Covid recovery: We can do so much more than just 'build back better' – Ewan Aitken

One of the Covid phrases I really don’t like is “build back better”.

Thursday, 15th April 2021, 4:45 pm

I understand why people use it, but in truth it is looking in the wrong direction. We should set our ambitions higher. We're not going back to the way things were or even a slightly ‘better’ version.

We need to look forward. It doesn’t have the same neat alliterative impact, but if we need a phrase to capture our post-Covid ambition it should be to “build forward better”. And I do see signs of how this will happen because of how Covid has changed us.

Covid might have reminded us of our fragility, individually and collectively, but it has also has shown us the power of community and collaboration. It’s inspired more collective, innovative thinking, guided by purpose, which has broken down the usual barriers of public, business and third sectors.

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In the first lockdown, hotels were used for over 700 people who would have otherwise been rough sleeping in a collaboration between all three sectors.

From those experiences, instead of a night shelter in a church hall from 9pm to 7am, we now have a 24-hour welcome hub in a hotel for those facing the prospect of sleeping rough.

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The distribution of food was another cross-sector collaboration. Cyrenians, for example, have delivered food for 3.8 million meals, along with over 100,000 cooked meals.

Working together, government, businesses and charities were able to house hundreds of rough sleepers during the pandemic in a demonstration of how life could be different after the Covid crisis is over (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

We could not have achieved it without support from the public and business sectors along with massive collaboration from over 200 third-sector partners. If we can collaborate like this during Covid-19, we can do it to address other challenges: poverty, social isolation, our collective health and well-being, homelessness.

A ‘sustainable recovery’ will be founded on keeping our sense of common purpose, built on understanding the importance of purpose-led organisations in all three sectors.

Most often it’s charities who model the idea of being ‘purpose led’, but there is a great deal of evidence of how businesses are often more successful, and not just financially, when they follow a similar model.

For example, they retain staff better because of the positive sense staff feel of being part of something with purpose beyond the bottom line. Those staff are often more productive because they feel their work is purposeful beyond simply profit. Their customers keep returning because they share that common aim and purpose, and share its values.

These ‘added value’ experiences are particularly true of businesses which are social enterprises, where profits are reinvested to make a positive impact on the wider community.

Cyrenians run several of these, including our farm, our cooking masterclasses, our FareShare work and our café and event space in Arnotdale House in Falkirk.

The money we make from our sales goes toward supporting our other work. Our customers like the product or service, and they like knowing that money spent goes towards tackling the causes and consequences of homelessness.

We’ve been doing a few things virtually, such as our culinary masterclasses, and have continued to sell more veg bags from Cyrenians Farm, but we’re all looking forward to things opening up again.

Rebuilding is going to take time, but if we are brave enough to keep hold of the way Covid taught us to collaborate, we really can build better forward.

Ewan Aitken is is CEO of Cyrenians Scotland

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