Brain Sciences


The future of London: recognising the challenges whilst paving the way for new opportunities

1 March 2021

Written by Professor Alan Thompson, Dean, Faculty of Brain Sciences and Pro Vice Provost (London), UCL.

Alan Thompson

In this month’s London update I am delighted to welcome Siobhan Morris, Head of Programmes, UCL Grand Challenge of Justice & Equality, and Dr Olivia Stevenson, Deputy Director of UCL Public Policy who have kindly provided an update on their recent work with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and Travers Smith, where they surveyed businesses across London on their role in addressing societal inequalities.

The survey, combined with recent engagement with industry across the capital through a roundtable in late 2020, has demonstrated the challenges and important next steps which we can take in building a more inclusive society. COVID-19 has by all means exacerbated social inequalities however by engaging with industry and business in London, we can start to build a partnership approach that will allow for greater opportunities for all. Read more on Siobhan and Olivia’s work below.

I was also delighted to learn that London has scored top place in the recent Schroders annual ranking as top city to invest in. Scoring highly in innovation and transport, I’m thrilled to see recognition for our capital city and this score demonstrates the potential to renew London post-COVID.

Given the recent announcements from UK Government regarding steps towards coming out of the pandemic, it is timely that we consider new opportunities for partnerships and opportunities across London, which bring about positive societal change. It is therefore opportune that Dr Anne Lane, Chief Executive Officer of UCL Business has been invited to join the UKRI Research England-London Group in order to explore potential developments, and I look forward to working with Anne to support London-focussed opportunities as they arise.

Building a more inclusive and equitable society in London: guest piece written by Siobhan Morris and Dr Olivia Stevenson on the challenges we face ahead in our capital city

COVID-19 has brought challenges like no other for businesses. With firms also needing to meet the challenges of Brexit preparedness, the resilience and adaptability amid this adversity has been remarkable. Amongst this, there has been recognition of opportunities for change in the longer term - one area of which is businesses’ role in tackling social inequalities.

In a recent CBI survey created in partnership with UCL’s Grand Challenge of Justice & Equality, UCL Public Policy, and Travers Smith, undertaken at the end of last year, we drew together the views of nearly 200 of the capital’s business leaders to explore the role of businesses in addressing societal inequalities.

The survey found a clear commitment from London business leaders of all sizes and sectors to reduce inequalities in society through a focus on innovation, employee wellbeing and inclusivity in the wake of the pandemic, with more than 80% of respondents believing that the capital’s business community can do more to address this issue.

Despite the current challenging business environment, 75% of respondents said tackling inequalities in society over the next 6-12 months is important to their business, with one in five reporting this to be an "extremely important" business priority. As a collective, the business community appears clear in recognising the need for action to ensure an equitable and inclusive recovery from COVID-19.

Taking stock

Yet, at an individual business level, analysis of findings also shows a hierarchy of inequalities that persists across the labour market, with gender equality receiving more attention than action on other protected characteristics. Whilst a significant majority of firms (both large and small) stated they had continued to report on their gender pay gap, despite the scheme being postponed in 2020 due to the pandemic, reporting on other protected characteristics such as disability and ethnicity remains very low.

Only 9% of firms surveyed reported that they collect data on their disability pay gap – the lowest percentage of all answers given, with a greater proportion of firms recording employee education (at 19%) and the community engagement of employees (12%).  

Similarly, while over a fifth of London business leaders stated their firms are tracking their ethnicity pay gap, this still lags significantly behind gender pay gap reporting by more than double the percentage points.

Greater data collection, conducted in discussion with employees and grounded in employee experiences, can guide actions to reduce inequalities and foster inclusion. And business themselves recognise this. When asked what the most effective and practical ways for business to measure improvements in diversity, inclusion, and equality were, 43% of respondents stated greater data collection. Strikingly, this figure rose to 73% for respondents from larger firms. Yet, despite this high level of support for greater collection, of the same respondents, only 43% recorded that they currently report ethnicity pay gaps.

Taking action

It is not enough to focus on measuring inequalities alone, we also need to make sure inequalities are meaningfully addressed. Avoiding creating (or, indeed, cementing) hierarchies of inequalities is critical. Businesses should look at inequalities holistically and through an intersectional lens, not just focus action on certain protected characteristics. They also need to look at what inequalities exist in their own businesses as well as reaching out to understand how wider structural inequalities in society affects business.

Businesses themselves recognised that partnerships are vital to this, with over 60% of respondents stating that reducing inequalities in society is an equal partnership between government and business.

This point also featured in a roundtable we organised on Implementing an Inclusive Economy in London’, chaired by Amy Lightstone and Professor Sir Geoff Mulgan, which explored universities’ role in building forward better in London. Bringing together UCL academics, policy stakeholders, civil society and business leaders, participants noted that London boroughs, government, universities, and businesses are not currently connected in the best possible way to tackle the inequalities prevalent in society and that the creation of shared living data dashboards for London would support evidence-driven decision making over the coming years.

However, data only takes you so far; London also needs better evaluation of what is and isn’t working. New arrangements could link up universities with policy stakeholders, such as the GLA and the London Boroughs, to orchestrate rapid learning.

There is recognition in both government, local boroughs and businesses of the need to work in partnership to tackle societal challenges and to do so through working with universities. The Greater London Authority (GLA) is currently working on how to develop relationships with higher education and share research priorities, and UCL were able to rapidly integrate with Camden Local Authority on their collaborative survey work.

But there is more that universities can do to actively broker relationships and orchestrate collaboration between government, academia, business, and community organisations to build forward better in London.

As the roundtable discussion and findings of the survey demonstrate, despite the immense challenges faced this year, the business community in London views tackling inequalities in society as a key priority. Aligning such sentiment with university and government priorities to build partnerships to tackle structural inequalities is now urgently required.  With such an approach, steps can be taken towards building a more inclusive and equitable society in London and beyond.



Colleagues from across UCL have continued to impact London and Londoners through their research and activities. To share just a few examples…

UCL experts alongside those from Healthy Streets and Tranquil City have launched the Healthy Streets Index, an interactive map which rates every street in London based on how healthy an area is. Using factors which are known to have the biggest impact on health and wellbeing, the Index has been adopted by the Mayor of London within the Mayor’s Transport Strategy.

UCL Institute for Global Prosperity has partnered with Camden Council, Lendlease and Camden Giving to develop a new prosperity and wellbeing index for Euston. The Good Life Euston initiative will develop a set of indicators to measure wellbeing in Euston and across the whole of Camden over 18 months. The research collaboration will train and employ 24 citizen social scientists to conduct the research in their communities, measuring the impact of regeneration on local communities.

Professor Claire Cameron, Institute of Education is leading a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and supported by Newham Council to examine the social, economic and health impacts of COVID-19 in pregnant women and families with children under 5 years. The findings will enable the researchers to understand how families in Newham have been adversely affected by the pandemic in order to strengthen recovery plans moving forward.

Finally I’d like to raise awareness of the recently announced £1 million Resilience Fund supported by the Mayor of London, delivered in partnership with Nesta and funded by the London Economic Action Partnership (LEAP). Grants of up to £50,000 are available to innovators developing solutions to help the city emerge stronger from COVID-19. Topics including activating highstreets, air quality, renewable energy and enabling COVID-safe travel in London are amongst challenges identified by the Resilience Partners and the Mayor of London. The deadline for applications is 01 April 2021.

To share any London impact stories or to get in touch, please contact Amy Lightstone.