Chain Consuming or Systems Thinking?

The biggest news story in recent weeks seems to have been the collapse of high street chains HMV, Jessops and Blockbuster. Apart from the news reports, there are various comments and opinion pieces, with various different attitudes. It’s a really big issue, and for so many reasons!

What I want to talk about here specifically is why the attitude of both big business and government in tackling this issue are wrong, and how we should be looking at our high street economies to help them thrive and be resilient through hard economic times.

High Street progress

So what’s the problem?

Some of the comments relating to this news story seem to point the finger at the businesses. “They simply haven’t moved forward; they are stuck in the past hoping what worked several years ago will carry on working, but we all know, it doesn’t”, John N says on Streetlife. I agree that there’s no point in a businesses that provides services that no one really wants, or can get much easier and cheaper elsewhere.

Other comments blame the government for high business rates or failing to provide the services which help businesses (like good public transport, for example).

The truth is though, that what is  lacking is systems thinking. Each organisation is just looking at their little corner of the pie.

The businesses are looking at how much money they can extract from an area whilst keeping their costs as low as possible. Capital costs are only justified when their future value can have a firm price tag associated with it, even if that capital cost is only arbitrary and only really there to keep banks and accountants happy. It’s different in the oil industry, or in manufacturing, but in high street retail, value is created through experience and service. Why are we willing to buy a coffee for £2.50 when we could get something of equal quality for less than a pound at home? We are paying for the experience, service and environment of city centre shopping! I buy my books from high street shops, knowing full well that I could get the same book cheaper on the internet, because I want to be able to flick through it before I buy it, I want to be able to ask the employees whether there are other books by the same author that I might enjoy, and want to be able to take the book straight across to the nearest coffee shop and start reading it! All of this value is not recognised by national chains, and unless they start to recognise it, and invest their money in it, high street chains will die, and the companies will be to blame.

But businesses don’t only have themselves to blame. The entire system creates this rather sterile environment, and it must be a team effort to combat it. It’s lovely that individual shops strive against the odds and offer something unique, but to solve it more permanently, and for local communities to become resilient for the future, we need to work together. And we already have a system for working together in local communities. It’s called local government.

But the local government is riddled with red-tape, ego trips and hangovers from previous governments. It looks for ways to cut its spending, without any regard, seemingly, of the wider effects on the local economy, for which they are partially responsible. They take political lines based on what their national parties decided in Westminster, rather than what they, as elected representatives, think is best for local people. And they uphold the status quo for no more reason, really, than because it would take too much effort to no something new and ambitious. In the same way as businesses, the return from investing in the capital costs of better systems is not recognised.

So what if businesses and local government truly started to look at the big picture, the whole system? Rather than basing value on arbitrary figures in pounds and sterling, what if it was valued in the ability to provide for human need, in a sustainable and resilient way?

Systems Thinking

When I look at Norwich, I see a massive resource, with so much potential, but that, under its current, very conservative Labour group, is being mismanaged. Some of the many resources which Norwich city centre has are:

  • A historic market, which some see as being “sterile” since its latest transformation.
  • A wealth of city centre buildings, picturesque streets, heritage assets and spaces that people enjoy being in, as long as they are kept clean and well-maintained.
  • An expansive pedestrianised zone, with plenty of space for events and pop-up markets.
  • A potential workforce in its unemployed people (Over a quarter (26.48%) of residents in Mancroft Ward, which covers most of the City Centre area, are on state benefit, unemployed or lowest grade workers, according to 2001 census data – that’s a lot of potential work that could be mobilised!)

But there are reasons why they are failing, and they’re not that hard to solve, either, if the council only took on a systems thinking approach:

Most generally, all decision-makers should look at the effect of their decisions on the local economy as a whole, not just themselves. Where does the money they spend go? Who benefits and who loses out? This means that when the local authority or any decision-maker is choosing a supplier for their major services, they should be asking themselves how much of the money they give that company will be staying in the local area. Does the company employ local staff? Is the company locally owned? Will profits be reinvested in the local area, or taken straight to London or abroad? Does the company pay its employees fairly, pay its tax and contribute to the community? Does the company care about sustainability and is willing to invest in local energy efficiency measures (which will benefit the local tradesmen who supply them too), rather than just fork out more and more for gas or electricity (which will only benefit multi-national energy companies and their greedy investors)? How much money that is spent will return to us by way of it circulating in the local economy?

More specifically:

Currently Norwich Market has lots of empty stalls and generally suffers from stagnation of both traders and customers. If I were managing the market, I would hold short-term events to fill all the empty stalls for, say, a week at a time, with a theme. Such a theme might be “collectables”, at which one would invite collectables shops within Norwich and across Norfolk to trade their wares, as well as individuals who can’t commit to running a full-time shop. It would be advertised in city and regional media, and at the market itself, to ensure that plenty of customers who’re interested in collectables would be there, and whilst there, they would also use the food stalls and all the other shops in and around the market. Other themes might be furniture, local groceries, comic books and toys. Successful traders might then consider taking up a full-time stall, increasing the vibrancy of the market in the long term.

If I were local authority planners looking at the city centre, I would immediately try to encourage more of a community there. The city centre seems to be a place for people from outside of Norwich to come to shop and drink coffee. Where is the city centre community? Apart from a fair chunk of housing at Pottergate, much of which is council housing, the city centre doesn’t really have a community. I would want this to change, and would suggest that planning policy should encourage more residential flats above city centre shops. There’s loads of potential for it, and many of them are already empty. You just have to look around the city for signs above shops that say “3500sqm of office/retail space to let”. There are loads of them! Surely they’d be filled much quicker if they were residential. There would be many benefits apart from getting empty buildings into use – there would be more people in the city centre using the shops for their daily items, eating out and enjoying the nightlife without the worry of parking, petrol and drink driving. Crime would reduce because there would be more people keeping an eye on their streets at night.

When I was on job-seekers allowance last year, I got totally frustrated that the Job Centre and the local council were not making efforts to actually encourage the creation of jobs for me and the other unemployed people there. They essentially just tell you to keep looking at the adverts, brush up your CV, broaden your search criteria. As I’ve said before, all of this does nothing to change the number of jobs that are available, so all it really does is makes job searching more competitive, and more stressful for applicants and human resource managers alike. Under a systems thinking approach, the council would look at the job market as a resource, through which they can stimulate the local economy as well as get things done that need doing. They may be able to develop some policy that might actually create new jobs, or bring back jobs that have been sent overseas. The unemployed community probably have a wealth of knowledge and skills that the job centre, let alone potential employers, are even aware of, but just don’t have the resources to actually use and progress those skills. Here’s an idea: a business incubator, which does not pay staff, but offers them accommodation and cheap food on the condition that they spend working hours developing their new business. It would be no more expensive than distributing job-seekers allowance and other benefits, but successful ideas would pay back a proportion of their turnover to keep the scheme going.

Working together

The short phrase above has become a bit of a cliché, particularly in green (and Transition) circles. But I think the vision that I have in my brain when I think about working together is a little different to the quite fluffy idea that phrase might naturally conjure up.  Last week I attended a lecture by Karen Armstrong, in which she talked about “Socratic dialogue”.  This is the type of working together that we want.  In Socratic dialogue, it’s not about winning, defeating and humiliating the opponent, but “it [is] a joint effort to obtain new understanding: you expressed yourself clearly as a gift to your debating partners, whose beautifully expressed arguments would, in turn, touch you at a profound level”, as Karen Armstrong puts it.

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8 Comments

  1. Lynda Edwards
    Posted 4 February, 2013 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you, Simeon, about the lack of jobs – and the lack of co-operation from the Jobcentre.

    I was made redundant in 2001 from a certain large insurance company in the city centre. Despite registering with 4 employment agencies the work was erratic and sparse. Was it my age (then 50 at time of redundancy) which was against me? I had good appraisals from my job – why did they close our well-run department of 100 people in favour of sending our work to the department which was less well-run?

    It would be better for redundant people to be given further advice and training – it is no good expecting an admin. assistant who is used to typing, filing, photocopying etc. to apply for a job as Offshore Technician, IT Consultant nor Accountant! After going spare trying to find work one is asked by the Jobcentre staff, rather testily, “What have you done to get work?”. It seems to have escaped their notice that I volunteered for 6 years in a charity shop to learn new skills (the young Manager was impressed at the speed I managed to learn how to operate the simple till they had!). I thought I had another string to my bow with retail skills but, unfortunately, the only shops with any vacancies favour young applicants who are prepared to stand on their feet all day. After 33 years of working in sedentary jobs this would have been hard for me!

    I have observed the shops which seem to go under are the ones with things not essential to life. HMV, Jessops and Blockbuster stocked things which people, struggling to feed and heat, would find unnecessary to buy. Likewise the fancy goods shops are closing – these sold things apparently unaffordable to those on a low income.

    My idea of the market would be for them to reduce their prices – they are expensive for food and other things. For household items I find Thorns to be less expensive than the market stall selling similar items. Supermarkets and the cheap chains are gaining popularity due to the unemployed finding them affordable also workers find their opening hours convenient for shopping before or after work.

  2. Alison
    Posted 4 February, 2013 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    Good ideas here, I particuarly like the idea of making use of empty shops on a temporary basis. There’s nothing worse than walking into town and seeing store after store of vacancies. In order to make this work however, the locsl landlords of said buildings would have to either lower the rent (but might that not be unfair to the regular renters?) Or get local government involved or a non-profit?? The local government could lease the space, then allow it to be run weekly or bi-weekly by an up and coming entrapanuer. This way all shops would always be open, heated, kept up etc., making the town look better and encouraging folks to come to town.
    Per BIG retail establisments, I believe ( here in the U.S.A. at least) that the idea of the outdoor mall, hence hometown america, has come back. Even the indoor malls have vacancies these days. Indoor malls are great in unfriendly weather, but the old timey feel of the so called outdoor mall makes shopping a pleasant experience. Big retail would do good and help small towns thrive if they would invest their businesses on Main Street. And, although everyone may want a piece of the pie (vs. Corner of, since pie has no corners) that is fine, good, great! The problem arises when gluttony takes hold. How much more interesting is it to have perhps 8 different businesses of equal size, than 3 huge shops and maybe 3 or 4 smaller? I prefer the variety instead.

  3. POEticJustice
    Posted 6 February, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    This is POEtic Justice, I started the comment on streetlife which thus had a link to this blog. My initial comment was just a simple question, “Will Norwich Survive The Retail Decline”, not a statement of fact. This seems to have offended some, with comments like “What a terrible thing to say”, to others who seem to be on the same wavelength as myself, however, it did seem to get a lot of people talking about the subject with an abundance of different views. Just for the record I will herewith list a few reasons why I feel Norwich could and should do a lot more to save one of its major selling points.

    I would state that I have basically given up on Norwich myself, mainly because of the inability of whoever is in power to understand the basics of encouraging a better retail sector in the city, and of course a complete lack of interest in any other ideas I have put forward. I do not only put this down to a lazy attitude, and in some cases the inability to understand some ideas, but also to the fact that Norwich just does not seem to like change. I have been told this hundreds of times now and thus believe it to be true. Three words also constantly come up when I am asking people about the city and the council, dumb, stupid and incompetent.

    It is incomprehensible to me that with the retail sector suffering all over the country I cannot see one positive reaction from the council to try and improve the shopping experience in Norwich, which is not just about having an abundance of different shops, but bringing the whole concept of shopping in Norwich together as a complete experience. While the retail sector should also have come up with a few ideas, it needs the consent of the council so they should be a major contributor, even if they cannot come up with any ideas themselves.

    Norwich Market is an ideal example, as per this blog, why have empty stalls, when it would be so simple to let these out on a weekly basis to try and encourage more business ventures, special events, etc. There was a time when there were several market type stalls under the cover in Anglia Square, and it really brought the place alive with a very good atmosphere. Now they have gone that shopping experience has gone as well. Just why is the undercroft at the back of the market locked up for most of the time, it has so many potential uses? Why of why is there still not Public Access Information & Display Screen in Norwich? Such a simple concept with so much potential, however that might be something a little too new for Norwich, so it is totally ignored. Even the malls in Norwich, Chapelfield in particular, seems to completely ignore the potential of something alive and moving, which would bring its own atmosphere to an environment.

    About a year ago I was asked to photograph the Market Cross in the market place, I had never heard of it, however, after some investigation, and asking many of the market traders, I was directed to a red line of bricks towards the front of the market. This is where, in the olden days, the cross once stood. The amazing thing was, there were no obvious markings to indicate what the red bricks represented. Some like myself might think it would be more important to sign this, than putting up numerous signs on the same road or street. In my mind, this just shows the incompetence of those who would have the red bricks placed without signing them. This is just typical of Norwich. I would end this reference to Norwich Market by saying that after documenting the war memorials in Norwich I suggested to the council that part of the undercroft could be used to display all the war memorial that did not have a proper home, together with a screen and seating area, where visitors could hear locals talking about their experiences during the war years. The Norwich War Memorial Museum, would have been very inexpensive to set up and run, and could have also acted as a host for a Public Access screen, all at the back of the market, where virtually every visitor to Norwich is likely to visit. Everyone without exception, who I have shown the plans too has thought what a good idea it would have been, except of course those who run the council, who basically just completely ignored the concept.

    It is easy to go on and on about what Norwich could do, but I know from experience that very little has changed in the last eight years since I have been documenting the city, yet it does have the potential to do much better if those in power just wake up to this potential. After more than eight years of trying I have given up on them, but maybe one day someone will see the light, one can only hope.

  4. Posted 8 February, 2013 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your detailed response, POEticJustice!

    I have to agree that there’s a bit of a lazy attitude amongst the authorities in Norwich. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen Cllrs Bert Bremner (Cabinet Member for Planning) or Brenda Arthur (Leader of the Council) out on the street asking people what they think of the decisions they’re making each day that affect them. The only people they seem to want to please are their “bosses” in Whitehall, and therefore make decisions purely based on Party lines, or what will be the least amount of work for themselves, without much regard at all for local people.

    I’ve always found Chapelfield Mall a bit cold. Personally, I think it’s a pity that that site got developed with no regard to the character of Norwich whatsoever, but now that it is built, you’d have thought that they could make it feel slightly less like a factory, pushing “consumers” through the process of getting in, money extraction and getting them out again to make room for the next one. Having said that, there is potential for use of the square in between Chapelfield and St Stephens church for events of various kinds, so let’s hope that happens in future.

    “…little has changed in the last eight years since I have been documenting the city, yet it does have the potential to do much better if those in power just wake up to this potential.”
    I agree, but would like to suggest that there is a ray of hope. Since 2004, the largest party on the City Council has consistently been the Labour group, stuck in their ways and seemingly unwilling to listen to those whose ideas don’t further their own interests. Whereas the Green Party group, which has been catching up in numbers (15 councillors to Labour’s 21), is responsive and active, always willing to listen, and not afraid to support radical schemes where appropriate. But whilst Labour have overall control, there’s not a lot they can really do!

  5. Lynda Edwards
    Posted 9 April, 2013 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    POEticJustice posted above the question about our Market Cross. I remember peering through a spy-hole in the hoarding around the worked area when the market was being revamped. I saw the foundations of the Market Cross – details of which are on http://www.norwich-market.org.uk/LSI_revamp/market_cross.shtm .

    I would also like to see more shops selling clothes for those who are over 40 in age also have real figures. It seems, if you are not a 20 year old stick insect you have a limited choice in Norwich!

    I would also like more, local, shops in the city centre selling decent food. I am so tired of traipsing around the city looking for reasonably priced, decent, food only to return home with a packet or tin of something just for the sake of a meal. The choices in the market would be alright if many of the stalls did not sell overpriced goods.

  6. Robert Maguire
    Posted 10 April, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the link Linda Edwards, very good documentation of the market cross, I will forward it to the person who originally asked me to investigate its whereabouts.

    I recently had to attend a meeting at Norwich City Council and was amazed that they were considering putting up a small sign near the market, nothing to do with the cross area, which is not signed, and had been quoted a cost of £5000, utterly outrageous for a small sign. I think they are still looking for an alternative, at least I hope so. Maybe this is why the market cross is not marked, they cannot find anyone to make it at a decent cost. I would get on to one of the education establishments, maybe the art school or local college, and get some students involved in making one as a design and production project, but that might be to near to the concept of common sense.

    I visited Norwich Market about two weeks ago to photograph the top covers which are now utterly disgusting, they are covered with green slim, mould, etc, blocking out the light, and it makes the market look an utter mess. An ideal greeting for the many visitors Norwich receives, yet the council seems to be completely ignorant of the fact. I even saw a pigeon on the eating surface of one of the food stalls, and these birds can carry about 6 deadly diseases to humans. So much for one of the pride and joys of Norwich. Many of the stalls are now closed, I was told about 40, and they do not even clean and disinfect the paths now. It seems like the council has lost all interest in Norwich Market, its condition, and its stall holders. They don’t even use the under-croft at the back of the market for any worthwhile use, and even seem to lack any initiative what-so-ever in understanding the real potential of what Norwich Market has to offer. Even some of the new paving slabs have been removed only to be replaced by tarmac, breaking up the newness of the area.

  7. Lynda Edwards
    Posted 10 April, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    I agree the Council ought to be more interested in the Market. As for pigeons I have been wondering whether it would be good to have a breeding site on the clock tower for Peregrine Falcons – similar to the one on Norwich Cathedral steeple. There could be an agreement with the Hawk and Owl Trust about this. Peregrines eat pigeons and may help to keep numbers down.

  8. Robert Maguire
    Posted 10 April, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Lynda Edwards that it would be a be a good idea to have some Peregrine Falcons, probably in more than one place in the city to control the pigeons. It would also help if people were fined for feeding the pigeons, as they regularly do in Anglia Square, but I doubt if that will ever happen. So many people in Norwich seem so ignorant to the problems pigeons can cause to the city.

    A couple of years ago I sent an image to the council of a fly poster that had been stapled onto one of the new wooden seats near to the art school. It was half ripped off which had pulled the staples up, ready for someone to sit on. With just a little pigeons muck someone could have so easily injected themselves just by sitting down. It was used in the local paper as one of the worse cases of fly posting in Norwich because of the implications.

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