Peak stuff, big data and the experience economy

What will cities look like when we can get everything we want from the comfort of our homes? I explored the future of shopping districts in an online world for The Possible, a thought-leadership magazine that my company Wordmule produced for global engineering firm WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff. This 12-page infographic-style feature also became the basis for a series of client events hosted by the company’s specialist retail team. Design by Supermassive.

The Possible, Future of shopping districts

The Possible: a thought-leadership magazine for WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff

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.

Cover of The Possible 01

“People don’t want to hear it. If they get put in the flood zone, they think the maps are wrong”

Flooding will become the new normal during the 21st century, as sea levels rise and rainfall becomes more intense due to global warming, and cities sprawl along coasts and rivers.

Half a billion people are affected every year, and this could quadruple by 2050, according to the EU’s Global Flood Observatory. Reinsurance broker Aon Benfield has calculated that flooding was responsible for $27bn of economic losses in 2015, often in areas that never used to flood. That was a good year – the annual average loss over the last decade has been $48bn.

In this brilliantly illustrated cover feature for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, I looked at how the economics of property will have to adapt to a much wetter world. By 2070, Kolkata and Mumbai will be the two cities whose populations will be most at risk, while Miami, Guangzhou, New York and Kolkata will have the most to lose in terms of assets.

Spending on flood protection is often targeted at the highest value land or assets, while the poorer the community, the less able it will be to recover from a disaster. One contributor warned of the creation of “flood ghettos”: “It’s not just the immediate flood area, it affects the surrounding areas, and the wider community drifts down the economic scale. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of less investment and fewer opportunities.” Meanwhile, another flood surveyor is going back to college, to do a master’s degree in a rather different field: how adults learn. “Getting people to understand flood risk means changing their perceptions and logic,” he explains. “I’m intrigued by why people make choices that are not in their best interest.”

Set design by Hattie Newman, photography by John Ross

Property: your “tobacco moment” has come

At the first-ever UN “Buildings Day”, held at the Paris climate talks in December, there was unprecedented scrutiny of the carbon dioxide emissions associated with property and construction, and the sector’s role in averting catastrophic climate change. By 2050, emissions from the built environment must be reduced by an estimated 84 gigatonnes – the equivalent of taking 22,000 coal-fired power stations offline – if global warming is to be limited to less than 2°C.

That will take a radical rethink of the way we build and refurbish, but also of how properties are funded, valued, procured and managed: the World Green Building Council is calling for nothing short of a “global market transformation”. In this cover feature for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, I investigated what that’s going to look like.

This is the property sector’s “tobacco moment”, one expert told me – the equivalent of the government reports that made an incontrovertible link between smoking and ill-health in the early 1960s: “The fundamental difference between the Kyoto Protocol [in 1997] and the Paris Agreement is that today no one can say they didn’t know there was risk.”

Cover of Modus June 2016

Small number, big problem

Even if – a very big if – global warming is held to the 1.5°C limit set by nearly 200 world leaders at the UN climate talks in Paris, this will represent a radical change in the global climate. The other big news from the Paris conference was an unprecedented emphasis on adapting to the change that is already happening, and which will continue for centuries to come, no matter what. Humankind faces an uncertain future in which extreme weather events are more frequent and more intense, and there is an escalating threat from storms, hail, flooding, droughts, tropical cyclones and landslides.

The Paris talks stopped short of setting targets or funding mechanisms, but the World Bank estimates that to adapt to a 2°C rise we would have to spend US$70-100bn each year between 2010 and 2050. The cost of not doing anything is pretty high too: over the last decade, annual damages to global real estate and infrastructure from severe weather events have tripled to US$150bn, reaching 8% of GDP in the worst hit regions, not including indirect losses to sectors such as tourism.

In this article for the RICS magazine, Modus, I investigated the far-reaching implications for property, from protecting individual homeowners against heatwaves and flooding, to future-proofing real-estate funds worth billions of dollars.

And for much, much more detail on climate change adaptation, there’s this book I co-wrote for RIBA Publishing.

Flooding article in Modus March 2016

WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff – Skylines magazine

In October, my regular client WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff sponsored a host room at the annual conference of the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats in New York. I went along, listened in on two days of presentations and then turned it into a 72-page magazine, to be distributed to the company’s clients and partners worldwide. The overall theme of Skylines is the renaissance of tall buildings. There’s an unprecedented high-rise boom, but the new generation of towers will be very different from those that preceded them – not only in their giant scale but in the kind of spaces they offer, both in the sky and on the ground. Skylines explores what this looks like, from the perspective of designers, developers and city planners around the world.

WSP PB_Skylines cover

Who’s looking after your pension?

Eight years after the global crash, investors are flocking back to property, the market is more diverse than ever before and there’s talk of overheating. A significant proportion of this renewed investment is the pension savings of ordinary people. So how confident can we be that it won’t happen again? Banks, insurers and pension funds must all meet tougher regulatory requirements imposed since the crash, but property remains less stringently regulated than other asset classes, less transparent, and its risk management procedures are less well developed. As the current market cycle wears on, investors will inevitably be drawn into taking riskier positions to secure improved returns – positions that could leave them dangerously exposed when the next crash comes. In this cover feature for Modus, I interviewed Martin Brühl of German fund manager Union Investment Real Estate, currently president of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, about his plans to set a global standard for risk management. I also spoke to RICS members about the challenges of spotting genuinely uncorrelated assets, identifying the real source of funds in a completely international market, and maintaining constant vigilance over a global portfolio.

Cover of Modus Jan-Feb 2016

Very private property

Bad news for property snoopers: the UK’s most desirable homes are disappearing from estate agents windows, adverts and online searches. They don’t have For Sale signs, let alone glossy brochures or online walkthroughs, and you certainly won’t find them at auction. Around the world, an increasing proportion of deals are taking place off-market, in private or “whisper” sales. Instead of publicly marketing a property, agents in this most exclusive of sectors use their contacts to discreetly match buyers and sellers. Only a handful of people know that a deal is taking place, and the rest of the market will only hear about it after the deal is closed, if at all. I spoke to agents in London, Dubai and Melbourne to find out the tricks of the trade in this cover feature for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

Nice work if you can get it

The “fluid” themed issue of Modus was too good an opportunity to pass up: I pitched a feature about surveyors working in the world of wine. Happily they went for it, so I went to meet a property-developer-turned-château-negociant in the Bordeaux vineyards, who talked me through the 50 questions every prospective buyer should ask, and why they should forget about making any money. I spoke to an Australian agrarian about the toll that climate change is already taking on the Riverland’s parched vines and the financial woes of its major exporters. And, closer to home, I interviewed a fine-wine auctioneer in Cambridge about snaffling a bargain as the colleges turn out their cellars – and how to avoid a very expensive disappointment.

Article about wine in Modus September 2015