Historians consider that the Black Death made the Renaissance possible, because it caused such unprecedented upheaval across Europe. In Florence, greater social mobility and newly powerful families demonstrated their influence by supporting the arts, science and culture. Today, as an antidote to the news, we should take a few moments to ask ourselves whether Covid-19 could be the catalyst for a 21st Century Renaissance.
“Out of adversity comes opportunity.” said Benjamin Franklin, and let’s hope he was right, as we grapple with the many challenges of life after lockdown and a long haul back to prosperity. Without doubt some of us thrive in adversity, and human behaviour adapted surprisingly quickly to life in lockdown. According to a recent YouGov poll, 85% of Brits are looking for some life-enhancing personal or social change after lockdown and, even if only half of us achieve that, Coronavirus will have been a catalyst for some positive change.
Creatures of habit
Without doubt, we are creatures of habit, but Covid-19 broke many of them overnight - as I discussed in earlier blogs on Travel and Banking. Working from home, developing digital relationships via Zoom and Teams, shopping less but more online, growing beards, appreciating mealtimes, gardens and birdsong. Whether we will ever go back to all being in the office every day is in doubt, as some of the changes imposed on us are actually for the better; unless you live alone or are a commercial landlord.
Remote working may be a positive for well-established teams but it does pose some interesting challenges for hiring new staff and internships. LinkedIn saw a 160% rise in people looking for remote working jobs between March and May, but how do you onboard and build a team with remote joiners and create a sense of belonging? A strong brand story with a clear corporate purpose and strong values will be essential, as will creating informal opportunities for colleagues to build relationships from a distance.
Fashion’s long overdue digital transformation
And if we’re not going back to the office anytime soon we won’t be buying suits or ties or business shirts or many non-essentials. In fashion, recently discredited BooHoo did well because its fast fashion supply chain allowed it to swap show-off clothes for tracksuits and loungeware in double-quick time, even though it did so using dubious suppliers. In lockdown we valued comfort and utilitarian features because they were genuinely useful. Spending on statement pieces doesn’t make sense if no-one can see them, so don’t be surprised when luxury groups start reporting big falls in profits and scaled back retail coverage in their second quarter results.
When fashion brands realise that retail footfall will not recover, perhaps their aversion to digital might eventually be overcome.
Travel industry woes
In other sectors it’s been even worse and entire industries have tanked. Our many travel clients have experienced plunging revenues, or worse, no revenues at all. Here, it’s hard to find a digital business model that generates revenue out of virtual travel, so job losses and a very uncertain future made worse by inconsistent politicians is the new reality. While there has been a recovery in domestic leisure travel, business and long-haul leisure may never be the same again.
The paradox for the travel industry is that the planet is healthier as a result of this adversity. That’s a dilemma worthy of a renaissance solution.
Banks, Medicis and Musk
Backed by government guarantees, banks have been lending to help businesses throughout the crisis, but companies and individuals will come out of this saddled with debt, dreading a day of reckoning. Banking executives, on the other hand, are worried about how borrowers – some of whom they weren’t allowed to say “no" to – will manage to repay their debts, and what financial regulators will say about their lending to businesses who are far too leveraged.
A “re-birth” isn’t going to be easy for companies saddled with debt. How can you invest to grow when you have to de-leverage? Expect plenty of restructuring and Creditor Voluntary Agreements to create Covid-phoenixes.
In the last Renaissance the Medicis built the largest the bank in Europe on the back of the Black Death, facilitating their rise to power and influence. In contrast to their quest for political control, they also contributed to the arts, science and culture with the invention of the piano, opera and patronage of artists and scientists, including Michelangelo and Galileo. Will a 21st Century bank rise up to fulfil a similar role? I doubt it. The House of Musk is a more likely post-lockdown Medici.
Post-Covid start-ups will have an advantage
If there is to be a 21st Century Renaissance, it’s most likely to be led by entrepreneurial start-ups and those companies who can get their business back on track quickly and their businesses transformed end-to-end. During lockdown in our home, three of my sons – two at university and one furloughed – founded their own start-ups, working collaboratively with partners in Paris, Istanbul, New York and LA designing apps and websites with a virtual team of collaborators. Exchanging ideas and human interaction didn’t seem to be compromised and the opportunity to divide a day into studying, personal projects, exercise and family time around the supper table worked amazingly well.
Brand naming – the early indicator
Another good early indicator of rebirth is the demand for brand naming. Our household named three new ventures during lockdown, but enquiries via the Nucleus website confirmed that many more new ventures are being planned. New business enquiries have been dominated by brand naming requests, mainly for start-ups – from vegan food and insect-based pet food to digital fashion and online plant delivery services – but also for rebranding tired brands, or brands looking to expand internationally but finding trade mark protection issues.
Post-lockdown, start-ups will be mostly digital, with founders growing up with screens in their hands and social media on their minds. Many will be ‘green’ to reflect Gen Z’s priorities and plenty will be medical/pharma/biotech and edtech. Some of them will surprise us with their truly disruptive approaches.
Post-lockdown creative re-birth
At the core of any new renaissance will be creativity. Not just arty creativity, but creativity of thought, thinking outside the box to disrupt and improve the way things have been done in the past. Today we have art, science, data and design coming together in AI, augmented reality and intelligent automation, all breaking down the barriers between technology and human experience. Lockdown has made more people reliant on technology and, as a result, has primed the public to accept radical change.
Technology has also empowered more people to be creative, to look at the world through a creative lens, especially Instagram and the creative toolsets that were once the remit of professional designers and photographers. AI is going to take this further and deeper, amplifying individual creativity to power new ideas. Adobe has already said that professionals using their Sensai tools are training its AI on designers’ creative frameworks, with the aim of freeing professionals from mundane tasks, and helping untrained users to design like a pro. Design is being democratised.
Covid-19 has certainly provided an unprecedented upheaval to society, economies and businesses around the world, but whether adversity does bring significant opportunity or, better still, a 21st Century Renaissance, will depend on creatives, scientists and entrepreneurs inspiring some current day Medicis to support a green-led digital recovery…
Nucleus Founder & CEO
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