Bank branches, the decline of the High Street, and risk with online-dependence…

Living in a town of 14,000 people, it’s painful to watch the decline of its ancient, characterful, High Street due to the impact of the modern online world. This week it was announced that the town’s last bank branch will close later in 2021. There were 6 major banks on the town’s High Street in 2015, all of which had occupied historic buildings for decades. In a few months there’ll be none and all the old buildings that housed them will be empty. The nearest bank branch will be 10 miles away, the town will have just 2 ATMs, and the local Post Office will be the only place providing basic banking services.  Apart from its empty premises, the High Street is already dominated by more coffee shops, eateries, hairdressers, and estate agents than appears sustainable. This is the same in many towns because the world has become online-first and our behaviour has changed.     

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of online-first for everything. The use of physical money – cash – for in-store purchases halved in 2020 and the downward trend is unlikely to change. As cash disappears, we’ll soon see people rattling charity tins for donations, tip jars on the counters of coffee shops, collection plates at church services, and funfair slot machines all disappear too.  Banks can’t be blamed for behaving like the businesses they are, or for adapting to the needs and expectations of their digital-native customers, especially those born since the 1980s, but the closure of physical branches does impact on society, as outlined by the parliamentary report here.  The High Street’s decline isn’t the fault of the banks, it’s a consequence of the internet, relentless progress in digital technology, and our own behaviour. The decline comes with a sting in the tail for completely digital-native generations as they get older, because the concept of local community is eroding and being replaced by the personal isolation that comes with total dependence on the online world.

A society that’s online dependent for everything isn’t free of risk. The pandemic illustrates just how disruptive a biological virus can be, so just think how troublesome a future global cyber equivalent – deliberate or accidental – could be if you can’t access your money or do anything online. It’ll never happen, you say.  Never say never, especially when 20 years ago people worried about a ‘millennium bug’, 10 years ago there was a global banking crisis, and recent cyber incidents have caused chaos with fuel pipelines and forced store closures. If a cyber-space catastrophe happened, there’ll be no point meeting anyone for coffee in the High Street, because the High Street won’t exist and there’ll be no means to pay for the coffee. It won’t be the fault of banks; it will just be the manifestation of one of the current risks in modern life that we don’t seem to think too much about.

All-lane running motorways and electric car breakdowns…

The Badger often flicks through the television channels before retiring for the night. It’s a habit, and it’s rare that something grabs the attention sufficiently to delay bedtime. One night recently, however, the ‘Smart Motorway Committee’ on the BBC Parliament channel proved an exception. A yawn was stifled as the channel was sampled, but the Badger was suddenly hooked when one of the politicians on the committee asked senior representatives from the Police, motoring, and haulage organisations, a clever question. It was this: ‘If your loved ones were driving on the motorway, or you were driving with your loved ones as passengers, which would you prefer it to be a) a controlled motorway with a permanent hard-shoulder lane, or b) an all-lane running motorway with refuge areas that could be more than 800 metres apart’.  

The politician asked for their personal opinion, not that of the organisation they represented. The respondents each plumped for (a), explaining their choice in terms of the human reality and anxiety of breaking down surrounded by live traffic lanes when young children, the disabled, or elderly parents are on board and refuge is some distance away.  To ensure smart motorways are safe, Highways England, of course, are currently implementing the 2020 Stocktake and Action Plan, and their recent report continues to make the case for all-lane running, all be it with further technology-centred  safety improvements. However, as the respondent’s answers illustrate, it’s obvious that people remain unpersuaded that foregoing a permanent hard-shoulder lane is wise.

Although it was late, the Badger’s programme delivery, IT, systems, and risk management experience and instincts kicked into gear with the following point bubbling to the fore.  Smart motorways were conceived mainly to increase traffic capacity and reduce congestion. It feels like ‘safety’ is being bolted on to avoid facing up to a possible uncomfortable truth, namely that all-lane running motorways may not have been such a good idea in the first place. With this point on his mind, the Badger turned off the television and retired for the night.

The next morning a chance conversation, when the Badger was told about someone’s experience of a new electric car that stopped working on a railway crossing, seem to reinforce this point.  The Badger hadn’t really appreciated the difficulty, which can get a sense of here and here, in moving electric vehicles if they stop functioning for any reason. It appears that the days of getting people to help you push it to a safer place are gone!  What will happen when the mix of electric cars on all-lane running motorways is substantially higher than today and more of them breakdown?  Even more expensive technology seems to be the answer to everything these days, but it feels like it would have been better, safer, and cheaper never to have ditched permanent hard-shoulder lanes in the first place!  

Changing of the guard…

A chance meeting with a frustrated young manager recently led to an interesting discussion about the ‘changing of the guard’ at the company where they work. Their company has been acquired by a much larger one. Apparently, it was a strategic purchase that provides the new owners with lots of opportunity to ‘maximise synergies and improve efficiency’’. Hmm, the Badger immediately thought having lived through this kind of thing several times. The youngster was frustrated because the acquiring company had injected new, inexperienced management whose dominant priority seemed to be procedural and administrative rather than ‘business’.  

The youngster was irritated that the ‘changing of the guard’ had led to reporting to others of similar age who were opinionated, procedural, and intransigent, but fundamentally lacking in knowledge, relevant expertise, and experience. The youngster felt ignored and belittled. The Badger advised calm, objectivity, and not to rock the boat in the short term, but to have game plan to look after their personal interests if things were not really going to work out. The youngster had one and was already executing it!

‘Changing of the guard’, of course, happens all the time in business and wider life. It is a perpetual reality. It does not, however, always put the right people in the right positions, nor does it mean that better decisions will be made. As recent items from City A.M and the IET highlight, we are in the throes of ‘changing of the guard’  today, with millennials – broadly those under 40 – beginning to take  the leadership helm in business and across society. Millennials are wholly digital-native, and have attitudes, expectations, beliefs, and an impatience to redefine the status quo that has been shaped by ‘information age’ technology, the impact of the 2008/9 financial crash, and the COVID-19 pandemic. As they progressively take the helm, it is safe to assume that they will focus on addressing their complaints about the situations left by preceding generations.     

But will things be better in their hands? With millennials often labelled as volatile, fickle, easily offended, over-emotional, work-shy and dominated by social media, it is far from a certainty. Every generation thinks they know best, and every generation makes mistakes which the next one complains about. It will be no different for millennials! Reading the World Economic Forum’s most recent Global Risk Report highlights soberingly that we need the world to improve in the hands of the millennials, but evidence that it will is sparse so far. We need our millennial generation of leaders to be focused, resolute, have a strong work ethic, and to take real responsibility and accountability because ‘changing of the guard’ to a cadre of over-emotional, unrealistic, handwringers will just make matters worse. It is time for millennials to step up and really show that the labels used to describe their generation in the past are wrong.

Change…

What a year it’s been! There can’t be many people across the globe who haven’t been touched in some way by personal, social, or economic impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic.  It would be very easy, as a New Year approaches, to not only indulge in hand-wringing sadness, regret, and despondency about the events of 2020, but also to speculate – with or without optimism – about the future. But there’s enough of that in the traditional media, on the internet, and on social media platforms, so the Badger set himself a challenge over the Christmas holiday to sum up both the last year and the future using just one word!

That word didn’t take long to emerge. It was streaks ahead of the alternatives. The word was ‘change’.   

This year has seen ‘change’ in nearly everything – how we shop, the structure and the nature of industry sectors, the profile of scientists, technologists and health and care professionals, the way we work, travel, and interact with other people, the shape of the economy and our cities, and our awareness of how the world really works. We now all know that rather than bombs and guns, things you cannot see which don’t respect geographic boundaries can wreak real havoc to our lives and threaten our species. We have also all seen just how dependent we are on global supply chains, digital technology, the well-being of the planet, and – indeed – on each other.

Change doesn’t stop, so the word ‘change’ is more than apt to describe the future. The First World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 100 years ago were triggers for major personal, societal, and economic change, and so its highly likely we’ll see the same once the Covid-19 pandemic abates but this time much, much faster.  Why? Because the pandemic has made us face the reality that the old ways really were truly unsustainable.

The Badger thinks we have all been reminded of one thing this year, that you can never be certain in life of what’s around the next corner.  Predicting the future is fraught with risk and disappointment, especially with the world continuing to be in a very difficult place. But with ‘change’ inevitable in 2021, the Badger thinks there’s only one New Year resolution for sensible people to make and that’s to  ‘embrace rather than resist the changes ahead’.   Whether we like it or not, change is a perpetual aspect of our lives. History shows that resisting it leads to disadvantage, avoidable anxiety, and ultimately personal, societal, and economic collateral damage that serves no one well. And on that point of philosophical reflection, the Badger wishes you well and that you have a better 2021 than 2020.

Tech regulation; learn the lessons of the past…

The Badger has just arranged for a headstone to be erected at the grave of a relative who passed-away some years ago. The process started with using Google to research the different types of  headstone, suppliers, pricing, and graveyard regulations. Having done the research, the Badger engaged a provider and arrangements were made using to the providers preferred business methods, namely good old fashioned telephone calls, letters and forms by post, and cheques for payments. Everything went smoothly and the headstone is now in place.

There was only one thing that was an irritant in the whole process – the flood of content, adverts, and unsolicited marketing that appeared in the Badger’s news, email, and social media feeds following the Google search queries!  Receiving unsolicited and unwanted suggestions about funeral plans, care homes, equity release, life insurance, will writing, and donating to charity via a will was just tiresome and a reminder that the big  tech giants track and use our behavioural data. If there was a single, simple, ‘Big Red Button’ that turned all that stuff off, then the Badger would have pushed it!  

Recent news that a Digital Markets Unit is being formed under the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) (see here, here and here) to start limiting the power of big tech firms in the UK seemed like welcome news and a sign that politicians are starting to wake up.  In the USA, of course, Google is already in the cross-hairs of the US government for alleged anticompetitive abuses. At long last, governments around the world seem to be very slowly addressing regulation of the big tech giants which, let’s face it, are enormously powerful as well as being at the heart of the functioning of today’s modern society.

Sceptical about the need for regulation? Read the Financial Times article here. It points out that the 2008 banking crisis showed that careful oversight is needed when the public interest depends on businesses that exist to meet the needs of private capital providers. Before 2008, the approach of regulators to the way banks behaved was ‘principles based’, i.e. deliberately light touch. This relied too much on the banks’ abilities to govern themselves, and it failed. Similarities with the current approach with big tech are striking.  We should learn the lessons from the past! After all, isn’t that what the leaders of all corporations and governmental institutions are forever telling their employees and everyone else to do?

When speaking to the headstone provider, the Badger asked why – apart from a basic website – they hadn’t fully embraced the digital world. Simple, they answered. ‘We’ve stayed in business for over a century because we learn our lessons, one of which has been to always steer a cautious path through periods of innovation and change’. How very refreshing!     

Cyber attacks on the ‘Middleman’…

Elexon announced last week that their internal IT had been impacted by a cyber-attack. Specific detail about the attack was not, understandably, released although there has been some speculation in the media. Elexon plays an important role in the UK electricity market by operating the Balancing and Settlement Code (BSC) and facilitating payments between generators, suppliers and brokers. Although the ‘critical national infrastructure (CNI)’ systems at the heart of electricity market operations were unaffected, the incident is nevertheless embarrassing for this ‘middleman’ organisation.

Coincidentally, the incident caught the Badger’s eye just after reading the UK Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport ‘s March 2020 Cyber Security Breaches Survey. Broadly, the report concludes that with Board attention on cyber security and the advent of GDPR, organisations are becoming more resilient to cyber-attacks and faster at recovering from breaches, but less likely to report the negative impact and cost of breaches. The report also reiterates that the nature of cyber threat is continuously evolving and that organisations are experiencing attacks more frequently than 5 years ago. Essentially, progress is being made but there is still lots to do and no organisation can be complacent.

The Elexon incident is yet another reminder that organisations and the public in today’s digital world can never be immune to cyber threat from ‘bad actors’ of any type. It is a reminder that personal and organisational cyber security awareness, diligence, discipline, and professionalism are essential if threats are to be minimised, attacks repelled, and security, data, and privacy preserved. The fact that the Elexon incident did not impact the electricity market systems per se, or the ability to keep the country’s lights on, is not surprising because CNI systems are obvious targets for ‘bad actors’ and their protection is taken very seriously by complying with good advice and guidance from national authorities.

A couple of days ago, a conversation with an acquaintance about the Elexon incident took an unexpected turn. They said if they were a ‘bad actor’ like Blofeld out to destabilise an entire country, they would unleash a simultaneous cyber-attack on all ‘middleman’ organisations similar to Elexon and DCC (for Smart Meters) in all key sectors. Why? It would be easier and simpler than going after CNI systems per se, because the ‘middleman’ is likely to have more weaknesses in their cyber defences. National turmoil would ensue without damaging the CNI itself. Just think, they said, what knocking out all ‘middleman’ organisations simultaneously would lead to in terms of pressure on the government, business frustration, social media backlash, loss of national confidence, political turmoil, international embarrassment and so on. The door would be open for a new regime!

The acquaintance sensed the Badger becoming concerned and suspicious. They quickly pointed out that they were not, of course, actually Blofeld! And, just in case you are wondering, neither is the Badger…

The 6 Cs – Control, Care, Commerce, Community, Consumption & Communications

Long days of pandemic-related lockdown do strange things to your thoughts. We obviously think about our personal circumstances and fears, but simple things can trigger thoughts that can take you to unexpected conclusions. The Badger, for example, has noticed that simple observations trigger thoughts that meander to a conclusion that barely relates to the observation itself, as illustrated below.

The Badger recently noticed his wife’s growing irritation with mainstream TV News. She increasingly asserts ‘TV News has more dinner party chat dressed as analysis, complainers and people with an axe to grind, spin, and scaremongering speculation than straightforward factual news.’ Hmm. ‘A Story’ is what drives journalists, which in today’s instant communication era suggests that no TV broadcasters, print or social media/internet platforms can really provide reliable, factual, spin-free news.

Anyway, that’s a digression, because observing the wife’s rising irritation triggered the Badger to think about what he would do if he were leader of a country when the current crisis has abated! The Badger cogitated under a fruit tree in full blossom over a couple of cups of coffee. The answer – to initiate an independent ‘lessons learned’ review to identify improvements and inform the country’s future policies and direction – soon emerged.

The review would cover six pillars:

  •  Control – What improvements in command, control and logistics mechanisms are needed to be better prepared for this type of future crisis?
  • Care – What are the lessons for the country health and social care system and how can weaknesses be addressed in an economically viable way?
  • Commerce – What are the economic and operational lessons for Public Services and Business? What do these mean for future workforce planning, productivity, business activities, financial prudence, and supply chain policy?
  • Community – How has the crisis changed social attitudes, behaviours and the priorities and demands of the general public? How has the public mood changed regarding nationalism versus internationalism and globalisation? How does this compare between demographics and with other countries?
  • Consumption – What have consumers and businesses learned about what their demand for goods, commodities, and services has on life, the climate, the environment, and sustainability? What impact will greater consumer enlightenment have on country priorities and wealth?
  • Communications – What lessons emerge from crisis communication direct from government to the general public? What can change to reduce misinformation in printed, broadcast, and internet-based media, and on social media platforms? How have public attitudes to regulation and privacy changed due to the pandemic?

Tech crosses all 6 pillars. It has mostly been a saviour in this crisis, especially when you realise that if this pandemic had happened 10 to 15 years ago when tech was less mature, the impact on our lives would have been orders of magnitude worse.

So, there you have it. A simple observation can trigger an unexpected train of thought. Fortunately, the Badger’s not a country leader. One thing’s certain, however. The world has changed and things really can’t be same as they were. Our leaders must know that?

Crisis! A time that always exposes ‘True Colours’…

A week ago, on a sunny UK Spring day, the Badger sat in his conservatory reflecting on how COVID-19 has emptied the streets and impacted lives and livelihoods. The birds and creamy yellow clumps of self-seeded polyanthus in the garden provided a reminder of nature’s glory as the Badger thought about the pressures on those leading the response to the pandemic. The Badger knows from coordinating his employer’s business continuity responses to events like the 7th July 2005 London terror attacks and the 2010 volcanic ash clouds from Iceland, that decisions must be taken and a course of action set even if the information available is conflicting or fuzzy. Some will always challenge the decisions and course of action, but the Badger learned that it’s important not to become distracted or defensive. Proper lessons to be learned come from a proper post-crisis review in calmer times.

As the Badger cogitated, Cyndi Lauper’s song ‘True Colours’ came on the radio. The ‘true colours’ idiom comes from the 18th century when ships showed their country flag (‘colours’) when going into battle. Many showed a flag of a different country to make opponents think they were friendly, only to show their real flag (‘true colours’) as they attacked. The song reminded the Badger that, in his experience, the ‘true colours’ of leaders, business executives, suppliers, clients, and staff quickly move into plain sight during a business continuity crisis, sometimes producing unexpected surprises. As leaders tackle COVID-19, the Badger thinks ‘true colours’ are being exposed everywhere and the picture they paint of the modern world isn’t pretty.

The Badger decided that a few points captured his opinion on what the pandemic has exposed about the world so far, namely:

  • Modern tech is both a help and a hinderance, but without it and the resilient IT supporting institutions, businesses, individuals and economic activity, things would be apocalyptic.
  • When government, businesses, and people come together to ‘do the right thing’ awesome things of complexity and scale can be achieved in a short time.
    • In the digital age people are more profligate, selfish, impatient and prone to panic than they were 20 years ago.
  • Doctors, nurses, health care and emergency service workers do what we have always known they do – selflessly put patients first.
  • Governmental chief scientific and medical advisers are excellent, clear, and credible (at least in the UK). It is scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians who are at the heart of finding solutions to our problems.
  • Which news sources do you trust? Social media and broadcast news appears to dwell on negatives, spin, and those who want to complain about something. Journalists need stories not necessarily facts, but at times like this balance and trustworthiness rather than bias is crucial.
  • Life will be different when the pandemic is over. Public tolerance of globalisation, over-reliance on global supply chains, inaction on climate change, executive excess, businesses that operate with little prudence, and any resistance to ‘working from home’ for sections of society is at a low ebb and will force the hand of politicians over the coming years.

That was a week ago. Would the Badger change anything after another week of lockdown? No. Why? Because the ‘true colours’ of the pre-COVID-19 world are even more evident on a daily basis. Things must change…