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.”
Inside Housing is the most widely read magazine for the UK social housing sector. I edited a 36-page supplement to tie in with the biggest event in the housing calendar, the Chartered Institute of Housing’s annual conference in Manchester. As social landlords waited anxiously to find out their fate under the new Conservative government, the supplement took an in-depth look at the apparently unstoppable shift of power from Westminster to the regions, and whether councils could ever reprise their role as major housebuilders.
The magazine also included four “sponsored chapters” – bespoke editorial produced in association with a sponsor on a particular topic. The overarching theme inevitably became “doing more with less”, as ever-deeper spending cuts force those providing public services to make some difficult choices.
Last time Britain faced a housing crisis on this scale, it was local authorities that built our way out of it. The days when council building departments threw up gargantuan estates may be long gone, but there has been a quiet renaissance over the last three years as they deliver a small but growing proportion of new homes. Whether this is a scalable part of a long-term solution or just a blip in the continuing decline of council stock will depend on the policies of the new government – and it’s already clear that it’s not going to be easy. I interviewed a man who’s really hoping it’s the former: Eamon McGoldrick, managing director of the National Federation of ALMOs – the arm’s length management organisations that are responsible for most of this housebuilding. The article appeared in Inside Housing magazine, in a supplement which I also edited.
Last year marked an important milestone for Crossrail: its 40th birthday. London’s new east-west link was first proposed in the 1974 London Rail Study, even if it only broke ground 35 years later, after decades of reports, failed legislation and repeated balking at the high costs of the scheme. This is a tediously familiar tale in the recent history of the UK’s transport infrastructure. There has been a consistent lack of political will to push through major projects, leaving strategically important schemes mired in the planning system or dropped abruptly with a change of government. As a result, the UK lags behind other developed nations – ranked ninth overall in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, but only 27th for the quality of its transport network.
Transport is essential to the UK economy, and there is an urgent need for investment in roads, rail and airport capacity to ease congestion, support growth and accommodate 10m additional citizens by 2035. It is a critical juncture for key projects including HS2, Crossrail 2, much-needed rail improvements in the North and airport expansion in the South-East, and if the UK is not to grind to a halt in 20 years’ time, we have to start now. Political consensus and stability will be essential to delivering these aims – but unfortunately, we are a month away from the least predictable general election in decades. In this article on the next government’s transport policy for Estates Gazette, I assessed the prospects for a very uncertain future.
Imagine a world where a manufacturer is happy to exchange a product after 10 years, and not because there’s anything wrong with it, simply because a better version has come on to the market. It may sound far-fetched but this is a serious idea proposed by some of construction’s soberest minds. It’s part of a concept known as the “circular economy”, which severs the link between economic prosperity and resource consumption and transforms the traditional linear process of “take-make-dispose” into a closed loop where no resource is wasted and everything is reused or recycled. As one of the world’s most resource-intensive industries, construction is an obvious place to start. Buildings would be designed to be more adaptable and durable, and eventually to be disassembled into components and used again. Rather than selling products, manufacturers might undertake to provide a guaranteed level of service, upgrading components as more efficient ones become available and taking back the old materials.
It’s a million miles away from today’s consumer society, but something about the circular economy seems to have captured the popular imagination and there are signs that it is making the leap from deep-green niche to the mainstream. But can construction products – and buildings – really be recycled as easily as cans of coke or cars? In this piece for Construction Manager, I found that it demands a radical shift in not only the way buildings are designed and constructed, but also how they are financed, insured and even owned. As Jane Thornback at the Construction Products Association pointed out, “If somebody’s designing something with a brick, who owns it? The people who made the brick, the people who made the brick into something else, or the people who demolish the bricks 300 years later?” How could a manufacturer guarantee they’d be around in 10 years to honour that service contract? And what happens if they go bust – would the receivers want to demolish your house to recover the assets…?
In the UK, we tend to think of worker exploitation as something that happens somewhere else. A string of reports have revealed appalling conditions on construction sites across the Gulf states, most recently on the World Cup 2022 venues in Qatar, but there is ample evidence of thousands of forced workers much closer to home, often right under our noses.
Construction has been repeatedly highlighted as an industry where demand for casual workers and opaque supply chains are a gift to unscrupulous gangmasters. It’s not only among door-to-door hawkers like the Connors family, who picked up vulnerable men from the streets and forced them to work long, back-breaking days while they lived in luxury. Forced labourers have been found on some of London’s most prestigious sites, run by major national firms, according to the head of the Metropolitan Police’s human trafficking unit.
Whatever the result of the referendum on Scottish independence on 18 September, the balance of power between north and south Britain is undoubtedly moving in only one direction. From April 2015, Scotland will be able to set its own taxes and borrow up to £2.2bn to fund capital projects, as the Scotland Act 2012 transfers considerable fiscal power from Westminster to Holyrood. Even if Scots vote no to full independence, there’s almost certain to be further devolution, with the main UK political parties all publicly committed to greater Scottish autonomy. But how much more control over its own destiny will an independent, or more independent, Scotland actually have? I spoke to Scots on both sides of the debate to write this piece for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, about the potential impact on property and the balance of power across the UK. They pointed out that formal power and real economic power are very different things, that the Scottish government has never exercised its existing power to raise or lower income tax, and that while Scots like the idea of Scandinavian-style public services, they would be much less keen to pay the taxes to fund it.
The Occupy movement may have yet to topple global capitalism, but its four-month encampment outside St Paul’s Cathedral did raise awareness of something else: the growing power of private corporations over apparently public space. The protesters originally intended to pitch their tents outside the London Stock Exchange at Paternoster Square but were moved on when the owner secured a court injunction. It turned out that this space was private property, and that the public use it only as a “privilege”, which may be revoked at any time. Private ownership of public spaces is not a new phenomenon – the UK has always been a tapestry of leaseholds and freeholds held by landed estates, financial institutions, private and public sector organisations. What is new is the large-scale management of the public realm by private companies, and the ambiguity over whose rules apply in any given space. Supporters argue that it doesn’t matter who is responsible for a space, as long as it is maintained properly and managed with the community in mind – landowners and businesses have a greater interest and deeper pockets than local authorities. Critics fear that creeping privatisation suppresses democratic freedoms and promotes a narrow consumerist agenda, and point to petty restrictions on cycling or taking photographs and an overbearing security presence.
In this cover feature for the March issue of Modus (the magazine of the RICS) I asked property and policy experts why public bodies are so keen to cede control of public spaces, and what the long-term consequences might be.
During 2012, the UK consumed 1,468,000 barrels of oil every single day, according to BP. So what would happen if the price of those barrels, currently just above the US$100 mark, were to suddenly double, or even triple? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility – oil prices peaked at US$145 in July 2008, and though fracking may appear to have averted an imminent peak in the oil supply, the majority of proven reserves and many supply lines remain located in some of the world’s most volatile regions. Oil plays a role in practically every aspect of modern life, which means that a major price rise would surely have profound consequences. Exactly what those consequences might be is the subject of this October cover feature for Modus, the magazine of the RICS.