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Plus ca change: Many challenges remain the same from the start of this century

Opinion-May-June-Detail

The start of this new decade has made me think about how things might look for small
businesses in another 10 years. While making firm predictions is a mug’s game, some trends give us a clue as to what could change between now and 2030.

It’s incredible to compare the way things are now with how they were at start of the 2010s or 2000s – although that wasn’t my first reaction when I dug the edition of First Voice from the beginning of 2000 out of the archive.

As I glanced at the main news story, which revealed members were split over
Europe (in this case the pros and cons of joining the single currency) I couldn’t help thinking: “Ah, nothing really changes”.


Then I put the magazine on the coffee table face-down and spotted the advert on the back cover: a brick-like Nokia 5110 mobile with a stumpy aerial, tiny green screen and groups of letters associated with each number button for texting. The advert
boasted peak calls “from only 7.2p per minute”.

The year 2000 saw the rise of Big Brother, Coldplay and Ali G. Billy Elliot was in the cinemas. In Greenwich, the Millennium Dome opened… and flopped. It feels like a world away. The pace of change in the two decades since has been astonishing.

So, what could the 2020s bring for small businesses? Sustainability is already firmly in the small business vocabulary, and is likely to become even more important. From reducing single-use plastics to consuming energy in a smarter way, boosting sustainability will be both a great opportunity and a challenge for some smaller firms.

There is also a need for public investment in infrastructure. The growth of cleaner electric vehicles, for example, will only work if there are sufficient charging points to top them up.

Despite that Nokia 5110 looking like a relic, the problems of poor signal that its users will have faced continue in this era of smartphones. It is ridiculous that ‘not-spots’ still exist in 2020.

That, together with patchy broadband, must be addressed quickly.

Alongside technological change comes the changing workplace, and the need for small business owners and employees to keep their skills up to date.

This is especially the case when it comes to digital skills. Those in power must also
adapt the education system to ensure that the next generation of workers and entrepreneurs has the necessary skills and abilities as businesses evolve and try to take
advantage of new opportunities.

It’s hard to imagine what high streets and town centres will look like in 2030, but I’m optimistic.

With creativity and the right support, high streets can adapt to
changing consumer trends and could be re-imagined as community hubs. It won’t
just take imagination to make that happen, though – there must be a concerted effort from politicians, and this must involve addressing business rates.

That January 2000 edition of First Voice mentioned one issue that sadly hasn’t changed much since: the north-south divide when it comes to investment and infrastructure.

As we embrace the 2020s, there must be support for small businesses and communities in all parts of the UK to evolve and grow, making the most of opportunities the coming years may bring.

Martin McTague is FSB Chairman, Policy and Advocacy