As the research spanned many months, it’s a strange hybrid of pre and post-Covid concerns – a stark reminder that pandemics are just one of the many heightened threats facing humanity over the coming decades.
We’ve just published issue 06 of The Possible, a magazine about the future of cities that my company Wordmule produces on behalf of global engineering firm WSP. And although much of the content was finalised before Covid-19 struck, the topics it covers remain just as relevant: the spread of the disease and its impact on different communities has been directly influenced by the way our cities are governed, the quality of the spaces we inhabit and the air we breathe.
This issue explores the future of healthcare in an age when pandemics are just one of the growing threats to humanity, and looks at the ways in which urban designers can deploy “nudge theory” to encourage healthier behaviours – just how far should we go? Our future health will be increasingly about data too. The mind-bogglingly enormous quantities generated by smart city technologies will be invaluable for creating healthier, more resilient places – but only if it is accessible to us, rather than hoarded and monetised by tech companies. So we have an in-depth feature about the vital but under-explored topic of data governance.
There are some inspiring solutions too: planned properly, micromobility could replace cars and plug gaps in public transit systems to bring about permanently clearer skies and more equal streets. And I love Nick Rose’s vision of how urban agriculture could deliver a secure, sustainable source of food, while making cities greener, more pleasant places to live.
Of course, climate change will continue to exert a major pressure on population health over the years, decades, centuries to come. The embodied carbon in buildings can account for one-third or more of their total greenhouse gas emissions, so we urgently need to get to grips with that too. We have a 12-page article about what we know, what we don’t and what designers can do to make a meaningful contribution to the fight against climate change.
The Possible is about the future of buildings and cities and the ideas and innovations that can help them function better. In this issue we explore the limits on city density, the future of education, next-generation construction materials and whether we’ll ever be able to design a totally recyclable building. Chicago architect Gordon Gill, designer of the 1km-tall Kingdom Tower, talks about his responsibilities and regrets, and psychologist Naomi Shragai investigates what’s really happening when project teams collaborate. In our Connected Thinking section, contributors contemplate how drones will shape development in Africa, the seismic threat to Asia’s megacities, hospital design in a post-antibiotic world, how architects can ensure the wellbeing of site workers thousands of miles away, and why engineers should read more philosophy. It was designed by Supermassive and the cover illustration is by Noma Bar.
Longstanding client WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff wanted to raise its profile as a thought leader in its chosen fields, so the global marketing team commissioned my company, Wordmule, to produce a new client publication.
The result is “The Possible”, a 68-page print magazine about the future of buildings and cities and the innovative ideas and technologies that can help them function better. It has an initial circulation of 10,000 targeted at a senior audience of architects, developers, contractors, city planners, government agencies and institutes, and building users worldwide.
To inform the magazine’s content, and the company’s thought leadership strategy more broadly, we conducted 30+ in-depth interviews with the company’s clients and partners around the world, as well as speaking to specialists and experts among its 36,000 employees. We then planned, commissioned, wrote and edited the articles, and managed the project throughout, working with creative agency Supermassive and printer Greenshires. The first issue of The Possible was published in November 2016, and the second is due out in spring 2017.
The first issue included articles by a diverse range of global contributors, as well as in-depth features on adapting healthcare and the built environment for an ageing demographic; modular construction and encouraging creativity in the workplace, and a stunning cover illustration by Noma Bar.
Professor Heinz Wolff works in a building that bears his name, surrounded by a lifetime of his own inventions – machines for Antarctic explorers, astronauts, soldiers, divers, people with disabilities, people with arthritis. That’s where I went to meet him in August, to find out about his latest project: not a machine, but an entirely new economic system designed to solve the problem of how cash-strapped Western societies can afford to care for a much larger elderly population. Now aged 88, the father of bioengineering still comes to Brunel University in west London five days a week to continue his pioneering work. But for the first time in his long career, he doesn’t think technology can provide the answer – a shift in thinking that he has compared to a religious conversion. “I came to the conclusion that if you’re having to care for a large number of elderly people who were not necessarily in total control of their cognition, then technology wasn’t going to be an awful lot of use. What you wanted was humanity.”
Niall Martin, COO of Mission Therapeutics, is stumped. This comes as little surprise given his company’s business is “developing small molecule drugs to target deubiquitinating enzymes involved in the DNA damage response, with the aim of inducing synthetic lethality”. But that’s not the problem. It’s space. “We’ve got 35 people and we could expand. We’re looking to get finance, we’re looking at grants and deals with other companies, and all of those are bringing in headcount. We could go to 45 within the next few months but we just don’t have the space to do that.”
This is the challenge facing many SME firms in the UK life sciences industry, the subject of this special report for Estates Gazette. The government wants the UK to become the global hub for life sciences, a sprawling £868bn mega-sector spanning pharmaceuticals, medical technology and biotechnology and encompassing everything from hospital equipment and prosthetic limbs to drug development and gene therapy. But SMEs are the lifeblood of the industry, and if they can’t find suitable lab space, they can’t grow. The fundamental problem seems to be reconciling biotech’s dynamism with property investors’ craving for certainty. Laboratories are expensive to build and highly specialised for different fields, but corporate life cycles are short and unpredictable. Firms may swell exponentially when their eureka moment arrives, or disband overnight if it turns into a dead end. So what’s the answer? I spoke to people across the property and life sciences sectors trying to make a breakthrough.
The Midlands is renowned for its metal exports in many forms. What is less well known is that it’s the UK’s medical technology heartland, which means it produces quite a lot of hospital equipment and orthopaedic devices too. Medtech is an £18bn subsector of the UK’s life sciences industry, and together, the West and East Midlands are home to 30% of companies. In this piece for Estates Gazette, I interviewed Sir Albert Bore, leader of Birmingham city council, about his mission to raise the region’s medtech profile and the £800m property portfolio he’s identified to do it.
On 19 July, when the Cabinet Office released the numbers for construction spending over the next three years, a collective “what the … ?” could be heard across the industry. It was the figures for the Department of Health that set alarm bells ringing – they appeared to show a framework worth £2.9bn over five years tailing off to almost nothing in just three. For PFI meanwhile, on which the government was supposed to have gone lukewarm, spending was to expand rapidly. What was going on? Were these unfamiliar figures the scorched tyre marks from yet another screeching handbrake turn in government policy? I investigated for Building magazine and found there was a very simple explanation… And I also uncovered this news story about a £90m PFI hospital on hold, as healthcare trusts struggle to come to terms with their new financial independence.
Leo Miller’s flash of inspiration came when he nearly burnt down his student house. For Isaac Teece, it was the realisation that if he found changing a light bulb difficult at 21, it was going to be considerably harder in 50 years’ time. They’re the winners of a competition which challenged industrial design students at Northumbria University to come up with ‘inclusive designs’ that would enable elderly or disabled people to live independently. It might seem odd that experiences of life in a student house should influence the design of extra care schemes, but that was the point – the competition’s organisers wanted products that anyone would be happy to have in their homes, and that wouldn’t give them “that sinking feeling that you’re entering older people’s housing”. In this article for Inside Housing, I found out what they came up with.