We need a new Marshall plan for the post-covid age

By Lord Wei of Shoreditch on 24 June 2020
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I grew up in Milton Keynes in a tough estate where the slums were relocated from East London in the last century. Whilst I cannot with honesty say the town has developed the kind of urban cultural gritty feel of my beloved Shoreditch, it is certainly a place where the kind of innovation we associate with Tech City is thriving. One ingenious and little known fact about MK, as those of us from there fondly call it, is its network of man-made reservoirs – designed to flood during periods of heavy rain, but which double at other times as places where you can enjoy leisure, a spot of sailing, and even beauty.

Britain needs to follow Milton Keynes’ example as it develops its own much needed Marshall Plan. Alongside building roads, and bridges, and railway lines to level up the country, it needs to also create the kind of infrastructure – like Milton Keynes’ lakes – that ensures that when the next pandemic, or climate change related natural emergency, or indeed cyberattack from a foreign power, occurs – that we can cope and even thrive. A Marshall Plan for the post-covid age needs to be one that enables us to be resilient as a country.

Some might say that we should focus now instead on the pressing issue of getting out of lockdown, doing things like reducing the 2 metre rule as fast as possible, and helping the High Street reopen, as well as offices, schools and so on. I do not disagree. But as we are finding, coming out of lockdown carries with it great political as well as economic risk, not to mention the health risks from of future outbreaks. Indeed who is to say that another virus or an entirely different nature, or some other major event, will not strike the country in the years to come, whether natural or man-made?

Surely the smart way forward is to open up, but rebuild Britain to be resilient whether or not we are in a lockdown – to build it like the internet was built, stronger, as I have argued elsewhere. Like in wartime, we have been hit, and hit hard. We have suffered our Dunkirk and yet Britain still stands. But the rest of the war and the peace to follow, should an effective vaccine be found, needs to acknowledge that we got caught short, and we should not allow that to happen again. We need to turn this crisis into an opportunity to bolster our future defences to asymmetric and unknown, complex threats like viruses.

So what if, instead of seeking just to go back to normal and to rebuild in a socially distanced yet potentially economically marginal way – destroying the business model of much of our retail, hospitality, and cultural sectors in the process, as well as many other outlets that rely on physical amenities – we help those sectors become blended, able to operate fully physical yet also to broadcast and function digitally whether live and pre-recorded in 3D or 2D; and we help them to deliver products to homes and businesses in much greater volumes and even become places where products and services are assembled if not made, and in which life-long learning to the world becomes a major part of the focus – harnessing the wisdom of those with experience stuck at home.

What would it look like if our healthcare system were designed, harnessing the incredible ingenuity of our professionals on the front line, to be more distributed and more mobile, closer to patients in the home rather than always asking them to go to hospitals, which may be a source of infection? Or for our education system to be less reliant on again on buildings, and more on providing the care that’s needed for the youngest and most vulnerable children as well as creating better means for kids to learn virtually and in other ways, with the help of adults not just in one’s own town, but also from around the world and the country.

What would it look like to build logistics and systems for getting goods, both from afar as well as from reshored facilities, so that manufactured goods can get to customers in greater quantities than we’ve ever seen before even when demand is through the roof. To have roads and motorways wired up so autonomous trucks could eventually deliver goods overnight between major urban centres, freeing the roads during the day for increased traffic as a result of social distancing. What if encouragement was given to a major expansion in campervan use, not just for social and vacation purposes, but to enable workers to be more mobile nationally, with dedicated COVID-safe facilities for example near building sites and agricultural land during times when labour was needed most.

What if agricultural development itself was accelerated to be more distributed again, with certain resources that were most travel intensive produced within towns and cities harnessing techniques like hydroponics, as well as enabling villages to sprout up in areas where workers are needed to help with the harvest that could focus on supporting the partial automation of such jobs, as well as creating liveable environments for a more permanent indigenous workforce so that they didn’t have to commute from other countries, but instead could make a new life working remotely from those farms, helping with sowing and picking as and when needed to augment their income and to enable them to have a different lifestyle.

What if we made a huge push to ensure house building and commercial real estate developments were designed for the post-COVID age, such that anti viral measures and greater hygiene is built into the design, plant, and construction of those buildings? Should many of our workspaces become repurposed as socially distanced pods for workers who are less vulnerable to this particular pandemic but who need to have affordable housing that they could eventually own in the city? And what if we created facilities using modular structures that could double as emergency on-site move-on accommodation near hospitals or close to care homes and community, as well as affordable rentable space for key workers – either on NHS land or other public land such as schools, so that workers in pandemics could be on site shielding vulnerable patients and pupils alike.

What if we accelerated development of 6G technologies using a different set of techniques to the current ones, such as home grown LiFI, or microwave beaming between church spires and towers with a focus on places that do not even have 3G in rural and less well served areas – ones which could benefit most from a move to faster speeds. What if we harnessed this technology to supercharge our supply chains so we could know where goods were at any one time, find novel ways to insure and finance them or their late delivery, and to switch lightening fast between suppliers at times when food, medicine, and other key goods such as toilet roll, were suddenly in high demand – activating if needed part-time mini-factories in homes and high streets when it made sense to do so.

The list is endless and some of it could be possible, and others might not be. Each initiative would need industry, innovators, and other stakeholders to come together to form a part of a national living open source plan, not one cooked up centrally, but coordinated and encouraged ideally by our leaders, and stimulated through grants, finance, tax-breaks, and bespoke furlough schemes that rewards employers pushing into the future rather than just seeking to survive a few more months. It would cost a lot of money (albeit at sovereign rates of low or zero interest), but also create a lot of jobs everywhere, help the country level up, and potentially spark many export industries as we share our expertise globally. Each one will have to figure out what to do with the infrastructure that is built and what happens to it during peacetime as it were, but as we have seen so far, some of the things we have been doing in lockdown actually save money, increase productivity, and help the environment. So why not make a virtue out of necessity?

As a humble boy from Milton Keynes, I cannot pretend it is easy right now for those in government. The dilemmas of how to help the millions of parents stuck at home without childcare, or how to give practical advice on how to socially distance indoors and outdoors with or without masks, or how to avoid millions of near-term redundancies as firms exit furlough. But we need a longer-term narrative and we need vision, and the old pre-COVID ones are for a different world. We need a new Marshall Plan, one that ensures we never have to suffer quite as much as we have done this time – and who knows maybe in the midst of all this death, chaos, and pain, something beautiful might eventually arise. Like MK’s lakes.