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Future, Fountains and Fools

By Richard Pickering, Head of Futures Strategy

T minus 1  We started this blog the week after the EU referendum. If back then the horizon to Brexit felt distant, at 12 months out we are now in the home straight, albeit knowing little more than we did. In many respects, the economic blip associated with the vote has corrected. The FTSE 100 is about 1,000 points up on its pre-vote position; the pound has just about returned to its pre-vote position against the dollar, productivity is up, unemployment is down, inflation has peaked and we are now running a budget surplus. However, there is a lot to do, and the typical rejoinder is that the real effects won’t materialise until we have left. Looking at the path ahead, there is a huge amount of effort required, not only to negotiate new terms with our principal trading partner, but also new relationships with the wider world. It strikes me that one of the biggest risks is meeting the deadline, with some already calling for an extension. Potentially the whole thing (including the transition period) will unravel if we don’t achieve some sort of deal this calendar year. The EU knows that, but there remains a question of who will blink first.

The City of the Future  The Government has launched its mission to find the UK’s first ‘5G city’ where it will investigate ‘how new technology can make urban communities inherently safer, greener, more efficient and more attractive places to live.’ This includes trialling new remote health consultations, using sensors to minimise traffic jams, using VR/AR at tourist attractions, and maintaining assembly lines using live data. Applications are invited from local authorities, with the trial area likely to be home to around 500,000 people. Bristol, which hosted the first public 5G trial last month, is likely to be a strong contender, but hot competition is expected. 5G is not just faster broadband; it is the bedrock of our future cities. Its speed makes home VR/AR environments a reality. Its low latency will unlock industrial applications and its reliability and security enables critical services and autonomous vehicle applications. In the same way that cities that are underinvested in public transport fall behind, 5G investment is likely to provide a competitive advantage and attract the next generation of occupiers going forwards.

Gender pay gap  The property industry has predictably been found wanting in the recently published gender pay gap results. Why is this? Where gender discrimination does exist, there are hopefully very few who wouldn’t want to stamp it out. However, the reasons for a pay gap are typical more complex and multivariate than represented by the blunt average required to be disclosed by law (described by some as ‘useless’). In the property industry’s case, by far the leading reason for the gap is that there are very few women at the senior end of the profession where the bigger salaries exist. In part this is due to an historic failure to attract women to the sector. Will changing times correct this? When I joined C&W 13 years ago our graduate intake comprised 23% women; the same intake now is evenly balanced. If this trend flushes through to senior positions across the industry, then in time the results will look very different.  However, real estate itself and particularly workplace strategies have a role to play in making sure that this happens. Offering all employees flexible and synergistic work-life options has become a key factor in retaining talent long term. The flexible workplace of the future needs to be part of the solution.

Drinking Fountains  From the dawn of recorded history, humans have built cities close to water sources. Modern plumbing now renders this need redundant – or does it? When out shopping or sightseeing in UK cities, we don’t have access to water without buying a plastic bottle or sitting down in a café. In (admittedly warmer) cities such as Paris and Rome, the local authority provides free drinking water fountains; whereas the declining trend to do likewise in the UK might show signs of reversing. Hull, Bristol and London are among those proposing new fountains. Sadiq Khan has called on London’s landowners to volunteer sites in areas of high pedestrian traffic; the first being installed last week in Kingly Court off Carnaby Street. This pump is appropriately in close proximity to John Snow’s infamous water pump found to be the source of a cholera epidemic in 1854. In the same way that Snow’s finding provoked a reinvention of water systems across the world, perhaps the Kingly Court pump will be a portent of things to come.

No fooling  Making April Fools jokes is an art that should be left to experts, especially in today’s unpredictable world. Going overly wacky (e.g. ‘spaghetti farmers’) is always the wiser choice, creating a healthy position where the majority of one’s audience are wise to the joke, at the expense of the minority who are not.  If, however, your story is too plausible then you run the risk of the joke being on you, as highlighted by a couple of recent examples. Last week the Mayor of the French town of Beauvais thought it would be amusing to announce that IKEA was coming to town bringing 4,000 jobs. This came as news to the Swedish furniture giant, and worse news to her electorate when she had to retract the statement, declaring her to be le ‘poisson d’avril’. Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s tweet that Tesla had gone into ‘Chapter 14 and a half’ insolvency must have been a little close to the bone for investors. A picture of Musk laying in a cardboard box marked ‘bankwupt’ precipitated a sharp drop in the auto company’s stock.  In 2016 Nigel Farage announced he was backing the Remain campaign, and the SNP announced a candidate for the Mayor of London. Stranger things have happened since…

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