune to recent financial cuts and the expected losses for the sector are “highly uncertain” as highlighted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

And the recent announcement of the 50% cut to university arts funding will come as a big blow to the already suffering creative industries sector. The decision, made in a bid to redirect spending to subjects considered a ‘strategic priority’ by the government such as medicine and STEM, is a concern if it is to have a detrimental impact on the arts industry talent pipeline.

Final thoughts

Depending on the losses the university sector experiences, it may be that the five year forecasts presented in the Universities UK report do not come to fruition.

However, as the intention of the government is to ‘level up’ and create a ‘place strategy’, surely universities have to play a central role given their huge economic and social potential. And that means investment, not cuts. As the Universities UK report highlights:

“World-class innovation and research assets need support. Training highly skilled people requires investment. Ensuring the benefits of both of these are felt equally around the UK will depend on robust policy and funding decisions.”


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Supporting our communities when they needed it most: how the VCSE sector has navigated the coronavirus pandemic

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Throughout the course of the pandemic many people have been reliant on the voluntary and community sector to provide support. With local authorities stretched, services in higher demand than ever and individuals making use of support in greater numbers than ever before, the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector has been a lifeline for many.

However, the sector is not immune from the pressures caused by the pandemic. They themselves have been stretched with demand for services increasing, and with income streams having beeen limited many are now facing significant challenges to survival. 

The same storm but different boats 

The VCSE sector is a varied and vibrant sector, often providing bespoke and specialist support to people in greatest need. Diverse, specialised and adaptable, the sector was quick to respond and able to offer support at the outset of the pandemic. But the sector has also been shown to be vulnerable in the face of tightening finances, reduced volunteer availability and increased demand for services. 

Research carried out by NCVO in March 2021 reported that charities and the voluntary sector have had vastly different experiences during the coronavirus pandemic, with the impact of the pandemic being reported across the sector as “uneven and unpredictable”. The research showed that while some organisations have expanded their service offer, others have seen their income shrink drastically, or have found delivering services increasingly difficult due to the restrictions being imposed during the national lockdowns. 

Key findings from the research include: 

  • Nearly half (46%) of those surveyed reported demand on their services increasing, versus just 19% seeing a slowdown. 
  • 35% say their costs have increased in the past year, while for 34% they have decreased. 
  • 46% of organisations have had to use their cash reserves to cope with the impact of covid-19 on their organisations. 
  • 44% of respondents say they could rely on their cash reserves for more than six months, while 9% either have no cash reserves or not enough to last them a month. 

A report by Equally Yours, commissioned by the Funders for Race Equality Alliance in April 2021 highlighted the challenges facing the Black and Minority Ethnic voluntary and community sector. This sector has historically experienced specific challenges (such as a high number of organisations being eligible to apply for only a small number of available funds). The research suggests that the pandemic has exacerbated their financial pressures, but also highlighted other challenges, such as regional inequalities in the availability of funding and support, the precarious position of many smaller charities and voluntary organisations who have not been able to access government support, and the challenges of short-term funding, which makes it difficult to create long term plans.

These sentiments were echoed in a separate report from researchers at Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR) which looked at the value of smaller charities in responding to the crisis.

A new-found appreciation for the sector 

The voluntary sector made up a key part of the UK’s economy before the pandemic, not only as businesses and specialists within their fields, but also as part of the wider fabric of the communities in which they operate. Many within the sector would probably argue that they were not valued enough. Their expertise, flexibility and resilience in the face of challenging funding environments, have characterised the sector long before the pandemic.

During the pandemic, collaboration has been essential. In many areas the VCSE sector have been part of the vanguard of support for the most vulnerable in society, helping to organise local responses to the pandemic and fostering community resilience in the process. 

Research published in People, Place and Policy  in November 2020 observes that, at the local level, the pandemic has led to a strengthening of pre-existing ‘complementary’ relationships between the VCSE sector and local authorities, with voluntary organisations finding themselves further embedded in local systems of decision making, co-ordination and service provision. The research suggests that there is a newly visible and increasingly ‘complementary’ local role for previously ‘supplementary’ voluntary and charity-based organisations, responding to the needs of vulnerable members of the community.

Supporting the sector to move forward

Grantfinder is the UK’s leading provider of funding information for the VCSE sector in the UK. During 2020 we provided information on emergency Covid-related funding on our website and also offered all local authorities in the UK a free portal to signpost funding support to small businesses in their communities.

As the country starts focusing on recovery, we have recently launched a new funding portal that helps charities and community groups to find funding. My Funding Central is a simple to use tool, which provides users with regular news updates and tailored funding alerts. Annual subscriptions start at £50 and are free for small organisations, offering an affordable way of searching for available funding and connecting to potential funders. Over 1500 charities are already signed up and benefiting from being signposted to funding they may not have been aware of.

The impact of the voluntary sector is threaded through the wider fabric of our communities. As we come to terms with the social and economic trauma of the pandemic, these organisations will have a significant role to play. Ensuring that the sector is suitably valued and resourced will enable it to play as full a role as possible and help communities on the road to recovery. 


GrantFinder and the Knowledge Exchange are part of Idox Funding and Information Services.

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Horizon Europe goes live

Lift-off for the new space economy

Nearly Cloudless Scotland, As Seen From the ISS“Nearly Cloudless Scotland, As Seen From the ISS” by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

It may come as a surprise to learn that Scotland is on its way to becoming a space industry superpower. The country is home to over 130 space businesses, with a combined annual income of £140m. Glasgow is building more satellites than any other city outside Houston.

Scotland’s booming space sector was the focus of a webinar that was part of last month’s Digital Leaders Week.  Leading the event was Tom Soderstrom, former Chief Technology and Innovation Officer at NASA/Jet Propulsion Lab, and current Global Lead for Chief Technologists at Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Tom explained that Scotland’s increasing involvement in the space sector is part of a wider growth in the ‘space-for-earth’ economy, which includes telecommunications and internet infrastructure, earth observation capabilities and national security satellites.

The factors driving the new space economy

Falling costs for building and launching spacecrafts have attracted greater investment in the commercial space industry. Space hardware is cheaper because it has become much smaller – these days, a miniature satellite (or ‘cubesat’) is typically about the size of a shoebox.

In recent years, the number and range of applications relying on satellite technology has rocketed. From smartphones and GPS devices to broadband access for developing nations, demand for space-based infrastructure has never been greater.

Data is another important driving force behind the new space economy. Scientists and governments need reliable data in order to understand how our planet is changing, and satellites can be used to take vital measurements of things like ice thickness coverage, deforestation, and ocean surface temperatures.

Cubesats are also used for monitoring shipping lanes, keeping a record of crop yields, and for protecting communities. Tom gave an example of an Australian company which uses satellite data for the early detection of wildfires, enabling emergency services to respond before lives and properties are put at risk.

Scotland’s place in space

Scotland is well placed to make the most of the booming space economy. According to Scottish Development International, operating costs for space companies are 40% lower in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK.

Another of the webinar participants, Professor Marion Scott from the department of mathematics at the University of Glasgow, highlighted the importance of Scotland’s skilled workforce. Nearly 20% of  all UK space roles are filled by Scotland’s 7,500 person strong talent pool. And Scottish universities have been quick to fill the gaps in different sectors by providing new courses, training and collaboration.

Meanwhile, Phil Cooper, AWS’ regional manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, pointed to the burgeoning reputation of companies in the Scottish space sector. AAC Clyde Space, for example, has become a market leader in providing spacecraft design, satellite operations and data delivery to governments, businesses and educational organisations.

But Scotland’s space boom is far from over. Phil forecasts that another 30 start-ups could be up and running by this time next year.

Another exciting prospect is the arrival of vertical launch capabilities. Five space hubs are currently under development around Scotland, and last year a site in Sutherland received planning permission from Highland Council to develop the UK’s first space port. By next year, it’s hoped that the vertical launch pad near Melness will send its first satellite into space.

Cosmic congestion: the problem of space junk

While there are lots of positives associated with the space economy, it’s not all good news. There are currently almost 7000 satellites orbiting the Earth, and the US National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that figure could double in 2021. As space becomes more congested, the problem of debris from old spacecraft and satellites has grown.

There’s a growing need for collaboration and internationally-agreed regulations to ensure that today’s satellites don’t become tomorrow’s space junk.

Tom Soderstrom highlighted research by Fujitsu, in collaboration with Astroscale, the University of Glasgow and AWS, to develop a proof of value to make space debris removal missions more commercially viable using its open innovation technology. The UK government has provided funds for this and other projects aiming to track space junk and monitor the risks of potentially dangerous collisions with satellites or even the International Space Station.

The space economy: tackling climate change

Environmental issues will be dominating the headlines later this year, when Glasgow plays host to the critical United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). One of the questions raised at last month’s webinar was how Scotland’s space sector can address the Earth’s climate challenges.

Marion Scott explained that there is now a network of universities and research centres working together to consider some of the climate challenges in advance of the COP26 meeting. At the same time, Marion stressed the importance of earth observation data in helping assess the scale of the problem of climate change.

Phil Cooper agreed that data was vital, and highlighted a competition launched by the Satellite Applications Catapult and the Commonwealth Secretariat in April which aims to stimulate discussion around the development of new concepts relating to ocean sustainability, incorporating satellite data and technologies.

The only way is up: the future of the space economy

In 2019, the World Economic Forum reported that while heavyweights like the United States, China and Russia have the greatest number of satellites in orbit, more and more nations – including the UK, Canada, Germany, Argentina and Luxembourg – have been developing their own space programmes. The Economist recently highlighted the growing number of African countries joining the commercial space race – last month the tiny Indian Ocean island of Mauritius became the latest country to launch its first satellite.

At the conclusion of the webinar, Phil Cooper expressed great optimism about the future of the space-to-earth sector, which can involve not only scientists, but people working in manufacturing, digital, marketing and many other industries. And, as Tom Soderstrom observed, the opportunities being generated by the new space economy are almost unlimited:

“The space bubble will grow faster than even I can imagine!”


Further reading: more articles on innovation from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Britain’s town centres: down, but not out

Image: Mayfield development, Manchester (U+I plc)

Town centres have taken a battering in the past year, with many shops and services forced to close during lockdowns and growing numbers of stores going out of business.

But even before Covid-19, UK high streets were already under pressure. Economic recessions, rising business rates, higher rents, the growth of online shopping and development out-of-town retail parks have left Britain’s town centres struggling to survive.

Last month, Planning magazine brought together a panel of experts to discuss the future of town centres. Among the issues considered were trends affecting town centres, how demand for town centre property is changing post-pandemic and how developers are responding to changes in market demand and planning laws.

The bigger picture: online shopping and working from home

Jennet Siebrits, head of CBRE UK’s research team, gave a helpful overview of two key trends affecting town centres.

In the past decade, e-commerce has seen a dramatic increase in activity. Since 2011, the value of online shopping has mushroomed from £23 billion to £58 billion –a 158% increase. But in 2020, even that figure was eclipsed, with the value of e-commerce rising to £84 billion – a 44% increase in just one year. The evidence from the first national lockdown suggests that this step change is here to stay.

The impact of this, along with the Covid-19 restrictions, has been grim for town centre stores. Over 11,000 shops closed in 2020, and while not all of those closures were due to online shopping, it’s clear that e-commerce has been a real driver of this.

Jennet suggested that, as the restrictions ease, it’s likely that supermarkets, along with in-store health and beauty and DIY stores will continue to attract customers. But other sectors will have to come up with innovative ways to lure consumers off their iPads.

Jennet also highlighted the increased move towards home working. Once people return to their workplaces, it’s likely that many will ask to continue working from home, at least for part of the working week.

The rise in home working may also affect demand for residential property, with more people moving further away from city centres. This could have a knock-on effect for ancillary services like coffee kiosks and sandwich bars, with local town centres capitalising on the losses experienced by city centres.

The legal perspective: changes to planning laws

David Mathias, a specialist planning solicitor at Shoosmiths law firm described some recent planning law changes that have particular relevance to town centres.

Since the demise of Woolworths in 2008, more and more UK department stores have been closing down, leaving big gaps on the high street. In future, it’s likely that many property developers will want to convert from retail to residential.

Until recently, permitted development rights for conversion to residential only applied in a limited set of commercial uses. But the UK government has announced new permitted development rights in England enabling greater flexibility on conversions without the need for planning permission. These will go ahead in August, subject to certain conditions.

In addition, further legislation on expansion of permitted development rights introduced last summer allows the construction of an additional storey on freestanding blocks and buildings on a terrace to create additional housing, and the demolition of buildings built before 1990 and construction of new dwellings in their place.

The government has argued that these changes will help to revive town centres, although others believe easing planning rules for developers will have the opposite effect. 

The developer’s perspective: re-imagining Manchester

Martyn Evans from the U+I Group offered his view of how developers are responding to changes in market demand and planning. He did so using U+I’s development at Mayfield in Manchester.

Located next to Piccadilly railway station, in the centre of the city, this 24 acre-site is being redeveloped from derelict railway land. A consortium of Manchester City Council, Transport for Greater Manchester and London & Continental Railways (LCR), along with U+I, has been working to regenerate the area, with the first buildings due for completion next year.

Right from the start, the consortium focused on the importance of creating a place where people want to live, work, rest and relax. One important feature of the development is a seven-acre park. Although it was planned into the scheme years ago, this green space has become all the more significant in the past year.

Image: Mayfield development, Manchester (U+I plc)

The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of green space as a vital part of city living, both for physical health and mental wellbeing. Such spaces not only attract workers, residents and visitors, they also increase the value of developments. And because decisions about commercial property are increasingly being taken by HR teams rather than finance departments, the wellbeing benefits of workers’ surroundings are being taken more seriously. In short, understanding quality of place gives developers more of a competitive edge. 

The local authority perspective: managing change

To conclude, Michael Kiely from the Planning Officers Society looked at what local planning authorities can do to help sustain town centres.

Michael described some of the planning tools local authorities can use, including strategic planning, masterplanning and local plans. But with recent changes in planning laws, including the use classes order, Michael argued that policies such as Town Centre First may be ineffective.

However, local authorities can still make a difference, through partnerships with other stakeholders, such as land owners and Business Improvement Districts (BIDS), and the use of intervention and compulsory purchase powers.

In closing, Michael suggested the need for a licensing or permitting regime to manage and curate activities so that they do not cause harm and town centres can thrive.

Future perspectives: rethinking town centres

A £150m project to revamp London’s Oxford Street signals that high streets are already re-imagining themselves as leisure-focused and “experiential shopping” centres. And the Mayfield site in Manchester has the potential to transform a part of the city centre that has been underused for decades.

These are just two examples of the planning community working together to help sustain town centres. Britain’s high streets face substantial challenges, but this interesting discussion suggested there are good reasons to optimistic about the future.

A recording of The Future of Our Town Centres discussion is available to watch on-demand at the Planning magazine website.


Further reading: more on town centres from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Taking the long view: futures thinking and why it matters

Photo by Kelly Lacy on Pexels.com

Take yourself back to the beginning of the last decade, Gordon Brown is the Prime Minister, the term Brexit has yet to be coined, and the Nokia 1280 was the world’s best-selling phone. In the ten years that followed it’s no understatement to say that the world is almost an unrecognisably different place. And that’s before we even discuss the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Consider the widespread roll-out of high-speed internet and the adoption of smartphones: the development of both of these technologies has massively expanded the locations in which we can learn, work, shop, and consume and produce media. In 2010, 28% of the UK population actively used a smartphone, by 2019, it had almost trebled to 82%.

Developing the digital economy

The widespread adoption of devices that provide users with the ability to easily access the internet and download applications has created an entirely new sector of the economy. Apple estimates that the iOS App Store in the UK alone has generated more than £3.6 billion in total earnings and supports up to 330,000 jobs. Analysis by Vodafone has estimated that the UK internet economy is now worth £82 billion – that’s 5.7% of the UK’s GDP.

Put simply, in the space of a decade, technological advancements have enabled the development of an almost entirely new sector of the economy and changed the way we all interact with each other.

Unfortunately, not everyone experienced the benefits of the digital age, as can be seen by the numerous closures of big-name high-street retailers. Many of these failed to anticipate the pace and extent to which consumers would embrace e-commerce and online-only retailers, such as Asos and Amazon. The failure to anticipate the speed at which people would begin to use smartphones, gain access to high-speed internet, and shop online is a prime example of the need for futures thinking.

Embracing uncertainty

Futures thinking (sometimes known as strategic foresight) is an approach that can help identify the drivers of change that will shape the world in the future. Crucially, futures thinking is not about predicting the future, rather, it’s about considering how the numerous plausible potential futures may have an impact on today’s decisions or policymaking. A key element of futures thinking is the need to embrace uncertainty, and accept that our future is not predetermined and can be altered at any time, by any number of factors.

Techniques that are commonly used within futures thinking include:

–       Horizon scanning

–       Axes of uncertainty

–       SWOT analysis

–       Backcasting

However, it’s important to acknowledge that there is no set approach to futures thinking; it’s flexible and can be adapted to meet the needs of any organisation. This flexibility is something that the Government Office for Science highlights as a key benefit, as it actively encourages “creative approaches” and supports a high level of customisation.

If we apply this to the previously mentioned example of the widespread adoption of smartphones in the 2010s, you can see how futures thinking may have been a useful approach to help decide how much focus traditional retailers placed on developing their online stores. For example, most of the evidence at the time concurred that the use of smartphones and e-commerce would gradually grow. However, the pace at which they would grow was relatively unpredictable.

Therefore, a futures thinking approach may have considered how different paces of smartphone adoption may impact the number of people shopping online. This may have been useful to determine the level of investment required to develop an online platform that would meet the demands of an ever-increasing number of online shoppers.

Creating a futures culture

Taking a long view and considering how future events may impact the decisions you make today can have several benefits. One of these is the development of more resilient policies which can take advantage of changing circumstances, and mitigate against potential risks. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (New Zealand) contends that this approach allows for the creation of “policy that helps shape the future to promote your desired outcomes and prevent undesirable events”.

Additionally, the Government Office for Science, argues that even just by undertaking futures thinking exercises, an organisation’s focus can be shifted towards a more long-term outlook. In turn, this can generate new ideas and approaches, which can lead to innovative solutions to potential future challenges.

In short, futures thinking can facilitate an entire culture change, and create organisations that are more responsive and proactive in addressing emerging opportunities and challenges.

Limitations

Naturally, futures thinking does have its limitations. It’s not always an appropriate approach and it cannot anticipate every possible eventuality.

For futures thinking to be successful, it’s important to recognise that it provides the best results in situations where there is a great deal of uncertainty. As a result, in scenarios where there is relative certainty surrounding changes that may affect a policy, there is little benefit to adopting a futures thinking approach.

Futures thinking can also be complex, trying to envision and anticipate numerous eventualities can be difficult and requires an element of trial-and-error to explore the tools and approaches that will be useful for each organisation. In particular, it’s important to consider the scope and objectives of any futures thinking exercise, as there is potential to take too wide a view of an issue and over-extrapolate data. This runs the risk of ignoring the context of an issue, which may highlight that certain scenarios won’t conform to typical linear prediction models.

Final thoughts

Amid a global pandemic, where certainty is regularly sought after but rarely found, a futures thinking approach may be useful to help those who make decisions and create policy.

Lockdowns, vaccines, and other public health mitigations do look like they will provide us with a chance to live with the virus , and get back to something that resembles normality. However, the potential for new variants of concern to develop and spread around the world creates a level of uncertainty. Futures thinking provides the framework in which to consider how each of these potential eventualities, may impact the decisions and policies made today.

In short, in a world where certainly is hard to come by, futures thinking may provide us with a way in which to continue to create policy and make decisions that can continue to be advanced no matter what the future brings. However, for this to happen, it’s important to remember that no one can truly predict the future.


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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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