This is my last post for 2020, an extraordinary year that we are unlikely to forget in a hurry. I have found it therapeutic to chronicle some of the highlights week by week, so thank you for reading.

Susan Freeman

Susan Freeman

A vaccine, along with more effective treatments, is seen as our best chance of escaping from the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions. The UK has led the way, being the first Western country to authorize a Covid-19 vaccine, which is now being administered, starting with the elderly. My father is amongst those who have already had the vaccine and, despite some ongoing technical glitches, the roll out seems to be proceeding well, if more slowly than anticipated.

In another first, the Royal Mail has partnered with drone infrastructure and deliveries company Skyports to become the first UK parcel service to deliver a commercial package via drone. The delivery was made to a remote lighthouse on Scotland’s Isle of Mull.

This is the first step in a trial which will focus on using drones to make deliveries to rural communities. Geolocation service what3words will help pinpoint suitable landing locations for the drone deliveries. Are we now going to see a surge of commercial drone deliveries in the UK?

There has been much talk of cities being hollowed out as people escape to more rural locations. It was therefore heartening to hear US urbanist Richard Florida, author of ‘The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life’ interviewed by Fifth Wall’s Brendan Wallace.

Florida regards London and New York as resilient. As he pointed out, both cities have been through wars and cholera and survived. He expects to see young people ‘massively’ moving back to cities. He also made an interesting point about Covid-19 having the effect of ‘untying schools from location’. He said, if education is going to be supplied online then it gives families the opportunity to choose a different location to live. That certainly gives food for thought.

As people rethink how and where they want to live post Covid-19, a US start up Pacaso has been launched by former Zillow executives. Aiming to democratise second home ownership, it has raised $17 million in funding. Pacaso offers the opportunity to buy a share in a second home, creates a marketplace that facilitates buying and selling, and offers professional management services.

The buyer purchases their required share, for example, half of the home, which guarantees them access for half the year and Pacaso commits to purchasing the remainder of the property, before reselling it to vetted purchasers. Buyers will pay Pacaso a 10% purchase fee, and annual property management fee of 1% of the purchase price. Pacaso has secured $250 million in debt financing to purchase shares of homes. Is there a market for this concept and could it work in the UK?

In addition to satisfying our pre-Christmas online delivery demands, it’s been a busy week for Amazon. Amazon Zoox has launched an electric, driverless taxi which can take up to four passengers but there is no room for a driver and, alarmingly, no steering wheel. The robotaxi, which can operate at up to 75 miles per hour is being trialled in a number of US cities.

Also this week, Amazon launched Made for You in the US, a new custom clothing service with its first product a $25 T-shirt. Customers are asked to provide their height, weight, body style and two photos of themselves, which are then used to create a ‘virtual body double’ to model the T-shirt. According to Amazon, they automatically delete the photos after creating the customer’s virtual body double. Amazon plans to add more clothing options as it collects additional data. This customised approach could help reduce the number of online clothing returns.

And Amazon have also been active here in the UK. They have been selected to run the City of London’s first last mile logistics hub. Planning consent has been granted to use 39 spaces in London Wall Car Park which will allow Amazon to deliver parcels within a 2km radius using porters and cycles rather than vans. According to the City Corporation’s planning officers, the scheme would remove 85 vehicles and up to 23,000 vehicle journeys (presumably many of them Amazon vans) from central London’s roads annually. Hopefully we will see more such repurposing of underused London property.

Drone delivery

Source: Shutterstock/ Gualtiero boffi

Across the world, other cities are looking at similar measures to repurpose space. According to a recent World Economic Forum article, Singapore plans to redevelop offices in its central business district with new incentives for converting excess car parking spaces into residential, shops, restaurants and urban farms. ‘Governments and developers across the region are looking at converting commercial space into housing,’ said Justin Eng, an associate director of research at Knight Frank Asia-Pacific, adding that it is still only ‘sporadic.’

These trends had been in motion prior to Covid-19, but have now been accelerated,’ he said, with incentives from the government an added benefit. As governments around the world have imposed restrictions during the pandemic, developers, businesses and authorities have been grappling with the problem of fewer office workers. According to a survey commissioned by The Straits Times in October, eight out of ten workers in Singapore preferred to work from home or have flexible arrangements, which could potentially free up vacant offices and car parks.

In a blow to hopes for a swift return to city business life, it has recently been reported that Google is delaying employees’ return to offices to 1 September 2021. However, the company says employees should live within a commuting distance of their assigned office, where from September they are expected to show up three days a week, according to an email from CEO Sundar Pichai. This marks a further delay in return to the office for its workforce of more than 130,000. Other tech companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, have previously told their employees they can live remotely and telecommute permanently.

In order to achieve net zero carbon emission targets, we will need to reduce emissions in the real estate construction process. It is therefore good to hear that Balfour Beatty has unveiled a partnership with Sunbelt and Invisible Systems to develop new technology to reduce carbon emissions by up to 80% across its construction sites. Having reduced site carbon emissions by 80% in trials, Balfour Beatty plans to roll out EcoNet, its new power management system that automatically shuts off appliances and equipment when not in use.

The product was first trialled on a site in May 2020 and helped deliver an 83% reduction in carbon emissions by managing electric vehicle charging, optimising heating, hot water, and external lighting running schedules. So far, EcoNet has been used on 21 sites and there are plans for a further roll out. EcoNet is expected to save at least 2,200 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year, with sites reducing their carbon emissions between 30% to 80% of normal levels.

With Brexit looming amid concerns about access to fresh fruit and vegetables, will urban farming become more of a focus? A new vertical indoor farm being developed outside Copenhagen will produce 1,000 metric tons of greens a year. Developed in collaboration by a Danish start-up Nordic Harvest and Taiwanese tech company YesHealth Group, the farm will grow crops indoors during the winter that would otherwise have to be imported.

The facility will use hydroponics, to grow food with little water and no pesticides. We are likely to see more vertical farming in the UK. In June, online grocer Ocado, were reported to have paid £17million on vertical farming businesses to grow fresh produce within its automated distribution depots. Perhaps as vertical farming systems improve, we will get home versions for our kitchens and garages.

Accelerated collaboration has been a feature of much that has been achieved in this last year. An excellent New London Architecture presentation on ‘The new face of Regent Street’ really illustrated this. What The Crown Estate have achieved in a short space of time to adapt Regent Street to current requirements is astonishing.

Working with Westminster City Council and TfL, they are trialling a two lane highway with increased pavement and a ‘linear arboretum’ forming a green ribbon the length of Regent St.’ As New West End Company CEO Jace Tyrrell said, to effect the changes planned for the West End will require huge collaboration between Westminster Council, property owners, businesses, residents and BIDs.

Here’s hoping for much more accelerated collaboration in 2021!

Susan Freeman is a partner at Mishcon de Reya

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