​Reading, roasting and rest

21 March 2019

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A personal view of the evolving role of real estate in a world of technological, social and business change, by Richard Pickering, Head of Futures Strategy.

Reading, roasting and rest

Constitutional crisis ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again’. However, not if the Speaker of the House blocks you from doing so. Whilst we’ve become accustomed to the unexpected over the past year, not many would have calculated that John Bercow would intercede in show-stopping fashion this week to prevent Theresa May’s Parliamentary war of attrition. Bercow’s calculated ruling that May cannot put essentially the same deal back to Parliament changes the game significantly. There can now be no meaningful vote this week, as there is nothing to vote upon. By excluding May’s deal, the options going forward are now: (1) no-deal (already rejected by MPs, but remaining as the default position in the absence of an intervention), (2) a substantially new deal with the EU (already rejected in principle by the EU), (3) a new referendum and (4) a general election. Interestingly there has been support for Bercow’s position from both the pro-Remain camp (who see the opportunity for a new referendum as being closer in reach), and staunch Brexiteers, who sense the softer May alternative will prevail at the cost of a clean break. One man’s decision now puts the UK into what has been described by the Attorney General as a ‘constitutional crisis’. Some are suggesting that his action is the tipping point that will lead to an end to Brexit. However, May’s letter to Donald Tusk this evening, seeking a short extension to Article 50 (to 30 June) seemingly ignores these events and reaffirms her commitment to bringing her same deal to the House, putting her on a collision course with the Speaker. Tusk’s response suggests that he will acquiesce, but whether May can now pull something off by end of June remains in doubt.

Reading rooms The future of books feels almost certain to be one in which they don’t exist. Particularly for reference works, paper is a medium that isn’t searchable, it decays and isn’t the best format to deliver the purpose for which it was invented: documentation and communication. We hear, however, that bookstores are making a comeback; why is this? In part it’s because the digital experience is not yet human enough, and in the same way that people engage better with experiential retail, the act of reading of book can also be an experience, rather than just a vehicle for information gathering. Beyond the ether therefore, the future of libraries must deliver the same experiential benefits as retail. In this space there can be few better libraries than the recently opened LocHal in Tilburg, the Netherlands. Made from a converted 15m high train shed, the ‘library’ is a mix of storage, reading, museum, social, eating and events space. Moveable screens allow for reframing of the cavernous environment to suit the use on that day. Multi-use space like this is essentially the new town square (or ‘new living room’ as it is called in Tilburg), and could be as at home in a shopping mall as in a disused train shed. Ultimately spaces where people want to be will become the most valuable assets in the future, regardless of their existing function or value.

Roasting As the number of pubs declines (now under 50,000 in the UK), the number of coffee shops rises (now over 25,000). Both have a common purpose - you go there to buy a stimulating pot of liquid. However, unlike pubs where the focus is on social drinking, in coffee shops more than 50% of their customers take away their purchase. As coffee machines in offices improve, some workers will start to substitute their £2 drink with a free one. However, substitution also happens the other way around, with coffee shops increasingly serving as a meeting venue. The typical size for a coffee shop is c. 2,000 sq ft; which throws into sharp relief the scale of Starbucks' new 36,000 sq ft store in Tokyo. However, it is not described as a coffee shop, but instead a ‘Roastery’ - of which there are four globally - which acts as a ‘brand amplifier’ for the coffee chain. In common with other showroom concepts, they involve plenty of theatre, a focus on service, and fun ways to discover the brand. This is not a place that you come to take away. The question for brands is how many of these concept stores one needs in a portfolio. For many, the concepts are loss leaders, treated as a cost of positioning the brand. However, for Starbucks these stores reportedly deliver four times the spend per head as traditional stores, suggesting that experience doesn’t have to hit bottom line.

Environmental aesthetics Happy people tend to be productive and loyal people, and so establishing and cultivating the causes of happiness can be a route to enhancing business performance. Many studies have pointed to a correlation between natural environments and happiness; in part leading to the trend towards biophilia in office design. A recent study by the University of Warwick goes further than this, establishing for the first time a statistically significant link between happiness and the ‘scenicness’ of one’s environment. Using data from Mappiness and crowdsourced geocoded ratings from Scenic-or-Not, the researchers then stripped out other potential causal factors, such as companionship, the weather and affluence. Whilst the results found a coincidence between natural environments and the scenicness rating, green space in itself was only a small contributor, with built-up scenic areas generating greater happiness than average quality rural areas. The authors offer various potential reasons for the relationship, including that people feel more restful and safer, and that environmental features, that have proven beneficial throughout history, evoke positive emotions. The findings should prove interesting to policy makers (particularly in respect of conservation), developers (in terms of investment in high-quality design) and those choosing where to locate their office (in terms of the impact on their staff).

Solarville Platform business models, such as Uber, have demonstrated significant potential to divert profit away from established industries, and in doing so create new winners. For socially minded platforms, one of these winners can be local communities. The platform can be used to decentralise and democratise ownership of communal resources, rather than vesting these in a central supplier. An example of this being pioneered by IKEA is the trading of solar power within a small community using a micro-grid and blockchain. They have developed a prototype (1:50 scale) model village, ‘Solarville’ to illustrate their concept. Power is captured through solar panels, stored in batteries and then traded between community members according to need, with these trades facilitated and verified on a blockchain. The benefit for the community is that the money spent on electricity stays within the community, boosting the local economy. Meanwhile, there is less need for expensive infrastructure to be run from the main grid. There is a strong, immediate application for remote communities in sunny climes. However, with improvements in the efficiency of solar capture and battery storage, there is good cause to think that this could soon be the standard model of energy delivery on UK housing projects.

Napping Humans don’t need much to survive: nutrition, oxygen and rest are basically it. In the Western world the first two tend to be in plentiful supply; however, in our increasingly fast paced society, the latter not so much. Being the father of a 3-week old baby, and having traded my 10-minute walk to work for a 90-minute commute, I can empathise with those who feel the need to catch 40 winks during the day. However, other than on the train (with the risk that you’ll wake up in Portsmouth, or leaning on someone’s shoulder) there are few places where one can do this. Enter: Nap Bar. Houston-based furniture and mattress retailer New Living has converted a 400 sq ft storeroom at the back of its premises into a fully-fitted sleep area, equipped with bunk beds and a fan. Believing that there is demand for this operation, the owner is pricing a 20-minute stay at $25 (membership options are also available). If anyone is willing to pay that amount, I have a spare 10 sq ft under my desk, and am open to offers.

Links to referenced reports can found on our website under 'Snippets'. Take a look here.

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