Interview with Andy Middleton, TYF Group and Now Partners

Andy Middleton, TYF Group and NOW Partners, shares his thoughts on the important lessons we’ve learnt from the pandemic. With a note of cautious optimism, he explores everything from reconnecting with nature to kick-starting innovation.

‘Seeing nature catching its breath’

I live on the coastal edge of Wales where the first lockdown was a special and sacred time and the few others who live here – the landscape that surrounds or home probably hasn’t been that quiet for five or six hundred years.

There was no noise apart from the sounds of nature and no people. The footpaths were growing over, no cars on the roads and no sound of planes overhead. I was more aware than normal of the incredible beauty and stillness around me and what a privilege it was to be present in nature. The quality of nature experience was probably the best it’s going to be in my lifetime.

In the absence of human-generated interference, it was a powerful numinous experience seeing nature catching her breath.

‘Created a time for reflection’

For a lot of people this break created a time for reflection and the low bar that we had been using as a measure wellbeing was laid bare by Covid.

Young people are no longer saying ‘I’d work for you at any price’. The world of work is slowly starting to change, catalysed by a combination of Covid and Brexit.

Zoom has meant that people can now work in a head office at most for two or three days a week, without any sense of lost opportunity or lost contribution.

And for those working in the creative or knowledge sector it’s meant that they can still fully contribute to the economy while living near a surf beach.

I can think of half a dozen people with corporate roles who moved from big cities to rural areas because of Covid-changed work practices. Their realisation that they are no longer tied to an urban desk has been positive for local communities.

‘Zoom has democratized access to knowledge’

Zoom wasn’t invented for Covid. But it could have been.

Like many others, I spent a huge amount of time on Zoom during Covid – but in Lockdown One particularly, it wasn’t working on projects. It was a really valuable time to share, sharpen and build ideas between people who had been strangers prior to lockdown – the time to shape and prototype new ideas without the burden of deadlines was well used.

There are professions where meeting around a table has always been part of the creative process and for some of them, meeting virtually might have been tough. However, in the right hands, these online platforms are so much more powerful than most flat bits of paper.

And there’s a value in being able to work across bigger geographies much faster. Zoom has democratized our access to knowledge.

My guess is that when people start to meet up face to face in bigger numbers – maybe in Spring 2022,  it will be for more values-based discussion rather than the business planning that they can already have done online.

‘Ready to talk about large scale interventions’

In the past there was this kidology that incrementally improving the broken model would be enough. A lot more people now are sure that it’s not.

And it’s become trickier for people like Rishi Sunak to believably say we can’t afford to fix the climate, when he’s already bailed out everyone to fix Covid.

People are now much more aware that we can find a way of doing this – regardless of who picks up the debt later. Because if we don’t fix it, the debt’s going to be costing lives, and quality of life for many generations down the line.

We need to ask the question: ‘If we took the evidence at face value and couldn’t fail, what would we set out to do?’

The leaders I’m talking to now are much more ready to answer that question than they were pre-Covid. They are ready to talk about large scale interventions.

‘A massive gap in skills and understanding’

We need to create an appropriate ambition for responding to the challenges ahead.

I frame it around the world of white-water river running. Rivers are gauged by technical difficulty from one to six. A Class 1 river is a gentle paddle, while on a Class 6 if you get it wrong there’s a good chance of hurt or dying.

As a species we’ve chosen to commit ourselves to a difficult Class 5 river, with some Class 6 rapids. The odd thing is that most people don’t even know that the river exists.

We have a massive gap in skills and understanding for what’s needed to navigate our way down the river. We’re going to hit it under-equipped and under-resourced unless we can effectively scale-up the skills and confidence of 5 million or so people to catalyse change at speed.

‘It’s reshaped and revitalized our purpose’

In the long term, Covid will be seen to have brought many positive benefits that at least partially offset the awful cost to human life and wellbeing.

The pandemic has accelerated a change in consciousness. We have been forced to reflect on our mortality.

It’s created space for bigger ideas, different conversations, learning and reflection. That’s just not possible when people are working flat out.

As a result, it’s reshaped and revitalized our purpose. Allowed us to start this next ‘season’ with a much better designed set of tools – sharper and more potent.

‘Capture the innovations that happened during Covid’

Covid allowed people from different disciplines to work together in a way that broke rules continuously, without being dangerous.

There’s a real sense that we’re in this together. It’s been incredibly powerful and bodes well for how we might work together going forwards.

We’re developing an idea to take 100,000 people through a one-day wellbeing programme. The first half, will be a refresher on good practice about people’s own wellbeing – sleeping, eating, exercise. Experiential stuff about how we look after our own bodies. The second half will be about what can they do together to improve the wellbeing of our communities.

We’re waiting to see if the minister wants to take it up. That discussion wouldn’t have happened pre-Covid.

And one of the health boards has set up a program specifically to try and capture the innovations that happened during Covid. To see how they can now harness this learning to drive innovation further going forwards.

‘There are still things unfolding off the back of Covid’

Overall, Covid has acted as a nudge and accelerator, rather than triggering a profound shift. It has catalysed change, but not as much as I would have liked.

Although there are still things unfolding off the back of Covid which we won’t be able to attribute for a couple of years.

One of the biggest challenges we face is the inadequacy of our governance systems. We have completely failed future generations, as our frameworks of governance were never set up to create conditions in which our grandchildren can thrive.

We need to radically shift the way we talk about how we can be better ancestors. In terms of the decisions we make today, and the impact they’ll have on future generations.

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