Opportunity from a crisis: How Leicester got creative in building back better

The enterprising spirit which came to the fore from the outset of lockdown is now being harnessed to explore how Leicester can emerge stronger. George Oliver, director of 1284 Ltd, spoke to policy strategist Rory Palmer and small business leader Jenny Cross about what had caught their eye so far in the city’s emerging Build Back Better project.

George Oliver, director of 1284 Ltd

If an idea remains an idea until somebody puts their money against it then De Montfort University is about to make a big investment in Leicester’s take on Build Back Better.


The university is funding a PhD scholarship for a researcher to investigate ideas gathered during an initial sweep of the city earlier this year. The aim of the DMU Community Solutions (Covid-19) Studentship is to develop more formal research into the viability of dozens of visions for the Leicester of the future.


The origins of the role can be traced back to the start of the national lockdown. DMU pulled together more than 70 academic experts to work with 60 community groups, representatives of 40 businesses and various cultural organisations.


Leicester City Council, healthcare organisations and the emergency services were also involved in a project assessing the impact that the virus has had in five areas – health, the economy, communities, infrastructure and the environment.


The result was a longlist of ideas touching upon everything from marketing (a Made In Leicester branding campaign) and process (a central hub to increase efficiency in food bank distribution networks) through to public finance (a Leicester bond for investors).


In the Age of Accelerations, of course, the digital divide features prominently. Scaling of existing services, such as free WiFi in libraries and local centres, is one suggested solution.


Others offer innovative social solutions, such as a one-stop shop repurposing unwanted IT equipment to offer free training to those at risk of being left behind by the effects of Moore’s Law. Meanwhile, a bank of such unwanted equipment could be hired out or sold at cost to those unable to afford new kit.


In terms of policy, Rory Palmer, previously the city’s deputy mayor before serving as an East Midlands MEP until earlier this year, sees the potential of DMU’s paper for strategic implementation as part of a wider framework.


“A focus on mental health, wellbeing and resilience will be absolutely crucial in the coming months,” he explains.


“On ‘build back better’ itself, I think it’s important to establish early clarity about what this means in practice and it doesn’t just become a phrase linked with any new policy idea. There needs to be a clear, overarching narrative and clarity of what this means specifically in Leicester agreed across key partners and communities.


“There’s interesting debates on build back better nationally and internationally and there’s a good opportunity for Leicester to connect with these debates in other places too.”


Seemingly fundamental to many of the ideas is the need for a generation of social entrepreneurs to deliver action. The longlist considers this: what about creating pop-up incubators in disused retail or industrial space in which young or excluded would-be entrepreneurs could develop ideas? Or offering such units to start-ups on a peppercorn rent until they get established? Training and online courses feature heavily in ideas for the post-Covid landscape.


It was that start-up spirit caught the eye of Jenny Cross, the area lead for the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).


“I like the idea of encouraging larger, established manufacturers aligning with small to medium-sized businesses with a view to expanding their customer base and increasing employment,” she said. As is to be expected from the cheerleader for the region’s SMEs, however, this was not about one-way traffic.


“The reason that caught my eye is that, as much as these big boys can help with smaller businesses, the smaller businesses have so much that they can be teaching them,” she added. “Smaller businesses can teach the larger ones a hell of a lot.


“For example, SMEs have shown creativity in crisis, resilience and resourcefulness. I like the idea because it works both ways and goes to show how working in collaboration can make a difference.”


Some view the impact of being the first city into local lockdown as a bad thing. Jenny, who is also CEO at marketing outfit Cross Productions (and therefore the publisher of this magazine), sees an alternative narrative.


“Leicester was the start of many places going into local lockdown and was another example of the city coming back from adversity,” she said.


“The crisis demonstrated the strong culture we have as a city with businesses, universities and more coming together to look at different ways of working.


”A lot of businesses have had to change and we have shown other parts of the country how it can be done. Together we are able to come through.


“For Leicester as a brand, it could have been so tough. But it has supported that perception of Leicester as pulling something out of the bag.”


Rory echoes the view that Leicester was merely the first of many into lockdown.


“The pandemic is presenting unprecedented challenges to cities and communities across the world,” he notes.


“Those cities that build on their economic and social resilience will fare better in the longer term.


“It’s important to remember that the fundamentals of what makes Leicester a great city haven’t changed: our diversity, a much improved and improving public realm and infrastructure, an exciting base of creative and innovative entrepreneurship and strong local leadership.


“They need to remain as important foundations of Leicester’s ‘brand’ going forward.”

George Oliver, Rory Palmer and Jenny Cross will be discussing Build Back Better in Leicester during a public event during Leicester Business Festival.


They will be joined on November 10 by guests including Professor Ivan Browne, the city’s Director of Public Health. Free tickets for the event, hosted by 1284 Ltd, are available via the festival’s website.

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