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How disruption equips us to rethink and reinvent

COVID-19 and Brexit brought greater care, creativity and innovation to the fore.

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Around the world, every country is dealing with significant disruptions. Some are global, such as COVID-19. Others are more local, such as Brexit here in the UK.  

In very different ways, the disruptions and challenges of both COVID-19 and Brexit have made us pause and rethink a broad range of topics. Such challenges force us all to take decisive action and reassert ourselves—personally, professionally and as a nation.

In the UK, the approval of a post-Brexit EU trade deal has given us a greater degree of certainty as to what Brexit will really mean. By the same token, around the world, with vaccination programmes now underway in many countries, a means and a nascent timeframe to slow and ultimately end the pandemic is forming. Such progress will help us all plan a way ahead with greater confidence and some much-needed optimism. 

We must, however, resist the temptation to think of this purely as a chance to “get back to how things were” as quickly as possible. The disruptions we have faced have brought us to a significant crossroads—and a defining moment in history. We must decide now where we go next. 

Momentum is growing around the commonly stated ambition to “build back better.” Rarely has a generation of leaders, across communities, businesses and government, had such an opportunity to rethink the future.

Aspiring to better

As we plan that future, we must factor in a more concerted focus on other pressing issues, such as climate change, skills shortages and social inequality. Although extreme events have a tendency to amplify unfairness within society, they can also highlight what needs to evolve and instil a greater desire and capacity to make that change happen. 

One of the abiding lessons I take away from 2020 is that we have discovered greater depths of resolve, greater care for one another and far greater, more creative problem-solving capabilities than perhaps we ever realised. We must let those lessons of agility and creativity become part of the muscle memory that shapes how we work from now on. 

None of us has a “playbook” for dealing with the kinds of disruption we’re facing, but among our responses, there will be common elements, such as increased investment in digital skills and capabilities; reducing regional disparity to unlock opportunity and untapped potential; and instigating more sustainable ways of living and working.

As we rethink our attitudes on everything from travel and lifestyle, to the role of our city centres, to our global footprint, we have an opportunity not only to think about where we want to go but also to rethink what we had before; what we want to recapture; what we want to move on from; and what changes made in haste we should now embed.

Levers for growth

Before the pandemic struck, we were already looking at all the levers the UK could pull on to grow the economy post-Brexit. Those are now more important than ever, and every nation should be doing something similar—assessing what they can dial up to deliver improved economic performance and greater social cohesion. 

In the UK, we identified a potential £83bn increase to GDP that could be delivered by “levelling up” and closing the regional productivity gaps which exist within the UK.

“Levelling up” might be a strapline in the UK for spreading prosperity more evenly beyond London, but, importantly, it is also relevant to so many other parts of the world where jobs and opportunities are narrowly focused geographically. The UK economy is services-based, so ensuring service-based jobs are accessible in all regions is key.

At PwC, we have been focused on rebalancing the numbers of our people outside London, and not just in the expected alternatives, such as Manchester and Birmingham. Two years ago, we opened an office in Bradford—a city with higher unemployment than the national average and traditionally less social mobility. We’d already been doing a lot of outreach to schools in and around Bradford, in recognition of the need to tap into a wider talent pool and the benefits to be gained from doing so. Since opening the Bradford PwC office in May 2019, we have already doubled the number of jobs we’ve created there.

It is also vital the UK continues to be an attractive destination for foreign investment and an effective trading partner with major economies around the world. In order to do so, we cannot rely merely on existing skills, historical relationships or legacy perceptions. We need to improve connectivity and digital infrastructure, coupled with increasing nationwide capabilities in digital. We need to harness the innovation and problem-solving that came to the fore so emphatically as the country responded to COVID-19. 

Those priorities will help us adapt and reinvent the services, sectors and relationships we rely upon to drive growth.

The response to the pandemic revealed how quickly we could overcome both inertia and assumed barriers to digital transformation, and demonstrated the critical need to invest in new technologies to secure our future. PwC research has quantified the significant economic value which can be delivered by 2030 by emerging technologies, including blockchain (US$72bn to UK GDP; US$1.76tn globally), augmented and virtual reality (US$69.3bn to UK GDP; US$1.5tn globally), and drones (£42bn to UK GDP).

Emerging technologies could add significant value to global economies by 2030.

Projected contribution to global GDP, US$bn

Blockchain

2020 total: 0
2025 total: 422
2030 total: 1,756.5

AR/VR 1

2020 total: 95.7
2025 total: 476.4
2030 total: 1,542.9

As well as looking forward, nations must also look to historical strengths and understand how to bring them into a post-pandemic era, including innovating to ensure their continued relevance.

In the UK, we are rightly proud of our world-renowned schools and universities. We need to play to such strengths and work together to evolve them. At PwC, we have worked with a number of universities to develop apprenticeships, providing students with income and work experience while they study, which opens up opportunities to a broader cohort while ensuring businesses get the skills they seek. Our current apprenticeships focus on technology, but I can see these developing in areas such as sustainability and climate change where the UK also has a strong track record. 

Act with confidence

The past year has been challenging, and there will still be tough times ahead. But we must act with confidence and make bold decisions, including adopting disruptive technologies and rethinking business models.

In more stable times, we could perhaps afford to make superficial refinements to what we already had. Not anymore. Now is the time for assertiveness and bravery. 

I believe we owe it to ourselves, to our communities and to future generations to embrace that task with the care, creativity and innovation we have shown we are capable of.

This is true for the world as a whole. I write this from the UK, but the aspirations, collaboration, digitisation and innovation I’m describing will be relevant to leaders everywhere.

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Kevin Ellis

Kevin Ellis

Senior Partner and Chairman, PwC UK