By Professor Robert MacIntosh

WHAT does an enforced stretch of social distancing and remote working mean for the future economy of Scotland?

For hospitality, retail and the wider experience economy the challenges are already abundantly clear, with “footfall” businesses fighting for survival, if they haven’t already conceded defeat.

Manufacturing firms face concerns about working practices, supply chains and customer demand, but it remains possible for most to operate and even, in some cases, to thrive. Organisations in the service, public, education, and charity sectors have shown remarkable resilience through an extended period of remote working, with surveys reflecting a desire among employees for that solution to form part of future working patterns.

In this context, faster journey times to empty city centres – as promised by HS2, the poster child for the UK Government’s “levelling-up” agenda – feels like an outdated irrelevance. Moreover, by continuing to focus myopically on cities, we risk overlooking policy interventions that would deliver long-term efficiency and wellbeing benefits beyond this pandemic.

For Scotland, refocusing economic investment on digital rather than physical infrastructure could be transformative. In countless roles and sectors we are discovering that digital work is still work. Yes, some things will always be best done face-to-face but, equally, organisations large and small have been able to function effectively via remote meetings and digital decision making, so why squander the wider benefits this brings?

Spending less time, money and carbon commuting, seeing more of our loved ones, and being more present in local communities all contribute to healthier individuals, more vibrant communities, and a brighter future. Understandably, someone who is using their ironing board as a height-adjustable workstation whilst struggling with slow or no internet access might dream of the relative advantages and orthopaedic comfort of the office. But we are still relatively new to this and modern conveniences can be provided with a bit of imagination and effort.

Scotland has some of the most beautiful countryside – natural capital, in the new lexicon – in the world. Beyond the central belt, it is relatively underpopulated. A comprehensive levelling-up of the digital infrastructure would revolutionise Scotland’s capacity for flexible working and enhance our attractiveness as a home for people who might choose to work here, pay taxes, and contribute to communities in myriad ways.

Corporate employees could work in rural environments just as easily as they could in city centres, growing the tax income and talent pool in ways that are unthinkable without remote working. Employees could combine intermittent use of high-quality working spaces in a rural community hub with periodic visits to the urban headquarters of their employer. Rural and corporate life could co-exist, marrying superlative quality of life with high-calibre, knowledge intensive work in our towns, villages and islands.

The single key enabler for this state of occupational bliss is a reliable, large-capacity digital infrastructure. The Government could provide that at a fraction of the cost of HS2 and with far less upheaval. Laying fibre is expensive, whilst erecting 5G masts requires providers to navigate the often painful and protracted process of securing planning consent.

The state could actively prioritise support on both those fronts by subsidising the costs and fast-tracking the necessary approvals. If those mechanisms also factored-in a requirement for social inclusion – in the form of free or subsidised access to the resulting, national digital network – you can begin to envisage a genuine levelling-up of opportunity and a brighter, more equitable future for everyone in Scotland.

Professor Robert MacIntosh is head of social sciences, Edinburgh Business School