Bristol and Business: A Tale of Two Future Cities
I believe that business is a force for good.
We face many problems as a city: the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact, coping with Brexit, trying to mitigate climate change, delivering greater social justice. Business leaders have to think about the future of our organisations beyond our corporate structures and bottom lines. Even with the onset of AI, the majority of our workforce will still need breathable air, drinkable water, land on which to have stable, affordable housing, good education for children, and reliable, regular transport links. All businesses need to contribute to these and to making the lives of people in Bristol better.
In looking at the future of Bristol and business, I want to paint two pictures: the first pessimistic; the second hopeful.
Backwater Bristol 2033 is not a place you’d want to do more than visit for a weekend, or for work. It’s aesthetically beautiful, but when you take off the green-tinted spectacles it’s no greener than any other city. And it’s unaffordable for the majority.
Most graduates wooed during their time in Bristol have found it too expensive to stay and many have returned home to save for their futures. Some good work has gone elsewhere as businesses have to rely more on international talent, a situation that many employers are familiar with thanks to our breaking of ties with the EU. Many in the tech sector are recruiting virtually. Others are adopting technology and replacing their human workforce with AI.
In the meantime, the lower-skilled jobs market has come to a standstill. Rents have risen, and with little affordable housing, affordable staff has become a distant memory. People are having to make a choice between food and heating. Companies in Backwater Bristol are having to adapt their business models significantly in order to produce goods and services that customers can afford. Our hospitality sector has had to evolve. With fewer front-of-house staff, the remaining small restaurants and pubs are making tough decisions. Downsized independent retailers, cafés and restaurants are seeing that only the largest in the sector are surviving through their scale and buying power to negotiate lower costs.
The business sector is having to pivot, downsize, offshore and/or restructure. Many have disengaged from wider community and city leadership. Moves to introduce living wages, paying suppliers on time, paying green business tariffs, conducting responsible sourcing, adopting ESG – environmental, social and governance measures – are all now deemed to be luxuries that will have to wait until the storms subside. If the paying customer cares, they’ll pay lip-service, but no more.
With fewer people needing to travel to work in service businesses, buses only work on major routes. Public transport has never been fit for purpose but it’s worse now, being either too expensive or not frequent enough to enable people to get to work around their family commitments. Good transport is not only essential for getting to places; it’s important for social mobility, too, which has continued to decline.
In Backwater Bristol, schoolchildren are having to find other ways to get to school. Many primary schools had begun to close due to a lack of pupils back in 2023. In 2033, primary education in Bristol, as in the whole of the UK, is providing online access as the default option in certain areas. Parents have had to adjust their working hours in response and the isolation that was prevalent in pandemic lockdown days has rocketed. Mental health issues arising from this cannot be met by our healthcare services. With the pipeline of future employees affected by this shift, our city faces an uncertain future.
At this time, when Bristol needs leadership and a voice to speak for those who cannot, the opportunities with the 2024 shift to a committee system of city governance remain elusive. Decision-making is convoluted and unable to respond to crises. The appointed leader of the council is unable to negotiate without gaining consensus across all four parties and independents, leading to stagnation on much of the progress that had been made the decade before. The greatest loss is our voice and visibility nationally and internationally. In times of global instability, we have no one to speak for us and our values. Other city regions are louder, more united and more successful. Even Banksy has shifted his operations to (a far) Greater Manchester.
Backwater Bristol remains a collection of 34 villages held loosely together by a tarnished BS postcode and sticky tape. The relationship with our regional authority remains troubled, and while the other three West of England Combined Authority local authorities are able to speak with one voice, Bristol is an outsider to discussions and much of the dwindling funding available goes elsewhere. An unhappy electorate has just chosen once again to spin the referendum wheel to bring back a different governance model to fix what was broken….
That’s a bleak view (and a deliberate provocation). There’s a different future in Brilliant Bristol – another provocation.
There’s no need for green-tinted spectacles in Brilliant Bristol 2033. We’re lean and green and active. Why? Because businesses in the city made a choice to work with city leaders, enabling us to not only protect our most vulnerable but to see our institutions and businesses thrive.
Back in 2019, Mayor Marvin Rees set up the City Office and the One City Plan, creating a network and encouraging cross-sectoral working to address key issues faced by citizens. Even though a committee system was introduced in 2024 following the 2022 referendum, the future of the One City vision was secured by giving custodianship to the cross-party ceremonial mayor. City councillors now work hard with the network to ensure that the voice of the city on both the national and international stage is not lost with the change in governance. The city has moved from having one voice to many voices – but all singing in harmony. We’ve realised that it doesn’t matter which form of governance Bristol has as long as we have a connected city.
This sense of civic identity, greater trust and involvement brings about city-wide and region-wide collaborations to safeguard the welfare of citizens. Businesses are working together with the city’s public and third sectors to ensure that workers can afford to get to work on time while still being able to spend time with their families. Our responsibly used AIs are hooked up to our district heating networks. Nobody has to choose between food and heat. Subsidised public-private bus routes are common. Libraries that could no longer be sustained in their original buildings have been distributed across numerous community and religious buildings. Trees line our streets, keeping them cool, and nature has taken root on our office building walls.
Affordable housing developments have grown above car parks and otherwise undeveloped land. Communities have come together to ensure that natural habitats are protected, and new nature corridors are emerging. The mutual aid networks that developed in the pandemic are now the foundation of community action groups tackling loneliness, mental health and vulnerability within their neighbourhoods. Our healthcare system is able to manage demand as our population is a much healthier one. Our people are living and dying well. A new connectedness is here, underpinned by thriving businesses made profitable by their local communities. The streets are safer thanks to our connected communities, and the idea of children walking and cycling to school no longer fills parents with fear. Our police are resourced and trusted. Our diverse communities are no longer isolated because employers are able to invest in them. Social mobility is improving, which is good for business and the lives of future generations.
The beauty of Brilliant Bristol is that because we’ve achieved all this here it can be achieved anywhere. Other city regions have already begun to notice.
What should the business sector do to help the city move forward? As well as 2023 marking the 650th anniversary of Bristol, it’s the 200th birthday of Business West. Over the past 35 years, the Bristol Initiative – a key part of Business West – has helped the city develop. Things have changed from 35 years ago and we need a new approach. The business sector provides work. But it also has an ongoing responsibility to create a better city and region and a fairer, more just and greener society.
An affordable city is one target. We need to contribute to affordable housing in areas with affordable public transport so employers can have an affordable, healthy workforce. We need affordable food, affordable heat, light, affordable (free at the point of delivery) healthcare, affordable sustainable transport, and reusable and sustainable products.
But we don’t just want to stop at affordable. When we go beyond affordable into a state of thriving, we can help fix our bigger problems. All business needs to be a force for good if we’re going to get there, and that’s going to take leadership and integrity. We have leaders with integrity in Bristol. We just need them to believe that together we can make Brilliant Bristol a reality.
Jaya Chakrabarti is a digital activist using open data and technology for good. She is the director of Nameless Media Group and the social enterprise Semantrica Ltd, which runs the corporate transparency platform TISCreport.org and eco-transparency platform projectvana.org. In 2021, she became the President of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce and Initiative.
Biography (from the future): Jaya Chakrabarti is a digital activist using open data and technology for good. She is the CEO of award-winning tiscreport.org which ended modern slavery in supply chains in 2030, and then achieved global afforestation with projectvana.org in 2032. In 2021 she became the first of many female, ethnic minority Presidents of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce and Initiative since 1823.
This article appears in Bristol 650: Essays on the Future of Bristol, a book bringing together essays from over 30 contributors, addressing some of the challenges the city faces and sharing ideas about how we might meet them. From dealing with the past, the future of social care, culture and housing to building a city of aspiration, the book looks to promote learning about the future of Bristol and encourage new ideas to come forward.
Free copies of Bristol 650: Essays on the Future of Bristol will be available at selected Festival of the Future City events in October 2023, or you can find articles featured in the book at bristolideas.co.uk/bristol650book.