Coronavirus: Is lockdown showing us the shape of things to come? – Alastair Stewart

Living life through a screen as we now do could transform our democracy as we’ve understood it, writes Alastair Stewart

Monday, 20th April 2020, 6:00 am
Everything from chatting with friends to First Minister's Questions is being done online (Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire)

In, 1933 HG Wells published a book titled The Shape of Things to Come. It was pure future history – how Wells thought the world would be right up to 2106. Remarkably he predicted World War II and incorrectly guessed its commencement by only four months.

So how will COVID-19 affect life beyond the lockdown? Much like Wells, the trace elements are there for us to extrapolate. There’s been a remarkably quick transition to digital meetings, conferences and webinars. Life is now lived through a screen, begging the genuine question of whether we need those long commutes, those expensive plane tickets or the idling car journey.

At a social level, there’s a longing to return to the in-person camaraderie of old. Pubs and restaurants may very well see a well-deserved boom when this is all over. Still, it’s unlikely anyone will entirely forget the now ingrained social distancing rules and invisible illnesses. The handshake could likely go the way of the kowtow. A “meeting” is now understood to be virtual.

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Alastair Stewart is a public affairs consultant with Orbit Communications

Politically, there’s already a remarkable adaptation to the demands of social distancing. The Scottish Parliament has already introduced virtual First Ministers’ Questions, and there’s an ongoing discussion about how to continue parliamentary business remotely. Politicians at every level across the country will likely find themselves under increased pressure to work virtually; to justify any travel costs when the remote infrastructure has proven itself so effective.

Every sector will find itself under increased pressure to conform to new digital standards. Local democracy will find it needs to lead the way with a virtual renaissance. Why meet when the internet will do? There will be a new conviction, founded on the experience of the lockdown, that online activities, with all the paraphernalia of social media, phones, laptops, and tablets, will make for better access pathways than traditional town hall meetings.

The Scottish Government has already started the process by introducing legislation to temporarily suspend the need for major planning consultations. Digital guidance is due to be released by government planners that might open the door to a permanent requirement for digital consulting. As most projects inevitably elicit the feeling from some people that they were not asked or listened to, the move could be seismic for developers and communities alike.

Broad participation, the right use of social media to raise awareness and the power of digital toolboxes are critical takeaways from weeks of lockdown. Integrated digital strategies, supported by the want of communities and stakeholders alike, could transform our democracy as we’ve understood it to date. One day the idea of meeting with “only a studio audience” or “at a set time” could seem as archaic as Teletext.

So much of what we do now encapsulates the basic principles of supply and demand. For decades we’ve croaked about declining participation in democracy, and now we find ourselves with the critical need to make new and accessible pathways between the public and politicians. We’re doing nothing less than planning for the future – and perhaps we don’t even realise it?

The wisdom of crowds tells us collective thinking is a very real, potent tool. As so many of us adapt by necessity, new habits will form and new practices from them – much like Wells, all the evidence is before us. We just need to try and guess the final picture.

Alastair Stewart is a public affairs consultant with Orbit Communications. Read more from Alastair at www.agjstewart.com and follow him on Twitter @agjstewart