Fresh Perspectives with Alex Beale - Innovation and Foresight at Landsec.
An introduction to the series.
With Fresh Perspectives, I hope to bring talent from across property, housing and technology together.
This series doesn’t focus on the loudest or most senior voices in these sectors. Rather, I seek out leaders with a new perspective. Those on the front lines of big change in business.
They challenge the status quo. Transform attitudes. Process. Operations and customer service.
I hope that you get as much as I learn from it. That you - the reader - consider these fresh perspectives and how they might be applied to your own organisation.
An introduction to my guest - Alex Beale.
As Foresight Manager at Landsec, Alex is responsible for broadening the organisation’s view of the forces impacting the future the built environment.
He is a qualified RICS Commercial Property Surveyor and Vice Chair of the CPA NextGen Committee.
In this interview, we discuss:
- Why a big part of our creativity and wellbeing comes down to 'weak ties'.
- Why the conversation around sustainability should be broader now - about health, and the implications of dense urban living, ecosystem breakdown and habitat.
- Why there's a growing lack of trust towards homogenised brands and spaces. And why we're demanding places that have a local identity.
- Why our workforces are going to become more agile over time. And how providing the right platforms for them will help local economies thrive.
- Alex's recommendations for journalism that's at the intersection of property and technology.
Shariq: Alex, I recently read a piece on how our work-from-home conditions could continue an additional 6 months, if not longer. The author expressed concern that without the creative energy and impromptu nature of a lot of office-based collaboration, the future employee could become more reclusive. Could this start to impact wellbeing and the quality of work we do?
Alex: Hi Shariq! Firstly, thanks for having me as part of your series. It's an interesting point, research shows that a big part of our overall wellbeing comes down to our weak ties. We have strong ties with those we know well - those we’re often in the same social circles with or family members. But weak ties are equally important and often overlooked. People we don't talk to as often or as frequently, but just have lots of little parts of our day where we build a sense of purpose and a feeling of belonging together.
If you take the workplace out of people's daily routine, it’s really hard for people to find those moments to build weak ties. That can be damaging over a long period of time for wellbeing and is just one reason why there is a future for the workplace.
Shariq: Could you give readers some insight into your role as Foresight Manager at Landsec? And what’s your approach to gathering evidence that defines future goals?
Alex: I've been at Landsec for three years now. And in this Foresight position for the last year or so. Our team's mission is to bring the future forward. We research and analyse how external forces are going to impact our business. So looking at expert opinions, quantitative and qualitative data points, case studies, and really thinking about the major 10 year time horizon shifts that are happening around us. It helps us adapt, react, survive and hopefully thrive in the future.
A big part of that is gathering external sources alongside the expertise we have internally, so that we can make the best decisions over the long term. So much will change in the next 10 years that it's important to make informed decisions today given their potential impact on the future. It’s becoming more and more important given the pace of change and the acceleration of trends we're already experiencing as a result of the pandemic.
So, if there's something happening that indicates a potential scenario in ten plus years, we need to act on that today – given the scale and longevity it takes to plan, design, develop and then operate buildings. It's really important for us to think about the longest time horizon possible and that's my focus in the Foresight function as part of the innovation team at Landsec.
"It's important to make informed decisions today given their potential impact on the future. It’s becoming more and more important given the pace of change and the acceleration of trends we're already experiencing as a result of the pandemic."
Shariq: You’re perhaps best placed to help us understand the built environment. You’re immersed in defining and executing on the places we’ll live, work, shop and play years down the line. The built environment factors into the UN’s sustainable development goals, too. I wonder if you think this development will be informed considerably because of such a defining year in our history?
Alex: On a fundamental level, I think sustainability has to play a big role in any successful initiative the future holds. It’s that simple. Measuring environmental impact has to be paramount to success. I think the pandemic has brought to light sustainability issues beyond just rising temperatures, extreme weather events and sea levels change.
The conversation is broader now – about health, and the implications of dense urban living, ecosystem breakdown and habitat.
This probably isn't the last pandemic that we're going to live through in our lifetimes. And if we're going to build a resilient built environment, we're going to have to be able to react better and adapt our way of life quicker and more successfully.
The built environment contributes about 40% of global CO2 emissions. In terms of immediate goals, lots of companies in the UK are becoming net zero carbon which is an important move.
Shariq: However, will this approach to sustainability be enough?
Alex: Should carbon negative be the aim? Seeing as how we’ve emitted lots of carbon over the past 200 years since the industrial revolution. Should we be bringing the developing world along with us on this journey to improvement – instead of just developing solutions for ourselves?
Those are tough questions we as a society are going to have to answer. I think it's an interesting conversation in terms of the UN sustainable development goals and they're a global focus.
In terms of the UK, about 80% of the built environment that will exist in 2050 has already been built today. What that means for companies providing spaces is that buildings are going to have to be more adaptable. The needs of users in those spaces is going to change. It's already changing a lot of current jobs that won't exist in the future. And a lot of jobs that children at primary school today will apply for don't exist yet. That means the buildings we build will need to be changed in their use over time.
Wholesale replacement, knocking down and starting again simply isn’t feasible, given the pace of change.
Shariq: When I speak to innovation leaders in social housing, one aspect of their work that emerges a lot is the adoption of innovation - how it requires an org-wide cultural shift. We see it too when our SaaS platform integrates into their operations. I want to understand your efforts in building a culture of foresight at a large company like Landsec, with so many moving parts. What are some of the challenges? And results?
Alex: I see foresight and innovation as being a team sport. It’s very much something we have to do collaboratively rather than as a separate team. We've got a huge amount of expertise in so many different fields at Landsec, and lots of data points with which to make decisions, foresight brings an additional set of data to the table.
One way to make effective decisions is to share our findings as often and as frequently as possible. And that's with the whole company so everyone has access to it.
We also work with strategic partners. Particular developments or particular teams whom our research is most pertinent to. As a company that invests, develops, owns and manages buildings, we have teams that work across a whole range of timescales. Understanding their different needs is really important in building a culture of innovation.
Shariq: Living in a technologically enabled future means having a meaningful relationship - or at the very least - an acceptance of the vast amounts of data we live alongside. How will this impact the way we manage property?
Alex: We as individuals are generating more data than ever before. There's a huge opportunity for companies involved in the built environment - employees, operators, developers, landlords - to better utilise that data and create more optimised spaces based on behaviour.
I think with property management, it provides a strong base on which to offer better services that truly meet the needs of customers.
The caveat is that there's a huge risk around data privacy - around ethics and controlling and monetising data. This has to be addressed. I also think secondly, there's an opportunity to create locally relevant places.
There’s a growing lack of trust towards homogenised globalised brands and spaces. I think more people are demanding places which have a local identity. One that reflects their values. The communities where they work, or where they live, or where they shop, and socialise - all those environments have an opportunity to become locally relevant.
Shariq: That was one of the first few things I observed at Plentific - the desire to offer a predictive approach to repairs alongside using data securely for a more personalised resident service. Is a predictive model going to become more prevalent in other aspects of property maintenance?
Alex: If being data led and predictive means there's a cost reduction in human time and reduction in people having to carry out repetitive tasks and maintenance, then I completely see that as being a feature.
In terms of applying a predictive quality to other aspects of property - I wonder if we knew 10 years ago that we were going to be living in such times? 5 billion people have a computer in their pockets, and that’s more powerful than the one we went to the moon with.
So who's to say what could happen with predictive maintenance? Especially because so much more of it can happen in the background without end users knowing.
Shariq: I’d like to ask about creating social value. At Plentific, we try to keep our marketplace as local as possible to create opportunities within the communities most of our tradespeople work in. We touched earlier upon jobs evolving in a short span of time. Does a lot of that just come down to enablement?
Alex: Yeah, definitely. Our workforces are going to become more agile and more malleable over time. So if we're enabling lots of individual contractors, part time workers or whoever it might be to access a platform they otherwise wouldn't have access to - and benefit from it - it helps local economies thrive and that comes back to the idea of creating environments that cater to peoples needs.
"Our workforces are going to become more agile and more malleable over time. So if we're enabling lots of individual contractors, part time workers or whoever it might be to access a platform they otherwise wouldn't have access to - and benefit from it - it helps local economies thrive"
Shariq: I’m curious about your work with the City Property Association (CPA) NextGen Committee. Are you allowed to talk about that in the context of defining the future of property?
Alex: The CPA is a not-for-profit membership body and advocacy group made up of the people that shape the built environment in the City of London, and ultimately improve it for everyone. This flows into the NextGen committee - we’re focused on bringing the perspectives of the next generation of property professionals to the table, representing and challenging leaders with a different perspective.
There’s over 150 organisations that are members of the CPA and as a NextGen committee we meet regularly and ensure younger people's interests get represented. We organise events, commission research and develop best practices into emerging topics. Our most recent event at the end of October brought together sustainability experts of London’s property industry to explore and discuss examples of best sustainability practice across the sector.
It’s all about sharing information and opening up a forum of discussion between a younger generation and those with more experience. Our events have worked really well during the lockdown period. I think webinars are the way forward. We’ve been using digital tools to collaborate and organise as a group pretty effectively.
Shariq: On that note, and for my final question - are there tools, reads, listens, watches you could recommend on effective innovation - whether that’s virtual or in person?
Alex: There is so much information and great analysis out there its hard to find and pick the right sources to listen to. I’d recommend Propmodo for their journalism at the intersection of property and technology, Azeem Azhar’s Exponential View email is worth signing up for a view of the future, Tortoise is a slow news group with in depth analysis rather than breaking news, and I’ve recently discovered Exploding Topics who every week send a list of rapidly trending topics from global search data with some simple analysis to go with each one.
In terms of events, How To Academy always have interesting speakers, 5x15 is a great format to hear new perspectives and Intelligence Squared to fantastic live events and podcasts.
We work with the Future Laboratory who are a brilliant partner; they bring a fresh perspective and data and really helped us shape strategic foresight at Landsec over the last 12 months.
Shariq: Thanks so much for your time Alex. It was a pleasure speaking to you.
Landsec creates places that make a lasting positive contribution to our communities and our planet. Landsec brings people together, forming connections with each other and the spaces it creates. The organisation provides its customers, partners and people with a platform to realise their full potential.
Stay tuned for the next interview in the series. And if you’d like to recommend a young leader for me to sit down and have a chat with, do let me know below.