27 September 2019
Parasites, parks and punishments
Thomas Cook Thomas Cook, the travel agency brand that has been a regular feature of the British high street since 1851 has this week collapsed under the weight of £200m of debt. The business which started by offering rail travel packages in the Midlands, was also one of the first businesses to offer tours of Europe. Many reasons have been cited for its difficulties, including overcapacity issues in the airlines, recent reputational issues and uncertainty over Brexit. There was another challenge – last year 64% of its business was through its online channel. I’ve heard some people argue that service providers rather than product-based retailers are less susceptible to e-commerce disruption. That needs to be unpacked. Where service is an important element of overall consumer benefit (e.g. tailored clothing) or where that service absolutely has to be provided in person (e.g. hairdressing), then yes service providers have a strong defence. Where, however, the service is in providing a facilitation function, then quite the opposite is true. Firstly, the economy of information goods favours digital delivery. Secondly, the rise of ‘compare-the-x’ sites has created a culture of decentralised trust, in which we instinctively prefer aggregators and user ratings, whereas previously we have defaulted to an expert advisor. Expert operators like Thomas Cook have struggled in this new environment (on or off the high street), whereas other service providers like the retail banks, have been quickly shifting their business model towards digital delivery (1/3 of bank branches closed last year according to a study this week by Which).
Parasites As housing pressures increase in our major urban centres, the role of the circular economy and the reuse of existing buildings receives sharper focus. A report published by the BBC this week considers the role that ‘parasitic’ buildings can play in addressing this issue, and points to the SHED Project and paraSITE as good examples. Essentially this involves creating what are largely low-cost temporary structures within the curtilage of either unusable permanent structures, such as heritage buildings, or those structures awaiting a more permanent long-term use such as development sites. Parasitic buildings can exist on the roofs of other buildings, and for instance as boxes within the envelope of larger properties. Tending towards modular design, these structures can be erected in as little as a day, with little or no alteration required to the host structure. Whilst these might not be suitable for everyone (it takes a sense of adventure to live in a glass box in the middle of a disused factory), they do address a market for temporary accommodation in response to demand surges. This could for instance be a piece of project work, an office decant during a short refurb or a spike in homelessness that a local authority couldn’t otherwise satisfy at short notice. For landowners, this is potential source of income that would otherwise be challenging to secure without jeopardising longer-term plans.
How to waste a break Over the course of history, technology has had hugely positive impacts for society. At its most basic, technology is what has afforded you your three flat screen TVs and the ability to travel the world and to live well into your 80s, whereas your distant ancestors lived in a cave and died in their 30s. So let’s not be too harsh on tech. However, the psychological impacts of the recent wave of tech are receiving greater focus, as it is found to disconnect us from the real world and from nature. Modern counteractions include mindfulness and biophilic design. The balancing, restorative and productivity benefits of natural settings have been explored and verified in various studies. However, a new study signposted in a recent blog by Sidewalk Labs, finds that the benefits of nature are only felt when one also removes the technology. In the study of 81 people who took 15-minute breaks in hard landscape and parks, with and without laptops, the group that took breaks without laptops in parks had significantly improved attention and productivity compared with the other groups. Sidewalk Labs were advocating for public tech free space as part of local policy (no Wi-Fi for instance in certain parks), but the findings might stretch further. For office occupiers, there is a clear message that: (a) breaks encourage productivity, (b) providing green spaces both within and outside buildings helps to support that, and (c) a break is not a break if your employees take their phones with them.
‘How tech will change the future of our lives’ Dell Technologies has released their view on how our lives will change by 2030 through the implementation of emerging tech, and there are profound implications for real estate. They see the drivers of change coming from a combination of: (a) a proliferation of passive sensors, (b) mobile edge computing (much quicker processing), (c) 5G+ (superfast mobile connectivity), (d) AI / machine learning (the ability to learn from large data sets), and (e) ‘extended reality’ (the blending of the real and virtual worlds. The five resulting trends are: (1) ‘networked reality’ (a permanent immersive overlay, including instant virtual teleportation), (2) ‘networked matter’ (a fully autonomous supply chain, and the ability to dock AVs into built structures, (3) sentient cities (ones which can manage their own transport systems), (4) smart assistants (able to solve complex non-linear tasks), and (5) social robots (which develop learning and empathy). The latter two will change workforce composition, and how we go about work, whereas the first three could have radical impacts on the penalty of distance. Through a combination of being able to move oneself virtually to new locations, and on the other hand, move products to you more efficiently and autonomously, the need to have tightly located ecosystems will start to weaken. A large percentage of property value is based on proximity, and so the old rules may need to be rewritten. Dell lists a series of challenges to adoption of these technologies, including privacy, information overload and ‘algorithm inequality’. Worth a read.
Off with his head! Boris Johnson hasn’t been having a great run of things; and having this week become the first Prime Minister to have been found to have misled the reigning monarch probably won’t improve matters. With cries of treason, the mind wanders to what fate might await Mr Johnson in respect of this heinous crime. Actually, no crime has been committed, but BoJo might have been sweating for a few minutes whilst he looked up the definition of treason on the statute book. High treason dates back to the Treason Act 1351 and covers matters such as killing the Queen, declaring war against her, or siding with her enemies (but nothing about misleading). Unbelievably, the penalty for such crime was, until as recently as 1998, mandatory execution, usually by hanging, drawing and quartering. This isn’t the only ancient law that has been recently repealed or amended. Until 1960, every Englishman was required to keep and practice with a longbow. It was also apparently legal to kill a Scotsman with a bow within the city walls of York; however, a documented FOI request of York CC in 2012 revealed that there had (reassuringly) been no such legal shootings in the previous 10 years. Whilst there is some debate about such on the Law Commission website, it might also be a crime to allow a common pet dog to mate with a royal dog, to stand sockless within 100 yards of the Queen and to stick a stamp containing the Queen’s head upside down on an envelope. Finally, the legality of dying in Parliament has also been questioned. According to the Law Commission the suggestion that physical death in Parliament is a crime is just an urban myth. As to career death, we shall see.
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