Latest News | 2 November 2020

Innovation in a time of Covid

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Pablo Picasso once said that ‘every act of creation is first an act of destruction’.

As one of the 20th century’s most innovative artists, Picasso was most likely referring to the uneasy conditions that led him to breaking so many paradigms in his work, shaping movements such as Cubism and creating paintings that personified the ‘shock of the new’, such as Guernica.

Picasso enjoyed a long life; he lived through two world wars, as well as a brutal civil war – the catalyst for Guernica – in his Spanish homeland.

I am reminded of course, that Picasso also lived through a global pandemic – the misnamed Spanish Flu – which by 1920 had killed an astonishing 50million people worldwide.

And yet, the decade that followed that terrible event – which became known as the 'roaring twenties’ – was one of the most creative and innovative in history.

It’s hard not to miss the irony that, exactly 100 years later, we are now living through something that previously we believed only existed in history, or in disaster movies – a global health pandemic.

As I write, the Covid 19 coronavirus is causing havoc and destruction across the world. Over 1million people have died globally and, proportionally, the UK is one of the hardest hit.

We now face a health emergency morphing into an economic one and although it can sometimes feel hard to believe, the booming 1920s can help us see that normal life will return in a post-pandemic world.

Considering Picasso’s quotation today, the ‘destruction’ aspect is undoubtedly being provided by Covid, the question is will that destruction lead to creativity and innovation?

For the past decade, the pitch made by Marketing Derby to investors has been firmly anchored on the promise of innovation.

We base this on how, for 300 years, Derby has been a hub of incredibly innovative economic activity; from being home to the world’s first factory in the 18th century, to becoming a global centre for technology in the aerospace, rail and nuclear sectors today.

Our campaign attaches the moniker of being the ‘UK Capital for Innovation’, this magazine is named Innovate and, as a company, we were awarded the Queen’s Award for Innovation earlier this year.

It’s undisputable that Covid has disrupted almost every part of our lives, with many businesses and communities now facing the existential challenge of mere survival, and the emerging question becomes how we might use that disruption to shape our future?

One thing I’ve come to believe is that the businesses that innovate during the pandemic will be the ones that thrive after the pandemic.

I worry for those who have chosen, or been forced into, a type of hibernation and the unavoidable fact is that many businesses will shrink and some will disappear.

Whilst there is no doubt that Covid has revealed some unfortunate characteristics – lazy companies using it as the perfect excuse for poor service, multi-millionaires abusing the furlough system or the jobs-worths who take pleasure in imposing meaningless rules – overall, my experience is that Covid has led to many examples of what is best about the human spirit and community in tough times.

I saw some great examples of this last month when Marketing Derby held our first Bondholder Innovation Week. Sixteen companies made a 5-minute pitch, outlining innovations they had introduced during the pandemic, aimed at helping their company respond positively to the challenge.


Their stories were varied but all reflected a creativity, energy and chutzpah that I found uplifting.

The winners, Project D – a new start winner of one of 2019’s Hatch project at intu Derby – told how they abandoned the furlough after only one week and diversified into egg and flour distribution, supporting charities and the NHS and then established pop-ups across the city and beyond.

Amazingly, as they grew services across the Midlands region, they increased the number of employees, bought a company in Leeds and now plan to open a manufacturing plant in Derby, employing 100 people.

This is true innovation during the time of Covid.

It’s not just companies that face uncertainty but also communities and places. The decline of town and city centres and the emergence of the so-called ‘broken British High Street’ is nothing new but undoubtably Covid has accelerated that process in a brutal fashion.

Suddenly, everywhere – whether the city of London, Derby or Heanor – has lost custom and is having to rethink their future purpose.

According to the respected Centre for Cities think tank, Derby is the 3rd most exposed city to Covid (due to our aerospace and manufacturing based economy – a strength that suddenly becomes a weakness) and yet the city tops the regional table for recovery with footfall back to 93% of pre-Covid levels. Worryingly however, city centre shop front vacancies are rising fast and could be as high as 30% or more by 2021.

We need to remain positive but be honest about the challenge and Marketing Derby is committed to supporting the city and playing a full role, together with partners in the Recovery Task Force being led by Derby City Council .

It was on their behalf that we recently carried out a large market research exercise with Bondholders to ascertain insight into what might attract people back into the city.

There is plenty of talk about city centre repurposing but repurposing to what?

The quantitiave survey covered many issues but the key question was simply to ask ‘what would bring you back into the city centre’?

The answer from the 400 respondents was clear. A greater cultural and leisure offer came top, with 76% and 70% respectively followed by a desire to see more independent businesses, a greener city and cheaper parking. Out of 30 options these were the top 5.

The message from the customer could not be clearer – ‘please give us something interesting to do, in an attractive, pleasant, customer-friendly environment and we will come into the city centre more often’.

The qualitative focus groups mentioned attractions, such as the Museum of the Moon, Knife Angel, Feste and QUAD as being such drivers. They also reinforced the need to tackle anti-social behaviour which if not sorted will act as a glass ceiling to progress.

The recent Market Place Al Fresco initiative is a clue as to how innovation can help shape that future. This was a genuine public-private initiative where Derby City Council engaged 40 local companies in its design and delivery with critical creative input from local company Katapult who design experiences in attractions across the world.

The resulting offer was decidedly different from previous schemes, it hit all the right buttons and the public reacted incredibly positively by voting with their feet.

There is no going back to a pre-Covid world and innovations – small, medium and large – will be the key that can unlock a vibrant future if only we can channel our inner Picasso…

Blog written by John Forkin, Managing Director of Marketing Derby

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