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Withdrawal Symptoms

By Richard Pickering, Head of Futures Strategy

Repeals and rebellions The EU Withdrawal Bill took a step closer to enaction this week. Despite threats of rebellion on both sides, it passed the first Commons vote by a comparatively healthy majority of 36. On the face of it the Bill is a relatively functional instrument, aimed at the necessary conversion of EU law to UK law. However, it is of profound constitutional importance. Firstly, intentionally, it will end the primacy of EU law, meaning that in theory the final recourse on legal matters will be to a UK court – the ‘taking back control’ bit. Secondly, critics have pointed to the wide scope of delegated powers that the Bill brings to Government to carry out this process (the ‘Henry VIII clauses’). Whereas the intention behind these clauses is a benign necessity (try adapting 12,000 regulations with full Parliamentary scrutiny), the conference of powers on the Executive is undeniable at a time when its majority is thin and public sentiment is for devolution of power.

Organisational Health Research from McKinsey shows that the top quartile of ‘healthy’ organisations is three times more profitable than the bottom quartile and furthermore that profitability can be increased by working on organisational health. ‘Health’, in this context, means having an aligned vision, implementing against that vision, and being able to renew though internal innovation. Being the physical embodiment of most organisations, office premises are too often a lost component in influencing and communicating a corporate vision. Various studies have shown the link between the office environment and staff performance / innovation; often the associated improvements in the latter can pay entirely for the former. In a world where leases are typically getting shorter, the alternative route of building and owning company headquarters provides a vehicle to manifest a bespoke corporate identity. For some, the inefficient allocation of capital and potential redundancy of the design will be offset by related brand and vision benefits.

Goodbye Mr Chips One of the UK’s leading head teachers has predicted a new dawn for education within 10 years, where teachers’ roles are replaced by technology, opening up ‘the possibility of an Eton or Wellington education for all’. And why not? As both a service, and vehicle for the dissemination of knowledge, education is susceptible to the same digitisation affecting other industries. Even less stretching is the potential for the rapid scaling of university course sizes. At present course numbers are limited by physical and human constraints such as the size of lecture halls. This also creates exclusivity, as not all students can be in the lectures of the best academics. However, the marginal cost of an additional student on an online course is virtually zero and, as technology ameliorates the challenges of remoteness, the differential in experience between online and offline will become less pronounced. Accordingly, our universities of the future may be more about R&D facilities and innovation and less about lecture theatres and education.

Face ID ‘Your iPhone now recognises you’, said Apple design chief Sir Jony Ive at yesterday’s iPhone X launch, and he doesn’t just mean your fingerprint. And with that announcement, facial recognition just went mainstream. Initially for Apple’s customers, this means automatically unlocking their phone and making secure payments. However, the possible applications of the technology are much broader. When we shop online, our identity is typically known (e.g. through logging into the browser, or cookies stored by the website), but the physical world doesn’t currently share the same advantage. For those that have seen the (ironically prescient) film ‘Minority Report’, facial recognition addresses this shortcoming in the form of shops that recognise you as you walk past, and target you with specific advertising. Meanwhile, facial recognition in the office environment could supercharge the potential of smart sensors for matters such as localisation, productivity tracking and security. This, it seems, is an area where technology is now running at a quicker pace than the inevitable regulation of privacy concerns.

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