As I write this blog post we have just passed the one-year mark since the country entered its first national lockdown and the world as we knew it was turned upside down by Covid-19. It’s a milestone that will prompt many of us to reflect on how life in the UK – and in our own city – has changed so dramatically over these last twelve months.
For many businesses it has been the hardest year in living memory; a year of adapting simply to survive. Of course, for some it has been a year of opportunity and even growth, but I think we can agree that for all of us it has been a year of doing things differently – a year of innovating.
Ringing the changes
If you’re running a company, you’ll no doubt be acutely aware of just how many aspects of the way we do business Covid-19 has touched: internal processes; management of the workforce; the physical environment we work in; the sheer practicalities of manufacturing products or delivering services. I know many business leaders who have literally innovated morning, noon and night to find solutions to these challenges – whether they’d consider it ‘innovation’ is less clear, but they’ve certainly had to make a few changes!
Innovation is one of those words that people who work at universities like to use a lot, but I’ll confess that before I joined the University of Nottingham it was, for me, a rather abstract concept. It conjured up images of whizzy things being done in laboratories by people in white coats.
Having worked at the University of Nottingham for seven years, I now believe that innovation is for everyone. Yes, there’s plenty of research being undertaken by people in laboratories and yes, some of them do wear white coats, but developing new knowledge, new ideas and new methods of doing things is something that takes place across every imaginable discipline. One of the best bits of my job is getting to see the impact of that knowledge on the companies we work with, including:
- philosophers helping companies to make better decisions;
- linguists enabling businesses to write contracts that are easier to understand;
- social scientists equipping managers and executives in leadership;
- health specialists supporting companies with their workforce’s health and wellbeing;
- psychologists applying behavioural science to creative marketing and communications;
- engineers assisting companies to reduce their carbon footprint;
- data scientists helping companies to utilise artificial intelligence;
…and many, many other collaborations too numerous to mention. There are so many ways in which we’re working with companies to help them look at things and do things slightly differently than they were before.
Collaboration is not a new concept, but for many businesses the pandemic has fostered an urgency to learn from the experiences of others – and to work together to achieve things that are greater than the sum of their parts. The incredible PPE4NHS campaign spearheaded by some of our regional manufacturing companies, is testament to this. Nottingham Partners is itself, of course, a great forum for convening with other business leaders from across the city; its regular events provide a place to discuss some of the key challenges we all face and gain insights into how our city – and the businesses within it – are responding to the ongoing pandemic. We’ve never needed that more than we have this year – and we’ll continue to in order to recover from this crisis.
Naturally, I’m bound to highlight some of the current opportunities for collaboration with the city’s two amazing universities, which are supporting businesses in so many ways to innovate towards recovery. The new LEADDNG project, a partnership between the University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University, will help SMEs to utilise immersive technologies to create new experiences for their customers – digital tools that offer more potential than ever in a post-pandemic economy. And the Energy for Business project, a University of Nottingham project to help SMEs become more energy efficient, is supporting a green recovery towards the city’s ‘net zero by 2028’ carbon reduction target.
But as I’ve already touched on, innovation isn’t just about new technologies – the way we manage companies has changed too in the last year. Management experts in both of our city’s fantastic universities are supporting companies to address people and process challenges, from managing change to getting workplace culture right in a post-Covid world. This upcoming ‘Innovation in Management’ event hosted by the University of Nottingham in partnership with Nottingham Trent University is just one such example.
A year ago, zoom was just a function on my camera. Yet here we all are twelve months later, video calling day in, day out, like a time before never existed. We’ve embraced new technologies – and new processes – because we were forced to. As uncomfortable as it has felt at times to have to do things differently, my hope is that one thing it reveals to us is just how capable we all are of innovation. Let’s keep on challenging ourselves to do things differently on the road to recovery.
Gemma Morgan-Jones – 25.3.21