10 October 2019
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.
Tasks, trademarks and trees
Task jumping The challenge of worker productivity continues to rear its head. Faced with a global productivity slowdown, how should businesses find a stretch from their workforce? The results of a recent study by Workfront points to the potential size of the prize. The study finds that only 43% of a typical knowledge worker’s time is spent doing the job that they were hired to do. The majority is spent performing largely administrative and meaningless tasks and addressing distracting emails that inevitably carry a lower opportunity cost. This is also listed as the top factor that leaves employees unfulfilled at work. The trick therefore for businesses seeking out productivity is to pry these tasks away from their professionals and push them down to more junior resource and automation. Further studies find that we spend most time replying to emails in the mornings, whereas the part of the day that we tend to focus most on our core jobs is mid-afternoon. ‘Task jumping’ (leaping between many small bits of work) is identified as a significant productivity drag. But how do our office environments address this? For most of us, we will sit at the same desk every day, facing off to a live information terminal, which fires new tasks at us constantly. If productivity is more to do with longer periods of concentration (with or without others), then this feels like a very unsatisfactory arrangement. In my first job there was an ‘e-mail computer’ in the corner of the office which was the only way to send and receive emails (a bit like a fax machine). Desks were then left to concentration tasks. Backward progress?
Virtual student In the wake of one of the biggest economic shifts since the Industrial Revolution, the need for reskilling and upskilling comes into sharp focus, as does the future of education. A recently published global survey by Pearson will prove interesting reading for those involved in the administration of education and those investing in the sector. Whilst the significant majority of respondents believed that education was important as a career stepping-stone and in informing personal identity, less than half of those in the US and Europe felt that higher education had prepared them for their career. Increasingly, learners are veering away from traditional education and traditional providers and towards DIY and vocational sources. Similarly, the age at which one undertakes tertiary education is shifting from something you do after school, to something that you undertake at various points during your life. The report finds that digital and virtual learning will be the new normal within 10 years and that coding will rise above Chinese and Spanish to be the world’s second language. Taken at face value, this highlights significant disruption threats to the traditional model which relies on expensive lecturers, real estate and requires payment of high tuition fees and accommodation at a time when the student isn’t earning. A separate recent study forecasts that massive open online courses (‘MOOCs’) will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 41% to 2026, and rise $61bn in value over the same period.
Embodied carbon This week further rounds of protests by environmentalist group Extinction Rebellion have gained momentum, with protesters estimated to be in the tens of thousands. Their campaign strategy is predicated on a principle established by a Harvard scientist, which hypothesises that non-violent protests by more than 3.5% of a population is all that is required to gain policy support from (or topple) a government. There is a gulf between current numbers and the 2.3m needed in the UK to achieve that, but support is building, and as sentiment grows, the policy focus is likely to turn quickly to the real estate sector – a significant contributor to energy use. In the meantime, self-regulation, charitable support and unilateral industry action is also anticipated to increase. Two examples of that this week give a flavour for the range of opportunities. Firstly, with the help of 30 strategic backers, Skanska has soft launched an ‘Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator’. The open-source tool allows developers and contractors to quantify a project’s carbon footprint, which in beta testing has reportedly allowed projects to achieve a 30% cost-neutral embodied carbon reduction. Meanwhile, the Mayor of London, in conjunction with the Woodland Trust, is giving away 55,000 trees to Londoners as part of the target of increasing London’s tree canopy by 10% by 2050. If you want to do your bit, apply for one here.
Drone delivery? Do you remember about three years ago, when drones and mobile robots were on the front page of every presentation about the future of real estate? As with many emerging technologies, their hype has not been matched by delivery. The primary use of drones today is to take pictures from height; something which is both fun for the public and useful for surveyors. However, using them as a delivery mechanism has been delayed for several reasons. The primary one is regulation. It was only in April this year that Wing became the first carrier to achieve the US Federal Aviation Administration approvals needed for air carriage. This week UPS has achieved the same, whilst Amazon awaits approval of its application. These are serious steps forward. Secondly, in order to effect deliveries, the drones need somewhere to land their products. No problem if you live on a farm, but much more of a challenge for the vast majority of urban deliveries. Again, the big firms are thinking about this. Walmart filed two patent applications this week for landing pads and delivery chutes that take a parcel essentially from a ledge outside a building into its interior. These are quite significant interventions in the building fabric that can really only apply to commercial or large flatted schemes. The chances of you knocking a hole in the wall of your house to achieve this feels limited. The implication must be that for the time being deliveries will be to consolidation depots and that the last steps to the front door remain elusive.
Gross Domestic Product People used to open shops to sell stuff, however, that now feels very old hat. These days the reasons for becoming a shopkeeper include: brand engagement, showrooming, service outreach, customer data gathering, to add vitality to a coworking facility, to operate a church or perhaps because you were just lacking better things to do and the space was cheap. Add to that this week: to preserve one’s intellectual property rights. Shadowy graffiti artist Banksy has opened a pop-up in the centre of Croydon, with the sole purpose of asserting his right to use his own name. Trademark law states that if the holder of a brand does not use their own mark, then others can do so in their place. This is a bit of a problem for someone who is deliberately anonymous; and an opportunity that has been seized upon by a greetings card company, which is selling look-a-like merchandise. To say that Banksy’s pop-up is packed would be a lie, because its doors will in fact never open; however, the window display is reported to have been creating congestion up and down Church Street. Of course, there is also nothing that you can actually buy in the shop; nevertheless, a promised online pairing will sell a variety of ‘impractical and offensive’ merchandise. And who said that the high street was dead?
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