Technology is the key as cities continue to focus on people

Glasgow has reinvented itself as a vibrant, connected city

The pandemic has accelerated trends towards making offices and workplaces more sustainable and healthier for occupiers. Nicol Dynes reports.

The demand from occupiers for better places to work in, which had already been growing, has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Integrating technological solutions into buildings is one way of helping to make them sustainable and healthy.

“When thinking of offices we are moving from a battery hen scenario to a free-range scenario,” says Stewart Taylor, senior director advisory & transaction services at CBRE. “The four pillars are sustainability, technology, wellbeing and being part of the city.

“There was an emerging trend for the employee becoming more important, but now it has strengthened. There’s a greater demand for flexibility, underpinned by digital platforms.”

A recent CBRE survey property professionals reveals that 85% of respondents believe Covid-19 will have a significant or a very significant impact on their real estate strategies.

Companies and landlords also “want to be seen to be doing the right thing”, Taylor adds. “The office is now seen as a reflection of the company’s brand. That old idea had disappeared but now it’s come back again.”

‘Glasgow has been transformed from a de-populating, post-industrial, economically depressed city into a fast-growing, vibrant city at the cutting edge of technology.’

Susan Aitken, Glasgow Council

Experts now agree it is buildings that can make a huge difference to the environment, tenant satisfaction and to a company’s image.

“In order to meet carbon reduction targets, we need to make buildings count, as they account for 40% of emissions,” says Cees van der Spek, public affairs & global corporate relations director of developer EDGE Technologies. 

Technology is key

There’s another advantage to technology-rich, sustainable buildings, which is particularly crucial in the post-pandemic phase to encourage tenants to go back the office, adds van der Spek. Health and wellbeing are crucial, of course, but a crucial aspect is that “buildings that are changing for the better are also more fun, which means that people want to be in them”, he says. 

Office buildings are becoming more part of the city, more connected to the local community and also more transparent, sometimes literally. 

“Offices are becoming less isolated and closed-in and more open, as you can see in our building for ING or the project we’re currently doing for ABN Amro,” says van der Spek. “Even in banks you can now see people working.”

Better buildings make for a better and more cohesive community and technology is the key to better buildings and happier cities, says Scott Farmer, council leader at Stirling Council: “We want to be a leader in digital innovation because data and innovation are enhancing the quality of city living and sustainable growth leads to social cohesion.” 

Stirling in Scotland became the UK’s first completed ‘Gigabit City’ after CityFibre installed full fibre broadband to more than 17,400 homes (AdobeStock: lukasz_kochanek)

Farmer adds that regardless of size, all cities can transform themselves and become more environment- and citizen-friendly. Stirling is “a small city with big ambitions”, he says.

“You have to start small but think big,” says van der Spek. “Start with a small project and then scale it up. There are more and more community initiatives popping up all over the place and a sense of collaboration between the owners of a private building, local authorities and local schools and universities.”

In EDGE’s Amazon headquarters project in Berlin, for example, the first two floors will contain art produced by people in the area to bring in the locals, while at its ABN Amro building in Amsterdam a community space has been given to the local authority to be used 24 hours a day and which will include a public library.

Improving existing stock

It is important to build new sustainable and high-tech buildings, but it is also essential to work on existing stock to improve it, says Julie Alexander, director of technology, innovation and environment, at placemaking and regeneration company Places for People. “Future-proofing buildings with technology, health and environmental sustainability means creating places that connect to people and deliver better lives,” she says. “Digital connectivity is a key to access services, education and more.”

Technology is often associated with the young, but it can also benefit the elderly and make them more self-sufficient. Places for People pays particular attention to older age groups. “They are hesitant at first, but technology works because it helps them stay in their homes and it gives their families peace of mind too,” Alexander says. “45% of our customers are over 55 and that percentage is only going to grow. Our goal is to keep them where they want to be, in their homes, and support them.”

‘We want to be a leader in digital innovation because data and innovation are enhancing the quality of city living and sustainable growth leads to social cohesion.’

Scott Farmer, Stirling Council

The focus tends to be on urban dwellers, but many people don’t live in cities. Technology solutions to provide services and connect to others can also help people who live in rural locations to feel less isolated. 

Glasgow in the spotlight

Any doubts that a city can change for the better should be dispelled by Glasgow’s example, says Susan Aitken, council leader at Glasgow City Council. “Glasgow has been transformed from a de-populating, post-industrial, economically depressed city into a fast-growing, vibrant city at the cutting edge of technology,” she says. “My message is that if you can do it in Glasgow you can do it anywhere. No one has any excuse not to make progress if we have.” 

The city had many challenges to overcome due to its industrial legacy, from toxic residues to flooding issues. But in a few months Glasgow will be in the global spotlight as it hosts COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference. 

EDGE Technologies’ East Side Berlin will be mostly occupied by tech giant Amazon and is described as “Germany’s healthiest high-rise building”

“We don’t want to be just a venue but provide inspiration and a glimpse of what the future can be like,” says Aitken. “The climate emergency is central to everything we do, so being the host city give us an opportunity and a responsibility to show we can act as global leaders.”

It’s a chance to change the perception of the city as well and show the world the progress it has made, especially in the last five years, she adds. 

Ambitious green targets

Glasgow has an ambitious target to be carbon-neutral by 2030, which it plans to achieve by retrofitting and insulating Victorian buildings, decarbonising transport, detoxifying post-industrial land, increasing green spaces and other initiatives. “We’ll prioritise those areas where we’re going to get the biggest carbon gain,” Aitken says.

The green agenda is just part of the picture. Technology and innovation also play a vital role in making Glasgow a city of opportunity, which has one of the highest graduate retention rates in the UK. Accommodation is affordable and this is key for young people.

“Local authorities, business and universities working together is what underpins the Team Glasgow approach which is so crucial,” says Aitken. “The Innovation district is buzzing, but a lot of innovation is responding directly to the challenges in the local community, directly addressing the issues that most matter to people.”

Having created a vibrant innovation eco-system, looking ahead Glasgow now has three main ambitions. “We want to achieve net zero carbon by 2030, to have a just transition that doesn’t leave behind the disadvantaged, and to cement our position as an outward-looking, humane, green, smart city – a European city,” says Aitken.