Ready for the Fifth Age

Whatever your views on the rights and wrongs of Brexit, there is a danger that our national discourse becomes inward-looking and parochial.

Since the referendum result a year ago, I have had something like this said to me, on a number of occasions, in places as diverse as America, China and unsurprisingly, in mainland Europe itself.

The perception expressed is that the UK has turned its back on the world and wants to go alone – a case of ‘stop the world, I want to get off’.

It was therefore very useful to have a counter-narrative - outward looking and global - at the Derby Property Summit last week from Yolande Barnes.

Yolande can’t be parochial - she is one of those people with the word ‘world’ in her job title – and, as Director of World Research for Savills, she gave a keynote that covered off over a thousand years of city evolution across the globe.

Savills itself employs 30,000 people across 60 countries and Yolande’s challenge was, using this source of intelligence, to draw on some learning for Derby.

The Property Summit is not only one of Marketing Derby’s main events, but it has become an important date on the property community calendar.

Of the 350 delegates packed into Pride Park Stadium in last week’s heat (do you remember that?), nearly 100 were from out of town, with many coming up from London.

We like the summit to provide some stretching thought leadership, as well as give updates on prospects in Derby, and Yolande’s scene-setter delivered this to a tee.

Her main contention is that cities (including of course the property and development community within cities) need to be aware of two key driving forces defining their future; technology and demographics.

On the first, her view is that we are about to enter what she called the ‘fifth age’ of cities – the digital age.

The evolution of the urban form has moved from the agrarian age, through industrialisation, mercantile and capital ages, to today’s digital challenge.

This model is easily applied to Derby; from county town up until the 17th century, through the industrial revolution of the 18th, rail connectivity of the 19th and suburban growth of the 20th centuries.

In her view, the digital age will provide smaller cities with massive opportunities as the significant critical mass required in the last phase – in particular access to capital – becomes less important.

That is where the second trend becomes important, that of demographic change.

The headline is simple – by 2025 more than 75% of the world’s workforce will be millennials and cities will have to fight to attract and retain them in their workforce.

More than this, well-educated and productive millennials will invariably be mobile and ruthless in their choice of location.

Economic development goes hand-in-hand with urbanisation and all research is showing that talent increasingly wants to be located in city centres.

The fall and rise of city centres has been well documented and you can see this across America and Europe. Cities like Manchester have led the way but others are becoming places of choice for living, working and playing.

Yolande argued that, in the future, out-of-town retail and business parks will struggle when pitted against the hustle and bustle of downtown. A couple of weeks ago I saw a suburban shopping mall in California converted into a college.

But, it is clearly happening closer to home.

For the first time in centuries, last year, there were more residential units planned in Derby city centre than in the rest of the wider city.

Add to this brands, such as TK Maxx - which has announced new investments in the city - plus the massive success of Derby City Council’s Connect office scheme, and you start to get a glimpse that maybe Yolande is on to something.

A compact city 90 minutes from London, home to some of the world’s leading companies and a University now rated in the UK’s top 20%, with a city centre under transformation having attracted over £3billion of investment, may well be a candidate to pilot the city of the digital age…