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Reflection on Inflexions

As a mathematician, it is more or less inevitable that I count things. My spouse ticks those boxes as well. Indeed such counting is not always conscious.

If you ask her at the top of a flight of stairs, how many steps there were, quick as a flash, the answer will come back.

Two numbers in my life have been growing. One by modest increments, the other by a dramatic leap.

The big leap is in the number of emails received, always a key indicator of constituent engagement in issues that matter to them. And with businesses, in particular, facing drop-offs in their activity because of "the bug" it is hardly surprising that contact from them has risen.

The late Andy Groves was the chief executive at Intel, the company that provides the central processor in most of our computers, the "brains" of our machines. His autobiography was entitled, "Only the Paranoid Survive". I should have a copy in my library but have a suspicion that I leant it to someone. Irritatingly, I can't remember who. Or perhaps it's on my bookshelf in Parliament.

One of the many minor inconveniences that have come with social isolation, and I can't rate them any higher than that, is that I do not have access to that bookshelf or to a number of items that are sitting in my accommodation in Edinburgh.

Andy talks about the challenges his business faced from what he described as "strategic inflexions".

Early in his company's life, about 90% of their business was in manufacturing memory chips for computers. They also had a small sideline in making processors (remember? - the "brains") amounting to about 7% of turnover. Careful with these numbers - I can't find his book. But they're approximately right.

On a Friday, he went home for the weekend content with life and apparently quite relaxed.

On Monday he came back to work and discovered that a new chip foundry (yes - that's what factories making silicon chips are called) had opened in South Korea. It was producing a new generation of memory chips with four times (note - this is my memory at work again) the capacity of his company's chips, and at a quarter of the price. Nine-tenths of his business had disappeared over the weekend.

That's what he describes as a "strategic inflexion"—an external event, unforeseen, for which he had no recovery plan, beyond his immediate control.

He was fortunate in that he had a small part of his business that he could ramp up. In the event, it was the making of the company.

This is all eerily similar to the challenge being faced by the many individuals, businesses and companies contacting me. And not all have the good fortune to have an alternative strategy sitting on the shelf that they can adopt.

More fundamentally, when Intel faced their challenge, it was a challenge affecting them nearly alone. For the rest of the world, it was business as usual. But the Coronovirus (COVID-19) shutdown affects us all. And that's why we shall only get out of this by joint endeavour. By rediscovering the virtue of shared actions and values across our communities.

There are wonderful examples being brought to my attention of individuals, groups and businesses adapting to the new world. In some cases, they do so from a proper sense of altruism, and for others, it may help them test a new business model that will create the opportunity for future success.

The flood of contacts to my office is of people in genuine distress, and of others who need connecting with the appropriate government scheme of assistance.

One thing I take out of this is the value of diversity. The idea that one size does not fit all. I claim no particular prescience, but I spoke about this in a Parliamentary debate on Careers on 6th December 2012.

"Clearly, having only a single skill is .. risky .. so we need to learn how to learn and learn how to adapt. The first law of epigenetics is that the more highly optimised an organism is for one environment, the more adversely it is affected by a change in that environment. The way in which villages where everyone was employed in coal faced problems when the coal industry went away perfectly illustrates that risk."

My team and I, and all my Parliamentary colleagues, are challenged by what is happening. But not to the extent that many of our constituents are.

In the domestic setting too, the challenges of social isolation are leading to new adaptations.

Darcey's "Mad Hat"
I have written about my family circle and make no apology in drawing attention to a virtual "Mad Hatter's Tea Party" which is happening in Edinburgh. One way to celebrate over Easter weekend. My god-daughter Darcey seems well prepared as the picture I received yesterday illustrates. I say it's in Edinburgh but actually, I only think it's in Edinburgh and involves her local chums. But cousins in London and beyond might be attending? The joys of virtuality - supported by Andy Grove's Intel technology.

For my part, I shall be counting again today. In the 25 days since my personal isolation started, I have now walked over 100 miles, with this week's daily average being 4.69 miles.

Another figure is engaging my attention. Yesterday I was overdressed and hence over warm. A farmer I exchanged words with on my walk- at a more than 2 metres distance - wiped his brow and commented about how warm it was. Last week he had observed about the cold.

Another week closer to the ending of isolation even if no one can yet predict when it will be safe to do that.

Will we all be fitter to face our future challenges? I plan to be. And I shall keep trying to help those who may find themselves less certain that they will be.


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