Now is the time to rethink our communities

In our recent survey looking at Place Branding for the 2020s, we asked our respondents whether their storytelling was rooted in place values or focused primarily on place assets – the answers suggested a slightly stronger focus on assets. The COVID-19 pandemic has given place branding and marketing organisations, and place leaders, an opportunity to pause and think about whether we want to continue on the same tracks we've been running along for the last five decades or if there's time for real change in the way that we think about what we are doing, and what our places stand for. Robert Govers, author of IMAGINATIVE COMMUNITIES, shared his thoughts on how we can evolve to create a better, more resilient future.

The novel Coronavirus has clearly shown us how vulnerable globalisation has made us. Travel, tourism and migration have been spreading the pandemic like wildfire. Global value chains have disrupted delivery of much needed supplies to tackle the consequences locally. Businesses are being bailed out by government coffers, filled with tax-payers money, but not theirs as these businesses swirl money around the globe in efforts to evade tax. The question now, as we have been forced into contemplation, is whether we want to continue this rat race for more mass tourism, for more globalization of value chains that we depend on, for more global finance, as opposed to self-sustainability.

Now that the hamster wheel has stopped it is time to rethink what kind of tourism, investment, trade, industry, value chains, migration, financing or consumption we want in the future. The positive thing about this viral crisis is that it pushes policy makers to make quick, effective and radical decisions. What the climate emergency debate has failed to achieve for decades – i.e. a massive emissions reduction – COVID-19 has achieved in just a few weeks or months, if only temporarily. The reason for that is obvious. With a pandemic, life or death consequences of government actions are imminent, attributable and dramatic. Although these actions were undeniably necessary in order to avoid collapsing healthcare systems and subsequent anarchy, the negative consequences of economic recession, increased inequality and social psychological damage are evident. Yet, the crisis response has also facilitated other indirect consequences and policy experiments.

This has brought about potentially positive progressive change. Some examples:

  • The Danish and Polish governments have already decided that they will not bail out businesses that are registered in tax havens;
  • More and more consumers are buying local produce;
  • The emergence of tactical urbanism; a more flexible, responsive and customised use of public space to give more room to those pedestrians, cyclists or motorists (hopefully a declining number of the latter) who need it when they need it;
  • Hotels around the world have been feeding and housing people that usually sleep on the street and it is expected to have a longer-term effect on homelessness;
  • The reach and effectiveness of distance learning and virtual meetings has accelerated;
  • A positive feeling of global connectedness of people; solidarity and camaraderie;
  • The recognition of the real value (and need for proper remuneration) of doctors, nurses, teachers, porters, drivers, cleaners, etc.

The communities that are in the best position to respond effectively appear to be those with imagination. Imaginative communities are groups of people and businesses – cities, regions and countries – that share a sense of identity, history and belonging. Imaginative communities have a clear understanding of what it is that brings the community together; what the sense of comradeship and purpose is. Imaginative communities reinforce and strengthen this identity while featuring it in original, creative, innovative, captivating and inspiring initiatives that show the world what the community is about in order to build a distinctive, relevant, authentic, consistent and memorable reputation.

These imaginative communities have already generated global media attention by responding to the crisis in their own particular way:

  • In e-state Estonia public-private consortia launched a forty-eight-hour idea-collection session, called Hack the Crisis and an online accelerator for projects for the crisis and post-crisis world, generating lots of tech solutions.
  • In Oslo, the city that created the Future Library*, one of the local book shops has pivoted to doing delivery-only. The shop owners distribute books themselves, but in full hazmat suits and gas masks in order to raise local awareness of the seriousness of the situation among the demographically young population.
  • The coronavirus has pushed us to go slow, go local and more tranquil. Many have already expressed a desire not to go back to “normal”. It has put Bhutan’s idea to move away from the purely economic drive for GDP growth in favour of gross national happiness in pole position.
  • Progressive non-conformist Finland, with its feminine cabinet and the youngest head of government in the world, a female millennial, has been celebrated for its Coronavirus response. 85% of Finns supported the government’s handling of the pandemic.

If you know who you are, where you came from and where you want to go, it is easier to figure out how to respond to changing circumstances. We are currently resetting globalisation with travel halted, value chains disrupted, money flows redirected and technology reinvented. Now is the time for communities to contemplate how they want to tap back into the global system when they emerge from this crisis. It’s a question of identity, purpose and positioning. What are our values? What is our “brand”? This is not about wasting money on vanity projects like logos or slogans. I’m sure that we can all now agree that such frivolities are all the way down the list of priorities for government budgeting. This is about soul-searching, finding belonging, virtue, leadership, community collaboration, and maverick, unorthodox ideas that serve a larger purpose for the community and its standing in the world; staying true to one’s values.

~ Robert Govers, author of IMAGINATIVE COMMUNITIES

* Oslo’s Future Library is a project for which a thousand trees have been planted just outside the city to supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in one hundred years’ time. In the meantime, each year one author contributes a manuscript, which is held in a trust, unpublished, until 2114, to reflect the city’s forward-looking mentality and mantra that the best is yet to come.

Related reading

COVID-19 & the Climate Change emergency: recovery planning for a more sustainable future

What investment promotion agencies can do now to prepare for what's coming next

7 top tips for destination marketers and investment promotion during the COVID-19 pandemic

Beyond marketing: How DMOs and EDOs are evolving their role during COVID-19

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