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Is #BuildBackBetter a narrative for us all or a double-edged sword?

I’m writing this after two months of lockdown, a roller coaster of emotions that has taken me through; fear, anxiety, anger and yet also plenty of optimism and excitement about what good might come from the coronavirus crisis. All of these emotions can be found manifested in various social media posts using the #BuildBackBetter hashtag. BBB is a phrase that has undoubtedly emerged (certainly within my echo chamber) to form a narrative. In this blog I want to share some reflections on the phrase itself and how we can make sure covid-19 is the catalyst for systemic change. Can it be the point in history where we took a new path, a shock to the system that stopped our obsession with relentless economic growth and re-prioritised the wellbeing of people and the planet.

Firstly, let’s unpick the phrase; what does #BuildBackBetter mean and who is using it? I believe it was the filmmaker Richard Curtis who first coined it (and btw his initiative Make My Money Matter is definitely worth your attention). The inspirational Katherine Trebeck and the Wellbeing Economy Alliance have also led some of this early narrative using BBB. At SVUK and SVI we are delighted to be supporting the work of the Alliance in addressing the growing divides in our economy. (Do get involved here). This week SVUK also got involved with a new national campaign actually called Build Back Better led by the Green New Deal campaigning for the economy to be rebuilt based on fairness and decarbonisation. And local authorities such as Manchester have also started using the phrase #BuildBackBetter as our gaze becomes firmly set on what the future needs to look like. 

Here at Social Value UK we’ve supported the BBB phrase and have seen renewed support and appetite for our own campaign (started last year) called #HowDoCompaniesAct. This work has grown organically and we now have an informal but powerful coalition working together to reform the legal framework for businesses in the UK. The ultimate goal is re-writing sections of the Companies Act (s.172 and s.396 to be precise!) but also to work collaboratively on other areas of legislation and regulation that can ‘hardwire’ social and environmental impacts into business decision making through better governance, accounting and reporting. 

We’ve been overwhelmed by the collaboration and commitment from the members of the HowDoCompaniesAct group. The coronavirus crisis is presenting a window of opportunity for a paradigm shift, the systemic change that many of us have been working on for some time now. But to achieve our goals we must all act with caution and here are some wise suggestions that have emerged from our conversations.

1.Create a common narrative that can encompass many ideas. There are many different angles that we can all take; bailout conditions, legislative changes, increased regulation, new institutions etc. We each have different priorities; climate change, social justice, a more resilient economy etc. It’s inevitable that we have multiple groups and campaigns working concurrently, in fact this is probably a good thing. 

The key to success will be bringing all of these different efforts together under one umbrella or narrative. If you’re interested in narratives, storytelling and the way we can do this I highly recommend these set of resources from Better Nature: Stronger Stories.

The overarching narrative must appeal to as wide a political spectrum as possible. We must be aware that there are many people (who are not reading this blog) who just want to get back to ‘Business as usual’. Not everyone thought the system was broke and so Building back better might not resonate with everyone. Which is why more neutral language like ‘Stronger Recovery’ or ‘Business Resilience’ might help bring everyone onto the same page.

2. Let’s not get lost in our own echo chambers. I’m very conscious that my own personal inbox and live feed is bursting with #BBB and similar sentiments that reinforce my own world view that the time for big change is now. But how much of this is permeating groups that have not historically called for systems change? If you’re reading this blog you’re already signed up to the idea, fist in the air, that we need to do more to tackle climate change and reduce inequalities. 

So my plea is for us all to reach out to those we don’t often talk to about this and bring new people over to the idea that the old system was broken and that we can do things differently, let’s not rush back to BAU. Let’s start, one conversation at a time, with one person we wouldn’t normally have this discussion with. That could make a big difference. This is surprisingly easy to do (well, it is if you can actually find someone new to talk to during lockdown) by latching on to positives such as the heroics of key workers, society’s unsung heroes for too long. Or, pointing to the visible changes in our natural environment – I saw dolphins in the river Mersey last week! 

3. Let’s reform financial accounting! Ok well perhaps I would say this as our mission is to change the way the world accounts for value. Yes, accounting may be so boring and dull (to many!) that it seems an unlikely solution to the world’s problems. But my point is simple, if we do not change the basis for accounting then we will always rely on financial accounts to determine value and thus drive decision making. Other initiatives are also essential to create a fairer world and tackle climate change, but let’s not overlook something that is so fundamental to the way our economy works. Financial accounts do not have to only focus on financial value. As a population, as a society, we have the power to change policy so that companies account for a broader definition of value. It can be done and it needs to be done.

In conclusion, the phrase BBB is forming a good narrative for a lot of us, it’s lending name and sentiment to a range of initiatives, it’s an umbrella term and that’s great. However, we would do well to remember that not everyone thought our economy was broken before and so let’s be mindful of that as we try to work our way out of this situation. What we all need to do right now is channel our mixed emotions into positive action, if we shout loud enough, collaborate with people we don’t normally work with and offer productive solutions we can shape a brighter future for us all. 

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