Levelling down & the K shaped recovery

As we make faltering steps out of peak pandemic a theme which has been an underlying constant has come sharply to the foreground – reflected in differing public actions and attitudes. The asymmetric impact of Covid draws very fine lines between indifferent, inconvenient and catastrophic. On a personal level this tends to revolve around vulnerability of people in close orbit, age or age of children, structure of employment, and even access to outside space; on a commercial level, seen starkly in the ability to produce and distribute digitally versus the requirement for proximity or audience.

In recent weeks this has been embodied in the emergence of discussion around a K shaped economic recovery – as distinct from V (fast return), U (slow return) or L (no return)…

The K shaped graph indicates that some sectors, particularly white collar professional services, have rebounded strongly as the economy restarts. But others, especially blue collar manufacturing and retail/hospitality services, are struggling and increasingly threatened. Simplified it appears that employments which are digital in nature or can adapt easily to remote working can reinvent themselves, activity which is physical and/or requires human contact at scale does not have that flexibility.

These impacts are being visibly played out in our larger cities.

A couple of months back an Economist article on the “levelling down” of London took a different take on the desire to balance the economy away from the capital, suggesting that the pandemic would level London down rather than out-of-London up.

An enforced shift to working from home and limited travel has by definition created a huge emphasis on the local. In a larger city where the centre has become much less mixed use and dominated by retail and workplace – as London – the tangible visible impact models the K, where any positive economic returns have been shifted from a now denuded urban landscape.

As mentioned in a previous blog there is a sense that Covid has accelerated underlying trends. The vision of reinventing Paris as “the 15 minute city”, launched at the beginning of 2020 with an emphasis on hyper-locality, was driven by climate change not the pandemic – but the strategy towards live / work / shop / leisure all within a 15 minute radius has gained huge resonance during lockdown. If the “new normal” marks a shift from mass commuting then the centre of the city must be reinvented again to become a more culturally driven social space.

But, a reversion to smaller geographies must not act as a counter to global cultural connectivity.

This week saw the publication by Watershed of a report on their Creative Producers International programme. This project grew out of the success of Playable City and thought about the role of culture in citizen engagement and the design of the future city. Working with 15 producers across the globe Creative Producers International has created an active, and activist, network of creatives building projects which foresight positive city change – dynamically sharing insight, experience and learning across very different localities, with remarkably similar human problems.

As we emerge from an extraordinary global experience of fundamental economic and societal shutdowns the long term effects will not be universal but asymmetric. And whilst there are strategic gains from an increased focus on locality and community, the cultural positives of global connectivity, the network of human networks effect, must be protected and stimulated by proactive collaborations like Creative Producers International in order to share (remotely) solutions to differentiated international challenges.

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