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Covid-19 Economy Impact

Embracing the next generation of retail

retail

Kerem Cengiz of LWK+PARTNERS deep-delves into how retailers will embrace the shift and asks the question: is it possible for retailers to re-purpose their space into a viable long-term alternative?

 Even before the outbreak of the COVID-19, retailers were embracing a movement towards a balance of mixed-uses to meet the commercial expectations of operators as traditional retail formats retracted as e-commerce grew. The sudden and rapid spread of the pandemic has dramatically accelerated this shift in the thinking across the global retail environment: the need to adapt and survive to ensure commercial viability and the emotion and psyche of the shopper.

What will consumers want post COVID-19?

We anticipate a significant difference in expectations around the demographic profile. Some will crave the traditional high-street, the corner store where we stop and chat to the storekeeper, the grocer, baker, butcher, fishmonger, tailor and so on. While younger generations will further embrace and demand technology-driven experiences, which is now more prevalent across China and part of Southeast Asia.

It is inevitable that there will be fears around social gatherings, crowds and social interaction, yet others, after months of isolation, crave engagement and connection. Logistical challenges could fuel a significant increase in the demand for locally produce and sourced products, stepping back from big chains. It goes without saying, that a greater degree of touch-less amenities in retail spaces will become the norm with hygiene becoming overtly central.

How can retailers and mall management respond to these disparate demands? It is likely large malls will re-master plans for smaller subdivided zones to avoid overcrowding; these smaller zones could be adapted to allow for social distance queuing, waiting areas for takeaway services, the inclusion of central shopping pick-up zones.

Car parking areas could be remodeled to adapt for contactless supermarket pick-up zones, including separate access and refrigerated lockers with unique access codes etc. this could also be integrated for centralised contactless drive-through routes for food and beverage outlets and restaurants.

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Images source: Internet                

Fundamentally this goes further than the consumer interface but impacts considerably on back-of-house functionality. It is also likely that we shall see significant changes to the point-of-sale areas; potentially seeing a move towards technologically driven solutions including touch-free / frictionless transactions or even facial recognition solutions as either established and increasingly prevalent in the Chinese and Asian retail sectors.

Social distancing will certainly have deeper impacts on the operations of retail environments and malls. Not only on the retail logic and movement within a centre or store, maximum visitors, lift capacities, food courts and breakout areas and mall widths to ensure the recommended safe distances are maintained. Critically we fully anticipate that significant reconfiguration of HVAC systems will be undertaken to better treat and mitigate the removal of potentially contaminated air.

The brand and its operations

Omnichannel touchpoints and e-commerce have for some time now disrupted how brand express narrative, logistics and in some cases a physical presence. At the emergence of these trends some believed that brick and mortar was in its death throes, we have instead seen a balancing with the needs of human nature and psyche, the desire for human contact, the condition of the physical and the buzz of all-encompassing experiential shopping. Technological advances have seen the rise of the virtual mall offering sophisticated experiences and brands that have play-in-store / deliver-to-home options.

We recognise that malls and shopping destinations integrate hospitality and entertainment elements such as food courts, restaurants, bars and cinemas, which becoming reimagined with the emergence of centralised kitchens for app-based F&B delivery services such as Zomato, Talabat, Deliveroo and the like. Statistics show that as a global community, we take-out or get deliveries much more every year with a significant spike in the last three months.

Fast food brands and now increasingly, casual dining establishments understand that they no longer need a street-front presence to remain in existence and profitable. It is however unlikely that our need for social interaction and experiential dining will decrease as we see being voiced during this lockdown period across all social media platforms.

What will all this mean for malls, centres, outlets and how they operate?

Small shopping malls are increasingly becoming the centre of our communities, particularly within modern development communities across the middle east. During this pandemic we have witnessed that major malls in central locations have been impacted greatly, whilst most neighborhood centres have continued to operate to relative normality, even increase in turn-over across particular sectors.

Neighborhood centres tend to be focused on necessities rather than designer fashion, fine dining, and entertainment offers, and more on services acting as a one-stop-shop for the community with such as med-clinics, pharmacies, barbers, hairdressers, nail spas, gyms and services such as banking, currency exchanges, childcare and education, dry cleaners; affordable hospitality offerings; along with a supermarket retail provision such as grocers, affordable fashion and gift shops.

These community malls are adapting to include arts and cultural offers and attractive public realms to establish improved mobility, activity and safety. Such centres meet urban design principles that state that sustainable communities are built on the 20-minute-connectivity model.

While we are witnessing larger urban centres rapidly reviewing their existing models with anchor tenants pulling out or reducing square meterage. In such cases, what can be done with these big box tenancies? Will there be options to adapt or convert these spaces or will we see big blanks in the concourses?

Perhaps these adaptations could focus on personal shopping precincts; wellness/sports precincts; even medical facilities, play & education zones; e-sports venues, cultural spaces; adaptive co-workspaces, pop-up precincts or even temporary shelter to mention a few possibilities of planned and implemented well.

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Image source: Internet                 

Adapting to disasters severely affects the logistics of mall and standalone retail destinations. We have seen this globally during this pandemic to varying degrees with the legislation around logistics and freight for grocery stores being eased to allow for 24-hour servicing.

There has been a move towards access-controlled loading docks including time slot booking for individual retailers and a shortfall for large vehicle waiting areas; with the rise in prevalence of contactless delivery direct delivery-to-tenancy more access will be required.

Future planning of our built retail environment must take this into account in, either with adaptations to existing malls and centres’ or for new developments yet to be designed or under construction to minimize disturbance to surrounding communities in which they are located and other operations in their neighborhood.

This will have a significant impact on traffic planning especially in our major cities and urban conurbations due to the density of vehicular use, curbside delivery, and pick up locations. We may now expect to see and acceleration in the use of autonomous vehicles along with drone landing zones from large malls for delivery which will again change the way car parks are designed.

Warehouse, logistics and distribution centres are likely to move to automated alternatives to help with expedite supply and demand requirements, leading to frictionless operations and reduced staff numbers as we see in numerous other industries. This increase in connectivity will ramp-up investment in technology-led infrastructure and in turn data centres…a fast forward to smart city integration and digital transformation and the rise of the Digital Twin for assets, facilities and logistical management.

Retail centre and malls are now firmly recognized as essential provision providers during crisis such as this, the staff can become exposed and vulnerable essential workers. Back of house provision for staff must be improved from an occupational health and safety perspective as it is clear that many centres despite their best endeavors and falling short.

These all directly relate to smart city technologies including smart parking and mobility, robotic technology for servicing deliveries and sanitization, cost-effective efficient operations, and sustainable considerations including automated waste collection and appropriate disposal.

Considering the investment – the asset

Mall and shopping centre owners have been massively hard hit and must ensure their developments are viable for the long term commercially, it is abundantly clear that they must diversify beyond retail - mixed-use is the way forward.

This is relatively straight forward for new developments but it can be done with parasitic structures on existing developments or adaption of adjacent sites, with uses broadening to include entertainment, hotels, co-work, and even transport nodes.

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Image credit: LWK + PARTNERS  

Sustainable design decisions now become a long-term economic benefit, a significant shift towards renewables, sustainable material, greywater use, etc, all of which will significantly minimise operating costs of large developments and protect the pockets of those that manage them.

We have seen a massive increase in vacant tenancies both in malls and the Highstreet due to the impact of COVID-19 and the tragic knock-on economic and employment effect. The question remains…how can we best re-purpose those spaces with viable long-term alternatives?

Re-planning will have a central part to play in the re-allocation of space within malls and centre, we will see a significant increase in temporary pop-up providers to service our swiftly bored demographic with their ever-shifting fancies and expectations. We fully anticipate a significant change in the current lessee-lessor models; the roles may well irreparably change.

Whatever happens in the next 18-months as a result of this pandemic, we are certain that retail is no doubt here for the long haul and yet how it decides to adapt, evolve and change will be fascinating to observe and be a part of influencing.

Is technology the key to real estate recovery?

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It is an undeniable fact that COVID-19 has put unprecedented pressure on real estate operations across the globe. In the UK, house prices fell for the third month in a row in May, while property consultant Knight Frank expects prime residential real estate prices in Mumbai to fall 5 per cent this year and 3 per cent next year. In the US, however, there are some encouraging signs of recovery as home prices begin to rise, having reached a low point in mid-April, according to realtor.com.

Similarly, in the UAE, the softening of restrictions put in place to combat Covid-19 have had a positive impact on market sentiment across the real estate sector, according to data from Property Finder and Mortgage Finder.

So, while there is little doubt that the industry will eventually recover, the consensus is that real estate businesses that are in the position to embrace technology will be better placed to ‘fix’ their operations in order to survive. Although the proptech industry has experienced accelerated growth in the last several years; it seems that now is the time for full engagement for sustainable long-term growth well beyond recovery from the pandemic.

According to global law firm Goodwin Procter LLP, technology may be the x-factor in the real estate industry’s road to recovery. Though the health crisis has and will continue to temporarily slow momentum when the economic environment stabilizes and rebounds, proptech will emerge with more explosive growth, the firm said in a recent commentary on their website.

“This is a time to reflect on key aspects of the proptech industry’s success in recent years and to recognize where real estate companies can capitalize on those proof-of-concept technology-driven models to rebuild for the future,” the firm says.

Meanwhile, a recent report by JLL has examined the various short-to-mid and long-term strategies and trends that are likely to shape the real estate industry in a post-COVID-19 era. According to JLL’s head of research for MENA, Dana Salbak, deploying technologies that create a differentiated customer experience and support investors and landlords in understanding their asset better, will ensure asset resilience and longevity.

“If there is one change COVID-19 has rapidly ushered in, it is the deployment of technologies in aid of remote working and collaboration to ensure business continuity,” she explains. “While the region is yet to return to some level of normalisation in business activity, there is no doubt that various technologies, if adopted, can ensure the sustainability and longevity of assets and operations.”

Looking beyond cloud computing and shared networks, while corporates might be inclined to adopt some level of remote working as a long-term strategy to mitigate risks and reduce costs, there is no doubt that as individuals we will continue to seek some level of human interaction. Rather than becoming obsolete, however, JLL expects future office spaces to offer more of a collaborative and social experience, rather than just a place to work. This includes modifying the design and layout of office spaces to address employee needs, in addition to adopting health and wellness standards (such as the WELL Building Standard Certification), and sustainability practices that ensure the wellbeing of employees. This involves the adoption of various technologies that ensure all of the above.

The report outlines how landlords and corporate occupiers are expected to implement new health-related technologies such as thermal imaging cameras, automatic digitized elevators, and building control systems. From a landlord’s perspective, being able to understand your building and drawing analyses and conclusions can aid in decision-making, whether pre-empting additional costs or understanding the overall performance and market positioning.

“Utilising GIS technology, for example, to offer 3D replicas of the physical asset (Digital Twin) will reveal details of your space and can even benchmark your asset’s performance against the surrounding area or wider market,” Salbak says. “Similarly, technologies such as sensors can be deployed to understand the day-to-day performance of the asset. When accessible to potential investors, they are better able to assess the health of the property, and track metrics such as footfall, occupancy rates, and efficiency rates.”

Overall, the proptech industry growth is expected to pick up the pace when the coronavirus crisis lifts, as even those that were hesitant to make investments in technology before the crisis are now more convinced of the role that technology can play in transforming a business. Proptech is now an integral part of the industry, and each proptech solution can boost efficiencies, improves client experiences and bring new and recurring business.

 

Real estate’s road to net zero carbon

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With real estate responsible for almost 40% of energy and process-related emissions, a focus on the building and construction sector is inevitable. Tackling climate change should be at the top of every property owner’s and occupier’s agenda.” UAE and KSA are the leading countries of CO2 emissions per capita, as of 2018. Yet, the policy makers and the overall population are not concerned and do not view climate change as a major threat to their country, according to Savills Research.

Read more about the effects of climate change on the real-estate market and the construction industry in this research from Savills.

Placing wellbeing at the center of design

Daniel Hajjar

How has your firm been impacted by the current climate?

It is inevitable during a crisis that something has to change, across the field of architecture we are seeing certain sectors slow down, notably commercial real estate and offices. Conversely, we are seeing growth and investment in other areas such as healthcare, science and research as well as interiors. Many clients are exploring how to reconfigure their spaces. As an architect you have to be an optimist, we are confident the firm will be in a good position coming out of this. The real issue is what will the economy be doing on a global level.

 

How has your firm responded to these challenges?

As a firm we were founded on the basis of diversity of sectors and geography. That range of diversity has allowed us to adapt and shift our focus and resources to maintain stability. Although arguably most of the world was not ready for this, we as a profession, and certainly as a firm are used to working virtually.

 

Our profession has gone through peaks and valleys in the past, but currently staff and team members are looking to be supported. We are committed to creating an environment and policies where our team can perform at their best. A huge part of that is understanding what will be the mental well-being impact and how can we ensure our teams are mentally healthy? We as a practice have looked at optimum performance and strive to understand what individuals need both on a professional and personal level in order to thrive. We work with a third-party service provider to support us with this, we issue a newsletter every month on wellbeing and generally try to make people aware that we are all facing the same challenges and they are not alone.

 

We are seeing that people are now reaching a point where they would like to engage with colleagues and clients, but there is a resistance driven by fear. One thing we have tried to do to for the team is to have a clear policy that if someone doesn’t feel comfortable to come to the office, we will respect their wishes. Adopting small but significant stances during this time helps employees feel reassured. The key priority is everyone’s health and safety.

 

What has been the greater impact of the current pandemic on the field as a whole?

It is yet to surface, but from what we have seen so far, I predict there will be greater flexibility on how firms work. Everyone has been forced to adjust and go virtual, we will see a greater acceptance in how work gets delivered. The challenging thing with architecture is that we rely and thrive on creative energy and the buzz of our environment. I predict we will start seeing creative solutions developed to balance the need for flexible working with the demand for portable and intuitive creative environments.

 

How do you predict architects will change the way they design physical space and cities?

In terms of the office landscape, there is an interesting paradox, because on the one hand there is a need for social distancing in existing offices, clients and businesses are looking at what they have and doing their best to make changes and adjustment to existing infrastructure and spaces. On the other hand, we are seeing less requirement for people to physically be in the office and organisations are looking at ways to creatively reduce and use less space.

 

For urban and public realm, there is a big surge of people using bicycles, I think new developments will have a different level of conciseness, in terms of bicycle lanes and fitness lanes.

 

In regard to public spaces, I think it is complex in terms of designing the optimum space. It goes against human nature to design public spaces for social distancing. However, what we might start to see is more open spaces, more flexible planting and seating arrangements. Open spaces with more dynamism and the ability to respond to different cultural and societal requirements.

 

What impact will the current pandemic have on new design and development, is there such a thing as an ideal city design?

No, there is no such thing as an ideal design. However, no matter what city someone lives in, even a brand-new city people tend to want three fundamental things; to be safe, a healthy environment and to easily avail services and green space with minimum energy.

 

When you look at the neighbourhood parks, that were designed in Victorian and Georgian squares, they serve an amazing function, the building themselves are zero-lot-line but they have parks right in front of them. We will probably begin seeing a lot more of those elements in future designs.

 

Going forward consumers will have much more consciousness in relation to what they buy. Take Dubai for example, there is a terrific breadth of choice for all consumers. Also, zoning regulations will probably change, there will have to be an element of affordable housing into future developments.

 

Given the way things have evolved, I predict we will see much more flexibility in planning. Dubai as a city has done remarkably well in trying to do that. That is the beauty of cities, they evolve and grow as a response to different environments. Even in early Dubai developments you still have this acknowledgement of public realm and spaces for people to congregate.

 

From the outbreak of this pandemic, what do you think the biggest takeaway has been for this generation of architects?

When you look at great cities of the world, they are not homogeneous. People from all walks of life come together to make a city happen. I think going forward one thing that might and should come out of this is creating and designing cities where peoples’ wellbeing is at the center of the entire design. If we as a profession cannot make environments that encourage wellbeing, healthy environments I am not sure who else can.

Photo credit: Agnese Sanvito, Commercial Interior Design

China’s First Steps Toward a $3 Trillion REIT Market

REIT

China started a REIT trial in late April that will initially focus on accumulating funds kickstart infrastructure projects. This is great news for retail investors who have been eager to invest in China. “If successful, the program may be expanded to include traditional real estate, exposing individual investors to a market Goldman Sachs Group Inc. estimates could one day be worth as much as $3 trillion.” The initial program includes a set of rules to aid in ensuring forethought. “When the government feels confident enough REITs won’t flare up the property market, they may expand the trial.”

For retail investors, it would be a whole new world. A lack of investment options has meant Chinese families have around 78% of their wealth tied up in property, more than double the U.S., a 2019 study by Chengdu’s Southwestern University of Finance and Economics showed. Less than 1% is invested in stocks.

Read more about the program and its structure in this article from Bloomberg.

EMPG and OLX Group announce merger of MENA and South Asia businesses

Property portal

  • The agreement brings a US $150 million cash injection led by OLX Group with participation from existing EMPG shareholders
  • EMPG valued at US $1 billion post transaction

Amsterdam and Dubai: Emerging Markets Property Group (EMPG), a leading property portal group in emerging markets, and OLX Group, Prosus’s global classifieds business, have announced their merger in Pakistan, Egypt, Lebanon and the UAE. The agreement includes a US $150 million investment round, led by OLX Group along with existing EMPG shareholders, which values EMPG at US $1 billion after the transaction. As part of the deal, OLX Group will contribute its operations in the four countries into EMPG and will become EMPG's largest single shareholder, owning 39% of the company. 

EMPG will use the new capital to develop a range of new services, creating a more seamless user experience, enhancing data transparency, and deepening market intelligence for both consumers and business users. In Egypt and Lebanon, EMPG will operate the existing OLX platforms, rolling out new services for the real estate community, as well as offering consumers a superior experience across all categories. In Pakistan and the UAE, both groups’ platforms will be operated by EMPG and will continue to operate through their well-known local brands. 

The aggregated value of properties sold in these markets is estimated at US $90 billion, providing a commission pool for real estate agencies of over US $2 billion per annum. This presents a great opportunity for EMPG to enhance their real estate services in these markets. 

“EMPG has grown at a tremendous pace since its inception,” said CEO Imran Ali Khan. “Our unique ability to scale using our proprietary tech has aided and enabled this expansion. This deal puts us one step further in our journey towards providing solutions in multiple markets to over a billion consumers around the world, expanding our classifieds offering significantly." 

Martin Scheepbouwer, CEO of OLX Group, says "I'm proud of what we have built in these four markets. Our brands are household names, and currently help tens of millions of people to exchange goods and services every month. The next phase is an exciting one, with EMPG’s real estate industry expertise helping deepen the customer experience. As EMPG’s largest shareholder, we'll have a front seat to explore how we can scale their services model further - taking our ambition to shape the future of classifieds into its next stage."

EMPG is currently present in the GCC region with Bayut, Pakistan with Zameen, Bangladesh with Bproperty, Morocco and Tunisia with Mubawab, and Thailand with Kaidee. After this deal, besides expanding to Egypt and Lebanon, EMPG will also operate OLX's platforms in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, and the dubizzle platform in the UAE.

‘We are at a crossroad between two parallel urban futures'

Paolo Testolini

How has your Woods Bagot been impacted by the current climate?

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down and we are beginning to comprehend the profound impact that this crisis represents. We have noticed a slowdown in the market; however, China and Southeast Asia are beginning to bounce back. Woods Bagot is a 150-year-old practice, which has survived previous downturns and is well placed to the challenges of remote working, we have moved from a studio culture to a lockdown culture almost seamlessly.

 

As a global company, we are used to operating globally and remotely dealing with 16 studios across all regions. We are not worried about delivery; the DNA of Woods Bagot ironically is built for this.

 

What has been the greater impact of the current pandemic on the field as a whole?

Every crisis represents opportunities and we are focusing on exploring new ways to collaborate. Our global team of sector leaders have been looking at possible future scenarios, solutions, creative ideas on how we can positively influence, react, and adapt to future design of places and spaces. With the current pandemic there has been a switch in mindset to better understand the past and how cities have changed and evolved over time.

 

What do you view as being the long-term impact on cities, particularly those with high density?

COVID-19 has steered back the debate of high-density living and that perhaps it is time to reverse the agenda to utopian suburbia. Cities are not perfect; however high-density living has bought a lot of positive aspects to communities, a city that is compact is cheaper to manage, stimulates innovation, creates jobs and entrepreneurship.

 

Although the contrast between the number of COVID- 19 cases in less dense areas compared to crowded cities like London or New York is unsettling. It is oversimplistic to credit these statistics purely to density.

 

In fact, data reveals the real issues lie within challenges global cities have faced for decades such as; inequality, globalisation, supply chains, food management, transport strategies and the overall impact that society has on natural ecosystems. All these issues are currently structured to be the perfect breathing ground for future pandemics.

 

What do you see as being the right approach for designers during this time?

COVID-19 has shaken the foundations of modern society, but it represents a unique opportunity to reset cities without leaving people behind, this is the time to accelerate circular economies, eliminating the concept of waste, move away from transport ownership and enhance transport accessibility.

 

We as designers have the opportunity to elevate cities and communities beyond anything that has existed previously. It is a chance to grow through adversity and design and reshape cities that focus on people. This is the time to bring people back to the streets without cars. By focusing on the streets and open space that we might find the answers we have been looking for. Creating cities where everything is within walking distance and reconsidering mass public transport. If we get walkability right the rest will follow; land use, security, traffic and wellbeing.

 

What is the potential long-term negative impact on cities and communities if designers take the wrong approach?

Cities will continue changing with patterns of development that can be irregular and difficult to predict. If designers and policymakers get it wrong, the effects could suppress economic, health benefits and sustainable urban environments.

 

Obsessing over designs that put social distancing and mandating cleaning is not the answer. We have always lived with viruses and although the new pandemic and its impact on the future of cities seems unprecedented, the reality is that diseases have been shaping the built environment for centuries. If we react too quickly, we are in danger of undoing the progress we have achieved in the urban fabric of modern cities. Post-COVID-19 era represents a time of greater promise or potential peril. We are living at a crossroad between two parallel urban futures; a future that is bland and antiseptic, or a future that is populated and vibrant.

 

If we step back and take a human centric approach, it allows us to consider the best elements of a city for an individual in order to enhance wellbeing, human connection and happiness. If you put individuals at the centre to the whole design you get workability right, traffic, land use, pollution. You will create compact environment that have all the amenities required to function, work and play.

 

Can you predict the area where we might see a radical transformation coming out of this?

Milan recently announced an ambitious scheme in response to the coronavirus crisis, reallocating more than 35km of street space from cars to cycling and walking. Under the nationwide lockdown, motor traffic congestion has dropped by 30-75%, and air pollution with it. I predict that local governments will embrace this citywide expansion and shift investment from road networks and carparks to open spaces and pedestrianisation of streets.

 

Do have any advice for architects or firms struggling with the situation?

The key for cities to win the battle against current and future pandemics is by drawing nature closer to people, bringing rural values into the urban fabric in order to boost immune systems. Designers need to look back to natural ecosystems and learn from nature. Architectural practices have the unique opportunity to accelerate the sustainable agenda. A human-centric approach must be the centre of the urban discussion.

 

This pandemic could be a blessing to accelerate solutions to challenges that have existed all along. If we as individuals and designers become positive agents of change and work together as a collaborative society where psychologist, designers, biologists, policymakers all work together, we have the chance to create places that take cities and the human spirit to the highest levels.

Reinventing space: The next frontier for architects

Tim Martin

How has Gensler responded to this new way of working?

We are a research-centric organisation and used this to our advantage in order to understand how our teams were coping and being affected. We launched a survey to assess our employee’s well-being, their challenges, and overall experiences. It provided extremely insightful feedback which we are incorporating into our plan to return to work in the region.

Some encouraging findings showed that 68% of respondents were highly satisfied with their WFH experience. We found greater levels of trust, productivity and empowerment compared to working in the office. In addition, having the flexibility to arrange their own work schedules and save on commute time had a significant positive impact on their overall satisfaction and relationships. These findings prompted us to think about how we can offer the same level of experience when returning back into the workplace.

While the survey produced some promising findings, overall people still preferred to be in the office, they miss socialising with colleagues, impromptu face-to-face meetings and the community aspect of office life. These insights will be invaluable in enabling us to create a hybrid of working, social and community experience by merging the top benefits of working from home and from the office.

What new policies are being introduced?

Organisations are looking to revamp designs to encourage employees to return to the office. Among potential changes ahead are health checkpoints in reception areas and the greater use of ventilation methods to encourage more outside air. Gensler recently completed a ME focused Workplace Index Survey, looking at the balance between cellular offices and open spaces and explored solutions to balance local and international requirements. It is truly going to be a time of transformation for the workplace.

Issues with the "open concept" floor plans were beginning to emerge before the pandemic. This was evident in Gensler's annual report on the state of the workplace, released in January this year. The firm highlighted the looming problem posed by companies trying to cram too many employees into shrinking floor plans. The nationwide survey of 5,000 workers also cited the need for more innovative policies and methods to allow people to do their jobs remotely.

There are aspects of the physical office, that are still better suited for in-person interactions such as; meeting clients, brainstorming and creative collaboration. However, the current crisis will no doubt accelerate innovation. There'll be an emergence of new ideas and unlocking of trend lines that have previously been very set in place. Gensler is responding to this through creativity and using our own offices as testing grounds for new concepts intended to let workers safely return to the office.

What specific changes will we see in regard to the configuration of space?

The reception has always been an important area for companies, it offers the first insight into an organisation and its culture. Now, in the age of coronavirus, the space will take on a whole new meaning. We predict the reception area transforming into a health screening checkpoint, where visitors and employees alike will undergo testing. Such systems are already in place in Hong Kong and other countries.

Previous open floor plan shared spaces will be more sparsely designed to accommodate new social distancing guidelines. Conference rooms will have stricter occupancy requirements —with more employees dialing in virtually.

How will the role of technology be adapted to cater to the future of office spaces?

Companies will need to infuse technology more seamlessly into floor plans as people are eager to eliminate as much physical contact as possible. Indicators of this can be found in global trends such as the increase in contactless payments.

I predict an integration of this trend across several touchpoints of a design, for example; elevators, doors, bathrooms, frictionless space where people won't have to make contact in order to operate.

Organisations could also rely on sensors that would indicate when people are in the space and adjust lighting or air circulation accordingly.

What has been the greater impact of the current pandemic on the field as a whole?

It’s still early to know the full extent of how the global pandemic will influence new ways of working. However, in the near future we must explore how and what we need to do bring back to the social society that people are craving. Gensler has launched a new survey to specifically start asking critical questions such as; How is work changing? What is easier to do at home versus the office? What do people miss the most? What do they think they may miss from their home working environments when they return?

These questions will help employers determine what employees truly value and what amenities really matter when creating safe, productive working environments. We already know people will need to feel safe and protected in novel ways as a result of COVID-19. I envisage we will need to plan for a change to the following:

  • Densification taking a hiatus; spaces will start to be designed for natural physical distancing. Less space per person has been the trend for a significant period of time, we expect a short-term shift as phases of people return to the office.
  • Dynamic and unassigned seating will also require a shift in thinking. We know from Gensler’s US Workplace Survey, that employees with unassigned seating were less productive and engaged as those with an assigned seat. Now, we also expect dedicated space per employee, where, they will have a sense of control over their personal space at work, which in turn can give them a sense of ease and safety.
  • New ways to collaborate virtually, which will likely continue when we return to the office. Companies that were once more skeptical of remote working, have now had the opportunity to see how well it can work.

We should embrace the best of these new habits and encourage them to flourish.

What do you see being the short-term impact on the industry?

Perhaps the greatest impact both short and long term is the focus on health and wellness. We believe new touchless technology solutions, materials, products, protocols, and air filtration systems may begin to mimic what we used to associate more with traditional healthcare environments. To plan for a totally new reality, our design response will likely parallel what we are seeing in the public health community. In the immediate term, we will enter a bridge phase until more becomes known about the virus. Smart design can decrease the rate of sickness, alleviate symptoms of illness, and improve mental functions, outlook and mood. Short-term solutions will include things like:

  • Rethinking meeting spaces, reducing the number of occupants and encouraging virtual attendance.
  • Implementation of professional cleaning and sanitising protocols for workstations, conference rooms, reception desks and social or common areas at regular intervals throughout the day.
  • A focus on indoor air quality, leveraging technology can help filter and destroy bacteria and viruses from our indoor environments.
  • Adding ultraviolet (UV) lights to air handlers can help purify air and contribute to a safe and healthy indoor environment.
  • Updating and displaying safety measures regularly in order to show building occupants that they are taking health and safety seriously,
  • Introducing indoor environments wellness grade similar to display cleanliness grades or health inspections

What do you see being the long impact on the industry?

While none of us can predict the future, it seems reasonable to expect that there will be a continued focus on health and wellness, this could inform solutions that might require more extensive retrofits or design solutions such as:

  • Air-filtration systems with operable windows to bring more fresh air into spaces
  • Integration of outdoor space, to create greater indoor-outdoor connection
  • Implementation of biophilic designs as part of a broader effort towards adding elements of nature into the workplace
  • Rethinking floor plans to facilitate a more hygienic environment for example door-free entrances similar to airport restrooms - a strategy that greatly reduces the need to touch foreign surfaces, like door handles, which could transmit bacteria or viruses. Similarly, doors can be designed with a foot contact point, or fitted with automated or voice-activated technology that allows them to be opened with the wave of a hand or a voice command.

Ultimately, one thing we have learned from the isolation is the degree to which humans are social animals. We value human connection, and we want to join our colleagues at work and our friends and family in social environments.

Do you have any advice for architects or firms struggling with the situation?

Our careers as designers are about lifelong learning and diversifying. More now than ever it is necessary to evolve and develop both technical and soft skills. This is an opportunity to stay abreast with design trends and technology and hone their capabilities. It is important to partner with clients to determine their business strategy, through design and truly know and understand our client's business. Our role as designers and architects is ever-evolving, we need to think smarter about providing solutions.

The coronavirus pandemic will cause major shifts in how we experience the world and our industry will change and adapt. When this crisis has passed, we may well discover that there have been fundamental changes in the way we work.

Now is the time for more creative solutions, generated through collaborations among disciplines, technology and varying sectors. Ultimately, we want to create cities, spaces and places that promote safety, are inclusive and address sustainability challenges. At Gensler, we continue to deliver design solutions that shape the future of our cities and the human experience.

 

Covid-19 Economy Impact

How can cities be more resilient in the face of unforeseeable challenges?

cities

In a recent LinkedIn post, Siemens’ Smart Infrastructure CEO Cedrik Neike gave an insightful account of what he believes cities of the future might look like in a post-COVID19 environment and how adaptability and digitalisation will be a game-changer for city infrastructure. He highlighted that while the pandemic has given our environment a much-needed breather, it hasn’t removed the most significant challenges we are up against which is that our resources are still finite and using them efficiently so we can live sustainably on this planet remains a top priority.

So, how then can cities be more resilient in the face of unforeseeable challenges? According to Stephen Marsh, who is the Middle East Cities lead at Mott McDonald, a focus on social resilience and a human-centric approach, allows cities to be more resilient to shocks and unforeseen challenges.

“A key consideration in enabling cities to be more human-centric is by improving the spaces in which we spend around 90% of our time in, especially in the Middle East region,” Marsh explains. “With physical distancing in place and working from home potentially becoming the new normal, we need to explore the impact buildings we live and work in is having on our state of health. This could include exploring and improving materials used, use of healthy building materials, control pollutant sources, deploying of an environment which does not disrupt our body’s circadian rhythm and the impact of biophilia on our wellbeing.”

Marsh believes that the global pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to introduce more far-reaching measures to permanently alter behaviours to make cities more resilient and to set a path to the new normal which could, as an example, tackle climate change and its harmful effects.

“For example, a major risk following the pandemic is that instead of using public transport, people will turn to their private cars to travel, consuming more fossil fuels and emitting more damaging pollution into the atmosphere,” says Marsh. “A human-centric approach to infrastructure epidemiology combines healthcare and infrastructure and could be used to return confidence in public transport. Streets can be redesigned to encourage walking and cycling to restrict car travel and maintain social distancing. Renewably-fueled electric devices offer possible sustainable alternatives to countries with high summer temperatures.”

As Neike pointed out in his LinkedIn post, it is now more evident than ever that the main characteristic of our future cities needs to be adaptability. Marsh agrees: “Anticipating future challenges to ensure that your infrastructure, supply of goods and services, and the daily lives of people can adapt to unforeseen challenges is critical to allow cities to respond and limit the long-term impact of unforeseen events. And, as noted in a new report by the Centre for Digital Built Britain called ‘Flourishing Systems’, we can do this more effectively if we recognise infrastructure as a complex, interconnected system of systems that must deliver continuous service to society.”

“With this in mind, scenario planning exercises could be crucial to identifying the long-term risks and opportunities for our cities. The opportunities and risks for today may not be the same opportunities and risks tomorrow. To be truly resilient and adaptable to future change, one must assess using a future lens and prioritise. More comprehensive and robust scenario planning could be the key to ensuring that cities are more adaptable and resilient in the future,” Marsh adds.

When it comes to being able to fully harness the opportunities provided by technology to address specific urban challenges, according to the University of Birmingham’s Future Urban Living Report, the overall evidence suggests that we do not lack technologies, nor the data captured by technologies, but that the bigger challenge lies in governance, financing, and complex ownership structures that make it difficult to put the data to good use.

“The focus of technology should be to improve the lives of the people that live in cities, and in that way cities can harness the potential of technology deployment to the fullest extent,” Marsh explains. “However, it is not all about technology, and there are other ways that cities can prepare better for the future, and we don’t want to rely on technology alone. Collaboration is key, and the sharing of information to capture lessons learned and identify early warning signs to slow or better stop the spread of infection. Redesigning our city spaces and our streets are also important to facilitate sustainable travel and also support local communities and businesses.”

The understanding of what society values is also important. Citizens assemblies and other forms of participatory decision-making are being trialed in cities and digital visualisation can be a powerful tool in enabling informed discussion on complex and multi-stranded topics.

As we sit on what Neike describes as “the cusp of a leapfrog into a new era of digitalisation”, how does the digitalisation of our cities make us quicker to respond to a crisis? According to Marsh, in the current pandemic, the increased use of digital infrastructure and digital tools has enabled many of us to carry on working during the lockdown, and it has allowed a better response from our healthcare providers and medical assistance without the need to travel and put others at risk.

“However, with increased digital infrastructure and services, there is a balance to be struck regarding privacy. The success of digitalisation also lies in good data management and right end-user distribution. In the current situation, we were able to experience how quick COVID- 19 related information spread around the globe, but also false and misleading information has spread with it. Verification, analysing, and communication of information needs to be in balance going forward.”

Covid-19 Economy Impact

Rise in e-commerce: social distancing economy during Ramadan 2020

ecommerce

  • Social distancing contributed to an uplift in sales for certain categories, such as kitchen and dining, personal care and electronics.

Criteo (NASDAQ: CRTO), the global technology company powering the world's marketers with trusted and impactful advertising, has released its research on online consumer spending during the month of Ramadan. The surge in eCommerce purchases is expected to rise further during Ramadan as Muslims head online to prepare for the Holy Month.

A general uplift in online sales started around late February and significantly jumped mid-March. Categories that saw a massive increase in sales amidst the coronavirus crisis since March expectedly include protective gear, fitness, games, outdoor equipment, food, and video games consoles.

According to Criteo data, categories with the highest volume of sales since mid-February in MEA are personal care, clothing, kitchen and dining, electronics accessories, shoes, communications, audio, jewellery, décor and clothing accessories.

“Globally, we have seen daily web traffic surge by more than 50%. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, consumers have moved online: whether for work, school or shopping,” said Alistair Burton, Country Manager MEA at Criteo. “As most traditional retailers remain closed, we expect this trend to continue during Ramadan, a month that has a significant impact on purchasing and consumption in the region. Brands and retailers have the opportunity to listen to their customers, help them maintain traditions, and prove business continuity is in place.”

Last year, online retail sales started increasing from 10 days prior to Ramadan and reached a 47% increase, 10 days into Ramadan. Consumer activity slowed near the end of the period, with sales and traffic dropping by up to 13% during Eid al-Fitr. While people may have been more focused on celebrations with family and friends during this time, the following month saw a quick recovery and reinvigorated shopper interest and activity.

Across the world, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has had a significant impact on the eCommerce landscape. A recent Criteo survey of more than 10,000 people showed that globally, half of consumers say they will purchase more online because of coronavirus.

Criteo’s findings suggest that about half of all countries around the globe are experiencing an uplift in online sales transactions; attributed to the shift in shopper behavior as consumers observe social distancing.