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British Council for Offices conference reviewSeptember 2008

The 2008 British Council for Offices Conference took many of its themes from a political, European and demographic perspective. BSRIA's Tony Matthews took careful note of who said what.

Crystal-ball gazing is always best done by someone with a pretty fair idea of what is likely to happen. And who better to open the BCO conference with a spot of futurology than the BBC correspondent and political commentator Andrew Marr.

Marr further suggested that there is meltdown at the heart of the cabinet, and if (or, more likely, when) the UK government loses the next general election there will be "a bloodbath at the top". He also predicted that a Conservative government will be very Euro-sceptic.
Marr suggested that although the EC was originally formed to bind Europe together and prevent war, there is now a resurgence of nationalism. Many countries are increasing their spend on armament and missiles, he said.

Talking as an 'insider', the former Director of Environment for the EC and Ambassador in Washington Andrew Currie asserted that the old 'Gang of 6' is moribund; and that the greatest changes came under Thatcher and Delors. The influence of the trade unions was reduced and there was much liberalisation in areas such as telecommunications and air transport. The EU's current preoccupation, he said, is with energy and the European environment policy.

But to the conference itself, and its major theme, that of the effects of demographic change sweeping through Europe. Speakers argued that the effects of an ageing population will be felt most keenly in public expenditure. Sixty percent of UK public expenditure will need to be earmarked for pensions, for health care and for long-term care of the elderly.

In a lively and thought-provoking presentation, Amlan Roy, Head of Global demographics for Credit Suisse, made the case that as we are growing older we are becoming more isolationist. This means continuing rises in the number of single person households, which will create greater demand for housing. Fitting-out these dwellings will, it was argued, stimulate demand in the furnishing, domestic appliances and consumer goods markets.

The UK and other developed economies are lucky. We grew rich before mankind discovered the medical advances that have enabled us to grow old - we can afford to pay the bills of demographic change. Much more worrying is the fate of developing economies, who have started growing old before they have had the time to grow rich.

The power of demographics

Demographics also emerged as a key factor in other debates during the conference. For example, delegates considered whether the trend towards flexible working had gone too far or still had further to go.

The feeling of delegates was overwhelmingly for the latter. This was not just because flexible working is still only enjoyed by a fairly small minority of workers, nor because the changes in technology mean that more and more flexibility is possible. Largely, the pendulum will continue to swing because the next generations of school and university leavers will demand it - and demographics means they are increasingly powerful because they comprise a smaller proportion (and therefore a more valuable part) of the working population.

The demands of flexible working will affect the design of office buildings, the layout of interiors, as well as their ultimate locations.

This was well illustrated by a series of presentations entitled 'Offices - views of the future', where speakers talked about practical steps that are successfully being taken by visionary companies like Accenture. The trend is to accommodate the abilities and expectations of the new, highly mobile, multitasking-capable 'facebook generation' known colloquially as Gen Y.

Demographics will also dramatically affect the demand for vastly improved lift technology. Speakers said that population pressures and increased urbanisation, particularly in emerging economies, will result in taller and taller buildings (urban sprawl into rural areas will not be an option) as farmland will be needed for food production. It was argued that taller buildings will need faster and more efficient lifts.

New combinations of advanced passenger control and double-deck cars or even independently-moving lift cars in the same shaft are emerging from the major lift manufacturers. Energy regenerating lifts will, it was argued, reduce the carbon footprint of buildings (as, indeed, would clearer signposting of staircases).

Alongside these product developments, more complex modelling techniques will enable designers to optimise their lift designs to the usage patterns predicted for the building. This should save valuable floorspace by reducing the number of lift shafts, the sizes of the shafts and the need for lift motor rooms.

Demographics may, at first glance, appear to be the path to a more expensive and far less sustainable world, but it may also turn out to be the mother of invention that will enable mankind to have its cake and eat it.

 

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