Another eclectic week has gone in a flash. There is now light at the end of the tunnel with non-essential shops due to reopen and outdoor groups of six permitted. 

Susan Freeman

It is strange to think that my daughter’s wedding was due to be this week, arranged at a time when substantially larger gatherings were considered normal. We will mark the day in true lockdown fashion with the two families coming together on zoom!

I had the pleasure this week of interviewing Graeme Craig, Transport for London’s Commercial Development Director for my podcast. Craig runs one of the largest real estate portfolios in London extending to some 5,500 acres in total. Fortunately, their existing plans to develop 10,000 homes are self-funded. One of the clear messages that came out of the conversation was their enthusiasm to work with the broadest range of partners in order to optimize the many opportunities. They are also keen to encourage more maker space and to give a canvas to Londoners who come forward with innovative and creative ideas.

This openness to new ideas impressed me when I first interviewed Craig back in 2014 when he brought in Ross Bailey and pop up platform Appear Here to reinvigorate Old Street Station (or Silicon roundabout as it is known) with pop up retail and food options. Appear Here had come to Transport for London (TfL) with a new idea and this opportunity at Old St was its first JV.

Retail technology

Source: Shutterstock/Montri Nipitvittaya

Now, six years later, TfL continue to show their support for innovative young businesses. They have recently announced that Sook, a new retail start up, is the winner of their first retail innovation competition, designed to encourage innovative ways of using retail space across its estate. Intriguingly, Sook uses new technology to offer adaptive retail space, enabling that space to be used as and when needed, with time slots as short as one hour. Users can tailor the space by creating their own digital interior to display their own branding. Businesses can book recurring short slots for a range of activities such as for exercise classes or fundraising events.

They can also choose to book the space as a one-off to launch a product, test out a location before setting up a permanent store or host an exhibition. The opportunities are endless. I am delighted to add that Sook have recently been selected for the Mishcon de Reya M:Tech programme which offers strategic, legal and commercial advice and mentoring to chosen start-ups. 

This week I also attended my first Urban Innovation Forum, a great think tank brought together by New London Architecture in association with London and Partners with a glittering array of attendees from a variety of public and private sector bodies. The key focus was to drill down into how tech and data can solve the short and longer-term urban challenges to post-COVID London. Unsurprisingly, mobility, connectivity, sustainability, restoring confidence and reducing the fear factor featured strongly.

A topic that was also mentioned and is now attracting regular attention is our woeful public conveniences. In the absence of restaurants, pubs and hotels, the lack of acceptable public amenities has blighted many lockdown outings. Who even knew we had a British Toilet Association? Now is certainly their moment. Can I suggest that they take a look at the admirable, high tech and multifunctional public toilets in Japan. You may need instructions to operate them but they are the ultimate in public hygiene and something we can aspire to.

I’ll end with some timely advice from Sir Jim Ratcliffe in his “Leading through turbulent times’ London Business School interview this week. Ratcliff is the founder and majority owner of Ineos, the UK’s largest private company with a turnover of some $60 billion. His advice to businesses was to ‘watch cash very closely!’ During lockdown, Ineos are apparently requiring every item of expenditure, however small, be signed off at board level, even pens! It really is a case of, ‘look after the pennies, and the pounds will look after themselves’.

Susan Freeman is a partner at Mishcon de Reya