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Unsurprisingly, it has been an incredibly difficult few months for many businesses and individuals, who have had to quickly adapt business models in order to stay afloat during COVID-19 and, particularly in the UK, a recession.

However, alongside the many difficulties that have arrived in 2020, new areas to develop and thrive within the business world have emerged, from working at home to new research and development opportunities.

Connected Places Catapult focus on growing businesses with innovations in mobility services and the built environment that enable new levels of physical, digital and social connectedness. According to the Catapult, businesses have reacted and embraced this change, identifying exciting opportunities and new verticals. To find out more, I speak with Neil Fulton, the agencies Chief Operating Officer.

“Of course, this is something that they have never dealt with before, but the results from our business survey suggest that most firms in the Connected Places ecosystem reacted swiftly to the ‘new normal’, embracing digital platforms and virtual working. Many see this as a moment of opportunity,” he explains.

“We have seen many companies who are still investing in research and development. They are still getting involved in the collaborative research and development work which we as Connected Places Catapult are also involved in. They can still see the benefit of partnerships with complementary organisations to explore their future.”

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From Public to Private – Which sector has been hit hardest?

Being a non-profit organisation, Connected Places Catapult operates at the intersection between the public and private sectors, which allows them convene the disparate parts of the market to help bring a range of companies and specialists to the table to help them discover new opportunities and overcome challenges that will benefit the entire mobility and built environment industries.

Through this, Fulton and his team have seen positive reactions from most organisations within both the public and private sectors, which are exploring new processes to stay ahead of the curve.

“The public sector, and in particular local authorities, have really risen to the occasion to deliver support and services to people up and down the country. That has resulted in some very rapid adoption of innovative approaches and technologies,” says Fulton. “The private sector has, likewise, shown creativity and energy in rising to the challenge – some face greater hurdles than others in resuming or re-engineering their business for the present reality.”

These new approaches include such things as greater levels of data sharing which, in the past, was seen as a barrier within developing businesses and services. Players from both the public and private sectors are having to adapt at a much faster rate in order to address the influx of challenges that they have encountered in 2020.

Fulton believes that it is difficult to say which has been hit hardest, as they have both experienced unique problems. However, he believes that as long as the organisations have the ability and desire to adapt, they will continue to succeed.

During lockdown, Connected Places Catapult has continued to work with UK businesses and SMEs; most notably through its Covid-19 Support Hub. It has created a place to help collate information on dealing with the pandemic as a company, helping them identify what support and funding is available from the government and other organisations.

Connected Places Catapult also has CR&D projects and Accelerator programmes that are still underway where organisations and institutions can get involved and can access funding for their innovative ideas and technologies.

“Importantly, we have seen no decrease in the number of companies bidding for collaborative research and development competitions,” adds Fulton. “This is great news as it demonstrates their longer-term intentions as even if they are successful, the outputs of these projects are usually at least 18 months away.”

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2020: The year of uncertainty

As we approach the end of summer, we are still not completely sure what the remainder of 2020 has in store for the UK’s transport, automotive and mobility industries. In fact, many believe that we will see a new ‘normal’ that will completely reshape the way businesses and services operate.

Fulton believes that large and small organisations have had to make sure that the question that they are answering is, “can they survive this period of uncertainty?”

“Transport providers, for example, rely on their assets, trains and buses, being full or close to capacity at certain periods during the day. Currently, they are not and that has had an immediate impact on their revenues. Many companies are therefore focusing on survival, but there is a balance; on one side they’re streamlining their business, but to be ahead in future they will also be investing in research. I think that this is relatable to large and small companies alike.”

When it comes to mobility, transport operators do not have much choice other than to weather the storm, as fewer people are moving due to the lockdown. Eventually, this will change as people go back to work in offices and general travel around cities increases. However, will we return to the same level of movement and mobility service demand once the pandemic is over?

According to Fulton, it is unlikely that we will see the numbers that we were seeing before the pandemic, which means that these organisations will have to adapt their business models, which is an extremely challenging prospect for them. In addition, this may have an impact on the environment moving forward.

“This also has a huge impact on the built environment as more office space becomes available. Will construction slow down because of this availability?” questions Fulton. “That will likely have a knock-on effect against the trend towards urbanisation. If employees can work from home and achieve the same levels of productivity, then this could have long term implications on the future of cities.”

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What happens next?

Moving forward, it is not just about making services safe to use but making consumers feel safe, from trains to ride-hailing. As we have seen, there has been a move away from public transport in many countries post-lockdown towards private vehicles, which is not great for public sector organisations such as Transport for London.

Although this may be good for car manufacturers, who have seen a rise in demand for private vehicles, it is not great for congestion or emissions within cities. If this continues, it is likely that the work we have done to clean up our cities may come unstuck.

However, Fulton believes that this could present new opportunities for organisations to demonstrate the safety of shared modes, and encourage the take-up of net-zero vehicles as the preferred option.

“The government is committed to decarbonisation and this is also an integral part of the Connected Places Catapult strategy,” he says. “We are working alongside innovators in this space, who are closely aligned to government thinking, have the ability to adapt and the confidence to still be able to invest in research. These are the ones who will ultimately benefit.”

In short, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for UK business, with new opportunities that need to be grasped by innovative and forward-thinking organisations.

“This is a moment of real opportunity for creative, enterprising firms to create the future – integration of modes, net-zero vehicles, data-driven, digital-enabled platforms will be central. There is no doubt it is going to be challenging for all organisations in the short and medium-term and those that have the ability to adapt will be the ones who succeed.”

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