UCL Minds


S1 Ep1: transcript

What are the challenges facing London as it comes out of the pandemic and into a post-Brexit world?

Join Prof Alan Thompson, Pro-Vice-Provost for London, in conversation with Dr Jon Reades from The Bartlett, UCL’s Faculty of the Built Environment.

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Transcript: Post-Pandemic, Post-Brexit London - with Prof Alan Thompson and Dr Jon Reades

Jon Reades  0:02  
Optimistically I think this gives London a breather, and a chance to reinvent itself.

Alan Thompson  0:09  
This is Future Cities, the series that brings together some of the people exploring and shaping what our cities could be like in the future. I'm Professor Alam Thompson, UCL's Pro-Vice-Provost for London. And in this first series, we're looking at the future of London within the context of UCL, London's leading multidisciplinary University, right in the heart of the city, with the British Museum, the green squares of Bloomsbury, and the bustle of Tottenham Court Road right on our doorstep. Episode One is about the challenges that London faces as it comes out of the pandemic and into a post Brexit world. And joining me today is Dr Jon Reades from the Bartlett, UCL Faculty of the Built Environment. Let's strip back the academic view and talk about what is probably on most people's minds right now. What is the world going to look like post pandemic, and I'd like to introduce Dr Jon Reades. So as Associate Professor in Spatial Data Science within UCL Centre for advanced spatial analysis called Casa in the Bartlett, john actually grew up outside Toronto, Canada, in Mississauga, and then studied and lived in New York before joining UCL to study for an M, Phil Ph. D. He continued to stay on as postdoc and then moved to King's where he worked for eight years, before returning to UCL in September 2020. John's experience and Canada, New York and London, have him well placed to talk about the future of cities. JOHN, you recently wrote a book, why face to face still matters, the persistent power of cities in the post pandemic era. Tell me a little bit about the book.

Jon Reades  1:52  
I think in a way, our core argument can be distilled down to one simple thing, which is that it's always tempting, especially kind of in an age of rapid technological change to think, you know, this time, it's different. But the book kind of argues that the best guide to the future is usually the past. And although we didn't engage directly with the ways that pandemics have reshaped cities, this is certainly not the first pandemic that cities like London, Paris, New York, or even Toronto have faced and nor is it likely to be the last. And I would say that after each one cities have recovered and reinvented themselves. And I think in a sense, that's what cities do. And a big part of that is because cities are full of creative people who are always reinventing themselves, you know, whether it's as scientists or chefs, bankers, or taxi drivers, and that cities excel at bringing those people together, and enabling them to, you know, create new products, new services. And that's because they provide the infrastructure for doing this, whether it's, you know, the big infrastructures that we think of like airports, rail stations, subways, buses, or all of that informal infrastructure that supports sociability, restaurants, bars, universities, theatres, and so on. And so what we do in the book is we start by looking at the kind of the transport infrastructure that moves stuff, boxes, bits, people around, and then we kind of build up from there. So sort of developing an argument from first principles, and then showing how that plays out in you know, what we recognise is a great world city like London,

Alan Thompson  3:40  
right? So it's really all about all about the people, I guess, certainly for the university, during the pandemic, and still now we saw most workplaces adopting to remote working, people moved out of the city, either to the countryside or to smaller, more affordable towns and cities. Can you really see a world where people will be choosing to commute back into the city daily, packed into Transport for London? I know there's considerable anxiety even as we speak about that as a concept. So what what is it that will will draw them back and draw them back safely?

Jon Reades  4:15  
I think that what has happened, I mean, the trend towards remote working was kind of baked in long before the pandemic it was changing, but it was changing very slowly. One of the metaphors that we use in the book is that, you know, COVID was the petrol, but it wasn't the fire. And I think if you look at industry, if you will, like academia, a lot of us have had already been working from home, two or three days a week, at least the academic staff, if not the professional services. And what's happened is, is that the pandemic has led institutions including universities to realise that a lot more staff probably didn't need to be there five days a week. And can and should be offered more flexibility. However, there's, there's two things. So I think we did adapt very well to keeping the show on the road. But one of the things that comes up very strongly in our interviews, and, you know, also in our personal experience is that what didn't happen was, you know, the hard stuff, developing new contacts, building new businesses, these things carried on, but they're much harder when you can't meet up with, you know, venture capitalists and hedge funds or research collaborators, especially new research collaborators with whom you don't already have an existing relationship. So I think as to what's going to bring people back, it's that need to meet face to face when what needs to be dealt with is something hard and complex, routine work, you know, the Monday morning check in the BI weekly meeting, lab meeting, things like that. These are much more amenable to being shall we say hybridised. So some people might want to be there in person, some people happy to do it online. But then of course, that's going to bring in new questions around. If half your office is working remotely, how did they participate in? You know, what we historically call things like the watercooler chitchat, you know, where you would find out about, oh, you're working on that, actually, how do you know that so and so is also doing this, as I love this quote from one of our interviewees, that it's it's hard to novel someone in the corridor when there's no corridor. And I think that that really speaks to the sorts of issues that will bring us back, as to doing it safely. I think one of the potential long run benefits of this remote working experience is realising that the nine to five, the need for people to be there, in set hours, especially within knowledge, work becomes less compelling. So some people might want to travel in, you know, 6:30am, and travel home at 430. In the afternoon, other people might want to shift their hours a bit later. So what that hopefully will lead towards is a kind of a more extended, but less intense rush hour as people, you know, self select, according to their their tolerance for being in the same carriage as hundreds of other people.

Alan Thompson  7:19  
So flexibility is key. And this concept of people taking responsibility for themselves. So they they make more sensible decisions, perhaps, but also then this balance about appreciating that you need to engage face to face but not all the time. I mean, did you think our workforce are capable of distilling out the fact that face to face working is really important, but not for everything, and therefore having the incentive to come into the city, rather than stay in the comfort of their own home? Where they're in control of things and can do their own thing?

Jon Reades  7:56  
Good question. I think that many of us, you know, without necessarily saying that we miss being in the office every day miss that, that the buzz that comes from being around colleagues being, you know, stimulated intellectually by what they do, what they're working on what we can work with them on. And again, I'm speaking in particular to what we will call the knowledge intensive industries, you know, higher education and research, consultancy banking, the arts, arts and culture, kind of the areas where, in a sense, we hire people to have agency, right, we don't hire, you know, high profile professors, and then tell them what to do. And this the same thing with actors and directors, we're hiring them for their for their skills. I think one thing that has been thrown up very strongly by this is that, you know, the distinction between those workers who were able to adapt quite quickly to being online, because of the nature of their work versus the challenges that we faced with supporting, you know, key workers, critical workers, people like delivery drivers, supermarket staff. That's a bit of a tangent. But I think that to kind of try and bring that back to your question, you know, work is, is for many people more than just a space where you go and do something for a set number of hours. And that means that most people will want to engage with that strongly. There's there's the psychological motivation.

Alan Thompson  9:25  
I agree. I agree. But I, I sometimes worry that people may or may not fully appreciate this. And, and the same with employers. I mean, you know, UCL is is a huge employer, but with a trusted staff sufficiently to allow them the flexibility that they need. So will the employers move into this brave new world with a greater degree of trust and flexibility,

Jon Reades  9:49  
all of the evidence that we have and obviously that evidence is developing every day, but certainly, you know what I've been reading in the news ad What we pick up from, for instance, our interviews, some of which we, we kind of re interview some of our interviewees in the midst of the pandemic, is that people are motivated. They, they want, you know, people want to do their work to a high standard. And therefore, I think, in a sense, my hope is, is that employers would trust their, their, their employees, and in a sense, I think it's necessary, because the best way to attract and retain the most valuable workers is to give them agency is to give them scope, to effect change to have control over their environment. Now, people will have different risk tolerances, people will feel, you know, certainly right now, people are going to feel very ambivalent about going back into the office. And I think that's entirely logical and sensible. And so I think the role that employers play in this context is one of trying to understand the different spectrum of responses and to add to support those as best they can now, you know, there are going to be challenges and you know, in big cities space certainly was at a premium, I think one of the really interesting dynamics that is still being worked out is, of course, the pandemic has shifted a lot of our shopping behaviour online, and that's had catastrophic consequences for some of the big chain shops, you know, your denims, and things like that. So we, we now have a lot of very large format, spaces going vacant in, in big cities. And there, there was an exciting idea that certainly at least one university has taken over an old debnam that is in the process of converting it to a teaching space. And so I actually think a bit of easing of the pressure on a city like London in terms of, you know, ever higher commercial rates, driving, you know, certain kinds of businesses, you know, with high turnover, towards more flexible uses more creative uses. There, I say pop up uses, could actually be a very good thing for London, because it'd become incredibly unaffordable for the majority of Londoners to actually, you know, to use people in, if you will, regular jobs, to aspire to ever Leon live within zone six

Alan Thompson  12:26  
kind of thing. Absolutely. And I suppose one of the things everybody keeps saying is that life will never be quite the same. But actually, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Because we've, we've learned a lot during this time, and the tragedy would be to lose that learning. So in terms of use of space, and shared space, and perhaps, again, thinking about UCL working partnership with, with a community with with Camden. And I know, for example, that we are looking at a different use of joint spaces, both to integrate more, but actually to have more effective use of space. And, and I guess that's something which we may see more over with over the next 1224 months,

Jon Reades  13:07  
the shaking up of assumptions is certainly going to drive creativity there. I'm in mind a little bit of the Glee we all took it the sort of collapse of of weworks, you know, IPO Initial Public Offering shortly before the pandemic, but of course, it kind of seems like what we're headed to now. And I think this is going to be one of the really interesting things is, I do think people will prefer to have local options, you know, for work. And those will be less formal spaces. My own personal pattern of work would be if I didn't need to go into UCL, I would, you know, head off to a coffee shop and sit there for a couple of hours and just enjoy the buzz of people around me. But I would do all that on foot because you know, Why get on the tube do everything else when I could just walk somewhere that was local and maybe run into a friend. And so there's, I think a potential for local high streets within what planners would call conurbations to benefit. So, you know, my co author on this book often joked that today bred in Waltham, so central must be the centre of the, you know, the creative world in London, because he had, I think, three of the interviews that we did with people in the cultural sector, they all independently suggested that location. And you know, that's not going to feature on a, you know, we don't really think of the cultural industries as being about Soho in the West End. But that, of course, is not where these people live. It's where you go, if you have a big editing suite, you need to bring people together to look at an edit of a film or or something like that. But the people who work in those industries live out here. They're happy to meet out here that's kind of part of their routine, if you will. So in terms of kind of that flexibility you were talking about. It's looking at ways to offer more more sites. Smaller locations more flexible locations seems like a positive.

Alan Thompson  15:04  
In the context of UCL we've talked about UCL as an employer. And we've talked about IT staff, we haven't said much about the students and, and the new graduates. And of course, they've really missed out on many opportunities. One of the exciting opportunities in London have is, of course, working with the boroughs to create placements. And that's been something students have really enjoyed, and also as volunteers, and I wonder, is that something which we can use to help that's much attract students back, but to actually enrich students when they do come back, and how might that have changed as a result of what's gone on.

Jon Reades  15:41  
But my suspicion would be that UCL and the other universities won't have to work particularly hard to attract students back, I think they are probably desperate to come back, you know, if they've been here for a year or two, they're probably desperate to see friends, if they're still living at home, they are, you know, however much they love their parents desperate to leave. And I think that there's outside of the classroom, one of the really valuable things that universities do is provide, in a sense, that initial seed of social capital, both the friends that you make through university, which is much harder to do in a deep way online, so you know, it's much harder to form those kind of relationships that will stay with you for the rest of your life, you know, during that time of transition, but then also the exposure to employers to ways of working to kind of the the norms of the business world. And so, I think that supporting them in developing employability skills, both in sort of more formal means and informal, you know, seminars and other things, which are, you know, I think, challenging for students to engage with remotely, because if we all, you know, repaired to, you know, a pub or some, you know, a restaurant, then that conversation would become much more multi way. And students will be in a position to sort of observe how we interact, what we talk about what people are excited by, one of the things that we don't really appreciate is the richness of face to face contact as a kind of, if you will, an information channel, right. So it's not just about what I'm saying, as you know, as we're experiencing now, but also about, you know, do I look excited about something, am I, you know, staring, you know, staring off into the distance, you know, how is the person I'm speaking with responding to what I'm saying all those really subtle cues, from which we extract a great deal of information, you know, who showed up who didn't show up? who led the conversation, who was silent? Those those those really valuable cues are just missing. And and they're sort of impoverished when we do zoom calls, I guess I would say,

Unknown Speaker  17:55  
Well, yeah,

Alan Thompson  17:56  
I mean, you know, the point I often say you can judge the value of a meeting by the length of time people stay behind after the meeting to discuss. And actually sometimes the, the the discussion after the meeting is even more valuable than meeting itself. And of course, that that just doesn't really happen. You can try and make it happen, but it's really quite artificial. And it usually as you say, it Peters out. We've talked about the pandemic quite a lot. We haven't really talked so much about that B word Brexit and and then this combined effect, how do you think London is going to be able to respond to that because in a way, you could argue the pandemic is slightly overshadowed Brexit, we haven't really felt the impact, or at least we haven't been aware, we've felt it,

Jon Reades  18:38  
I suspect that over the next 12 months, we will still be wondering if things are the result of Brexit or the pandemic sort of hangover, if you will, I think the kind of the effects of Brexit will probably play out over the much longer term on on one side, you know, for the past 40 years, the default choice of many businesses that wanted to operate internationally and wanted to have a base in Europe was probably to set up some kind of major Centre in London. And I think that what Brexit does is it changes that default. So, you know, we have stories about sort of the financial services in Amsterdam, starting to pick up, you know, Paris trying to attract people and so on. So, I don't think that means, you know, all of those companies that have basis, you're suddenly going to pack up and move 5000 staff across the channel, but it means that when they're making decisions about where to invest and where to expand those decisions will inevitably go to Europe because it's easier to be on the inside than the outside. That said, What London excels in his his services, which are, in one sense, ideas are highly portable. So multinational consultancies, you know, they may not move their staff from London to Europe, but they may still find ways to kind of develop the idea in London. And then if you will ship it across the channel. If I were being optimistic, I think I would actually focus on the ways in which this might reduce the pressures on London, for instance, the Treasury has historically recognised particularly valuable. So if what we see is reduced demand for gigantic offices for expanding headquarters and things like that, that might actually help to make London a more livable place, when you turn to, for instance, what's been built in terms of residential housing, I've been involved in research. And there's also a really nice piece of research done by The Bartlett School of Planning, looking at kind of shrinking homes in London, and the kind of the scale of that effect. And that is a result of international investment. Well, in part coming into London, people saying, well, we can build and sell 100, studio flats of relatively poor quality, rather than kind of investing in homes where people want to live. But that's because the demand in London is so great. If we actually ease up on that it gives London a chance to take a breath and say, well hang on a minute, you know, post pandemic, is this the way we want people to be living, you know, is this the kind of London that people should call home,

Alan Thompson  21:23  
you don't worry that that would result in a reduced value of property prices and unhappiness, a negative effect along those lines, you know,

Jon Reades  21:34  
I can say, as somebody who is in the fortunate position of owning their home that obviously I on one level, I hope property prices don't fall. But I think we also have to look at the kind of wider societal implications of these prices, you know, where I bought eight years ago, I couldn't afford to buy now, which is bonkers. I mean, it's a, that's not a sustainable city. So if we're talking about kind of sustainable urban futures, then we need to be thinking about how we, in a sense, moderate those effects. And I think there are a number of ways that could be done. But one of those is to probably spend a little less time and energy producing commercial office space. And that would be a result of kind of suppressed demand post Brexit, and a little more time producing kind of local spaces, places where people want to work, and livable homes, but you know, which either, even if they don't necessarily provide their own green space, at least separate, you know, your office, from your living room, from your bedroom, you know, which is what many people were experiencing a year and a half ago,

Alan Thompson  22:40  
if I was to summarise in very simple terms, that you have a very positive outlook as we move forward, because it's people based and because we were going to be more flexible, and because we'd have learned from this pandemic, in a way which will change behaviour, for the better, is that unreasonable?

Jon Reades  23:00  
Yeah, I think that the pandemic has shaken up our, you know, businesses normal, and that we need to recognise that that is, you know, that was probably necessary, I don't want to say it's uniquely a good thing, just to give an example of how these things can play out in the long run. If people are only commuting two or three days a week, they might well decide, I can live a lot further from my place of work. And if we are also still worried about travelling on public transit, because the buses are unreliable and full of people who may be ill, then what we could actually see is, for instance, you know, carbon emissions going up as people travel further in a private vehicles. I think the potential is there to really change, you know, the dynamic here in the UK, and then possibly even globally for the better. I do think it still requires concerted planning and action in order to kind of bring those potential benefits, you know, to fruition, if you will,

Alan Thompson  24:05  
and that and that planning, and that action is something which we as a university should be taking a very active role in. And I think partnering with our local boroughs and with the GLA to actually make sure we we get to the right place. I guess with all eyes on London for the mayoral elections. Every Londoner has a role in shaping our city. So it's really important that we all go out and vote. You've been listening to future cities brought to you by UCL. This podcast is an artisanal production. And the producer and editor of this episode, the Shivani Davey.