Imagine it. You’re 'walking' down Stonegate and for the first time spot the entrance to Coffee Yard. Following your nose down the snicket you discover Barley Hall. Y

ou never planned to be there but, on a whim, you decide to visit the hall. A helpful guide shows you round and you learn all sorts of stuff about the medieval world, including how they cooked the food for a banquet.

Before you leave you buy a recipe book to try a few things out at home, though you probably won’t be cooking a peacock. and all this without ever leaving your home...

Figures from the Social Investment Business charity show York’s economy dropped by 55 per cent in the first week of April, compared with the same period last year. It is clear we have to have a total rethink about what our city is.

Our universities are closed, tourists cannot visit our streets. What are we going to do about it? How will we reinvent ourselves? Not in some possibly distant future when the lockdown ends, but now. Right now.

I recognise that people and organisations are doing what they can but traditional promotion campaigns and high profile festivals and events may not be enough. While the lockdown and social distancing continue, they cannot happen at all.

One solution may be to transform our fortunes by harnessing the power of the internet in new ways. The seeds of what we might do are already with us in thousands of initiatives that are happening around the world.

People may not be able to visit the physical city but they could visit a virtual York and, with a bit of tweaking, this virtual York might be able to transform our economic prospects.

Imagine a coordinated online experience where anyone could visit the city from anywhere on the planet. They wander through our streets with 360º views of the entire city centre, using technology similar to Google maps. If they see something they like in a shop window they can click and enter the shop and ‘chat’ with a member of staff. With video and ‘chat’ the member of staff can demonstrate or explain the product – it could be a fat rascal or a coffee blend in Bettys, some hazelnut fudge in one of our confectioners, a gift from one of our many independent shops, tools or light bulbs from a hardware store, a restaurant takeaway, you name it … You interact in real-time with staff, make your purchases and have them sent to you.

So let’s go back to Barley Hall. In a virtual York you could happen upon the Hall just as you might in the real city. One click and you're inside joining a guided tour. At the end of your tour you purchase a recipe book and have it sent to you.

In this way we could get people back to work. They might be on their shop premises or they might be at home, chatting via the internet. What matters is that businesses would be open and people would be working inside a virtual online city.

The technologies for this already exist. Go online and you can take 360º virtual tours round all sorts of tourist attractions: from the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland to famous tulip gardens in the Netherlands. There is even a 360º view inside York Minster!

The|Contemporary Art museum in Hastings shows what can be done when people with vision and creativity apply themselves. It is called telepresencing and involves a robot camera and a human guide.

People book a tour and at the agreed hour they meet up through remote conferencing and go round the museum with their guide. Only the robot camera is physically in the museum, controlled by the guide, sitting in her own home.

The point is this: even if people cannot walk down Shambles right now that does not mean that they cannot visit Shambles or enter the shops. We just need to harness the best of our energies and skills to reinvent ourselves and create new ways of interacting.

We have two universities with hundreds of students and academics working in the fields of digital arts, games and technologies. We have our fantastic cultural offer, our museums and world class archives, and our many independent businesses.

Our great city and Minster have been attracting pilgrims and tourists for centuries. Time and again we have shown the capacity to reinvent ourselves. So let’s not wait for the virus to decide when our lives can begin again. Let’s pool our talents and resources and shape our own future.

Christian Vassie