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The Great Pause or the Great Acceleration?

In this article, Connected Places Catapult’s Head of Academic Engagement, Will Pearson, considers the persistence of memory as being one of the key qualities of staying connected in the face of adversity, and what this might tell us about the economic recovery. 


The Greek dramatist Aeschylus(525 B.C.-456 B.C.) declared, ‘”Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things.” This is less a reference to every memory being something you will treasure, more a reminder that memories can accrete, stacking up wealth that we come to recognise as wisdom. This is a concept touched on by Aeschylus over the entirety of his creative output: where does wisdom come from, and why does it matter? 

A simple answer is that it keeps us bound together. We codify it in our shared civic institutions, we marvel at it in our creative industries, and as parents and guardians, we pass on our filtered sense of it to the next generation. 

But what kind of memories are we making at this moment? Is there a cultural defibrillation that can restore a rhythm to life that helps us, our families, loved ones, friends and colleagues to grow and prosper? Being selective with what we choose to remember is likely to be futile as for all the positive responses to the challenges of our time – we cannot cherry pick only those we’d like to reflect upon. Good and bad memories of this time are bound inexorably together. We can no more separate them than we could seed and soil, and expect healthy crops to feed us in a few months time. 

Rather, as the Catapult has done in it’s Innovation Briefs, you start to lay down memories, reflections and insights. These shape that most revered of states, the imaginative. Innovation is only made possible through imagination, and the struggle between the personal and collective outputs of imagination is what drives the best of innovation, and lifts it beyond the quotidian and everyday habitual urge to return to ‘business as usual.’ 

‘Far from rejecting the ambiguous legacy of technology, we have to re-program the relation between technology and life, starting with the sphere of work” – Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, “Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility”.

Now to approach the idea of the technological panacea; the human and economic cost of the pandemic laying bare the power structures like never before. How are we to work with technology at this point? It is in part indirectly responsible for the rapid spread of a pathogen (from global aviation to industrial farming methods), and simultaneously our likely route out of economic paralysis. Each SME working to advance decarbonisation instinctively knows the power available at their disposal: High Performance Computing, scaleable data repositories, lightening fast connections and sensor and actuator arrays that provide a fidelity around how we act in the built environment and mobility. 

The critical theorist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi states in “Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility: ‘Far from rejecting the ambiguous legacy of technology, we have to re-program the relation between technology and life, starting with the sphere of work: the subjectivity of cognitive workers, their rebellion, their autonomy and their solidarity.’ 

Technology can remind us in visceral ways what we have and have lost. Photographs, recordings, the poignant symbols of lives intertwined. The potency is there, as Berardi would have it, of an internationalism and shared understanding of our collective planetary experience. He balks at the automation of thinking and of slavish pursuit of growth for growth’s sake. This, he contends, separates our ability to think, and our ability to feel – invoking the mythology of the Titan Prometheus and his gift to humanity of being able to consider a new and better future. 

So our past experiences matter – our successes and failures – but we must surely resist with all our critical faculties the threadbare comfort blanket of a return to business as usual. We must fight to remember the authenticity. What the pandemic can teach us, is that the memories we have, filtered by our unique cultural context, are not so different after all. 

At the start of the lockdown, inspired by the title of a webinar, I took on referring to the time of living in a pandemic as living in the Great Pause. I don’t believe in this anymore, and the experience of working with universities all over the UK reconfigures this as perhaps the Great Acceleration, certainly in terms of leveraging technology to support public health and support the hunt for a vaccine. Their institutional memories have deep roots, and it’s the reason their involvement in designing a collective better future is key, surpassing purely fiscal measures of wellbeing, and shaping prosperous, resilient and above all connected places. 

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