It’s been quite a remarkable week on twitter and since it was Internet Day this week it seems only right to give it a mention.

Susan Freeman

Susan Freeman

For those worried that artificial intelligence will eventually disintermediate the human race, The World Economic Forum put out news on twitter of google AI creating its own ‘child’ which it then evaluates and improves. This coupled with the Forum’s Future of Jobs Report which says that 50% of all employees will need reskilling by 2025, as adoption of technology increases. This gives rise to concern as 2025 is just five years away.

Critical thinking and problem-solving top the list of skills employers believe will grow in prominence in the next five years. Unsurprisingly newly emerging this year of Covid-19 are skills in self-management such as active learning, resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility.

And now we have to guard against fake news on twitter. It seemed for a brief uplifting moment this week that Woolworths was planning a return to the UK high street. A Woolworth account took to twitter to announce the opening of three pop up stores in 2021.

Social media lit up with conditional enthusiasm at the prospect of a return by Woolworths which closed its physical stores in the UK in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. However, some immediately spotted a rat and the excitement died down very quickly when it was observed that this was a new and unofficial account and it contained spelling mistakes. It was subsequently reported that a 17-year-old student who convinced the press that Woolworths was making a UK comeback carried out the prank to practice new skills learned on a digital marketing course. Full marks to him or her.

It does indicate how anxious we are to find some positive news to counter the many retail closures. It also illustrates that for all the convenience of buying on line, we still crave our retail stores. This was demonstrated in our recent Mishcon Academy digital debate on The Future of the High Street, with a stellar panel, that I admit I had a hand in selecting. Our panellists were Rebeca Guzman Vidal, Group Head of Retail Strategy at Chelsfield; John Hoyle founder and CEO of Sook; Dr Jackie Mulligan founder and CEO of ShopAppy; and Mark Robinson, Chair of the High Streets Task Force.

Mark kicked off the discussion saying that our retail business probably hasn’t been fit for purpose for 20 or 30 years but nothing had forced change. Mulligan said that alongside increased digitalization, Covid-19 has exposed the positive sentiment towards localism and provenance. Sook’s concept allows businesses to rent space by the hour and the new planning flexibility around A1 is helpful. Guzman Vidal, the only millennial on the panel, pointed out that in China despite having a more advanced omni-channel approach, people still want to shop locally. In her view the high street is about experience and convenience. She illustrated this flight to convenience with reference to the new brainchild of Posti, the Finnish postal service.

They have created well designed spaces where you can try on your purchases and if necessary send them back. Above all the high street needs convenience and to be relevant. But our panel agreed that one size can’t fit all and there needs to be more synergy between on line and off line. Robinson explained that the High Streets Task Force had pivoted to focus on Covid-19 response. He identified the super-trend of ‘tactical urbanism’. Things that would have taken forever such as closing parking bays to create parklets are now happening overnight. Robinson counselled against continuing to judge the success of the high street through a retail lens. Retail drove out other uses as it was more valuable. We should embrace the change and look at what makes a place unique.


Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Secretlondon

The panel touched on the problems of fractional ownership and the unsustainability of retail fit-outs. We could move to the Asian model of fixed and variable rents said Guzman Vidal but this needs to involve the valuers, bankers, landlords and retailers. She commented that retailers need to be more transparent and that brands seemed reticent to share the upside. It was an energizing and positive discussion.

And continuing with the retail theme, John Lewis Partnership has been granted planning permission by Westminster Council to convert the third to eighth floors, almost half of its floor space, into offices at its Oxford Street flagship store. Last November, planning permission was granted to Debenhams to change the use of the fourth and fifth floors of its Oxford Street store into offices. This is a recognition that some of the retail space is surplus to requirements but shouldn’t residential be a key part of the mix?

I very much enjoyed the opportunity to interview property industry doyenne, Liz Peace CBE for my Propertyshe podcast series. I met Liz in 2002 on her first official appearance as the new appointed CEO of the British Property Federation at their annual conference which in those days involved an overnight stay at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. It has to be said that there was some apprehension and mumblings about ‘style over substance’ as the new recruit rather broke the mould being female in a very male bastion and coming from the Ministry of Defence and a non-property background.

In fact her government experience was extremely beneficial in her lobbying role and as she commented in the podcast she had her members to teach her about real estate. It has to be said that it didn’t take her long to be totally on top of her brief. Since retiring from the BPF in 2013, Liz has created a successful portfolio career which she says has evolved rather than been planned. It involves a number of senior public sector, private sector and charity roles.

Listen to the podcast for some far ranging insights into running a regeneration company, the need for public/private sector collaboration, the restoration of the Houses of Parliament, the future of London, the importance of diversity and why the model in which private sector provides social housing doesn’t work. Click here to listen to the podcast interview.

Finally, we remember David Bowie as a talented and innovative performer and musician but he was way ahead of his time in so many ways. To mark Internet Day on 29 October a 1999 BBC Archives clip of Jeremy Paxman interviewing Bowie was released on social media. Speaking on the cusp of the millennium, they cover a lot of ground and towards the end of the interview Bowie tries to explain to a seemingly unconvinced Jeremy Paxman that the internet is going to define what the 21st century is about. Bowie didn’t think that we had even seen the tip of the iceberg. He thought the potential of what it would do to society was ‘unimaginable’.

We were on the verge of something both exhilarating and terrifying. Responding to Paxman referring to the internet just a tool for delivery he said ‘it’s an alien life form!’ This started me thinking about just how many visionaries are way ahead of their time in their thinking and bring their business ideas to the market too early and fail.

Susan Freeman is a partner at Mishcon de Reya

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