Getting out of town

This week, if all had gone to plan, I would have been reflecting on my latest stay in regional Victoria. Instead, Melbourne is under lock-down #6, and my mini-break out of the city had to be abandoned. But at least I managed to enjoy a great lunch and a walk in the country, before day release came to an end, and I had less than 4 hours’ notice to get back to town ahead of the latest curfew.

Greetings from Castlemaine – local art for local people….

Despite the abrupt end to my trip, the few hours of freedom were enough to remind me of the benefit (and downside) of living in a regional town.

First, regional and rural towns provide a great sense of belonging. You can experience a form of community in Melbourne’s urban and inner-city areas, but the connections don’t always run as deep, and they can be quite transactional and event-driven – meeting up to watch sport, going to the pub or catching up for dinner. Whereas, regional communities just “are”, and are always there to offer support, especially during challenging times.

Second, people living in regional areas tend to have a very different perspective and outlook on things, with a healthier approach to work/life balance. They have a greater appreciation of the country, nature and the land on which they live – something we can overlook or take for granted in our urban bubbles.

Third, rural and regional towns come with their own individual personalities and identities – something seriously lacking in our sprawling new suburbs with their increasingly cookie-cutter homes, and distinct lack of character.

The recent pandemic has shown that if you can work remotely, and don’t need to meet colleagues or clients face-to-face, regional centres are very attractive locations (even for a temporary tree/sea-change). But while the locals may welcome your city spending power in their shops and cafes, they may not appreciate the impact on property prices.

However, regional towns can take a while to warm to new-comers, and in these edgy pandemic times, strangers are viewed with as much suspicion as they are curiosity. More than once on recent trips I have noticed the locals almost crossing the street to avoid getting too close to the out-of-towners. Not quite dueling banjos (or the country pub scene in “An American Werewolf in London“…), but enough to suggest visitors are not entirely welcome.

Small towns are also notorious for everyone knowing each others’ business, where you can’t even sneeze without the rest of the village knowing about it. It can get to the point of suffocation, along with repressed emotions and dreadful secrets, especially where local traditions are based on very conservative (even regressive) values, beliefs and prejudices. (I was reminded of this recently when watching “The Last Picture Show”.)

In case this reads as overly pessimistic, I should emphasize that I really enjoy visiting regional Victorian towns (lock-down permitting), as they offer a rich variety of scenery and local produce – even if I can’t get there as often as I’d like these days, it’s good to know they are there. (And my wine cellar would be poorer for the lack of choice…)

Next week: More Music for Lock-down

Transition – post-pandemic career moves

Even before the latest lock-down v3.0 in Melbourne, one of the other members of my co-working space in the CBD decided they’d already had enough of being confined to a 5km radius, working from home, and other lock-down related restrictions. Having had their interstate travel curtailed over the past 12 months, and suffering from cabin fever, they have opted to spend the next few months living in and working from various Airbnb locations around regional Victoria. Even though they are used to WFH, recent experience has shown that they don’t need to be confined to one place. And this post-COVID shift in our work/life patterns (already being disrupted and enabled by remote working) is only increasing.

Likewise, a client I spoke to in the USA last week informed me that they had just settled into a new location on the west coast, and was “living the dream” of a nomadic existence.

More extreme is the recent example of a Guardian employee who, having had to travel from Sydney to the UK for a family funeral last year, then took several months to get back home (due to flight cancellations), but managed to keep working remotely from various European locations as he moved around to stay ahead of border closures.

Prior to this past weekend, and despite the city being out of Stage 4 lock-down for 3 months, private offices in Melbourne’s CBD have only been allowed to operate at 50% of capacity – the proposed move to 75% capacity has been put back. It means, for example, that even on a really good day, my local coffee shop is still only doing 60% of its pre-COVID business.

It’s my guess that the combination of office restrictions and many retail and hospitality businesses simply not bothering to re-open at all means the CBD is barely operating at 40-50%. It’s deceptive – some activities (e.g., construction) have continued pretty much unabated (even expanding while there is less traffic on the roads); while others have been shut down altogether (e.g., entertainment). Certainly food delivery services are still in demand, while some retail has been doing a bit better as customers appreciate the novelty of shopping in-person.

Monday to Friday in the CBD is like a bell-curve distribution – Mondays and Fridays are much quieter, as people choose to WFH part of the week. Which is challenging for employers, as they try to revert to “normal”. But assuming a mix of remote and on-site working continues, it probably means less overall demand for office space. (It’s also difficult to assess the impact of the CBD exodus on suburban hubs.)

So all that construction work suggests we will have an over-supply of commercial premises (offices, shops, restaurants and hotels).

Residential property is a similar story – student accommodation is far from full, as overseas students aren’t returning; and more inner-city apartment buildings are still going up, but there is something of an exodus from the city to regional and rural locations.

The latter tree- and sea-changes are being fueled by a number of factors: a desire to leave the city (which is more prone to lock-downs); low interest rates (so, cash out the equity in your suburban home and move to the country where your money buys you more); increased opportunity to WFH (see, 5G and the NBN have their benefits!); and a broader wish for a different work/life balance.

Unfortunately, this shift is also putting pressure on local housing supply – average property prices are going up faster in some regional centres than in the capital cities; and more nomadic lifestyles are driving up demand for short-stay accommodation. The combined effect is higher rental costs and reduced supply, tending to squeeze out the locals.

Ironically, we’ve heard farmers and primary producers in rural and regional Australia complain that they can’t get seasonal workers due to COVID restrictions on international visitors (especially students, back-packers and experienced fruit pickers). Conversely, we’re told that 90% of jobs lost after March last year have now been recovered – although this apparent rebound is mainly in part-time roles, not full-time positions. It would be interesting to see a detailed breakdown by industry, as some sectors (tourism, aviation, universities) are still struggling.

The hiatus (and disruption) brought about by COVID and subsequent lock-downs has no doubt prompted many people to reassess their careers: where do I want to live/work? what type of work do I want to do? which industries or companies are hiring? and for what roles? As part of a wider re- and up-skilling initiative, the Federal and State governments are offering a range of free vocational courses (mostly Cert I to IV programmes), as well as some enhanced “pathways” to trade apprenticeships.

While this is to be applauded, I can’t help feeling the effort is at least 5-10 years too late to address the technological, demographic and societal changes that began at the end of the last century, with the advent of the internet, cheaper technology, an ageing population, increased globalisation, inefficient taxation and tariff systems, and general economic restructuring. If nothing else, COVID has demonstrated the need for more resilience in the domestic economy, (and a reduced reliance on overseas imports and supply chains) such as smart manufacturing and food security.

Meanwhile, a friend of mine recently related that a nephew of his had dropped out of college (like many of his peers in the USA and elsewhere) and decided to become a self-taught expert in DeFi, as there is more chance of financial success (and career satisfaction) than obtaining an “off the shelf” bachelor degree….

Next week: Corporate Art

Social Distancing in Victorian Melbourne…

At the time of writing Victorians, like most of Australia, are living under a Covid19 “stay at home and practise social distancing” regime in attempt to “flatten the curve” and reduce the spread of this contagion. I have been working from home for 3 weeks, only going out for essential food shopping and a daily walk for exercise (since my gym is closed). This perambulation has revealed some lesser-seen aspects of Melbourne (apart from the empty streets), including the way the modern city’s 19th century founders went about their approach to urban design – including some examples of built-in social distancing.

The first example is the number of public parks and gardens close to the CBD that were established in the 1800s, and which have managed to survive the onslaught of developers. As we know, public parks, with their trees and green spaces act as the lungs of the city, and provide a place to exercise, relax and get some fresh air. So we need these facilities more than ever in times like these. (Strange why the Victorian Government still insists in allowing vehicles to use the culturally and historically significant Yarra Park as a public car park on so many days, with all the horticultural and environmental damage that this causes…)

Second, the decision to incorporate lane-ways into the grid design of the CBD, as well as throughout the 19th century expansion of the inner city suburbs. While their design was mainly pragmatic (ease of access for night carts, storm drainage), the result is that in densely-built areas such as Richmond, Carlton, East Melbourne, Fitzroy and Collingwood, lane-ways mean even terraced houses can have ample space between them and the next block, allowing for better ventilation, natural light and reduced risk of disease. (For an example of the lane-ways importance to Melbourne’s character and psyche, check out Daniel Crooks’ video, “An Embroidery of Voids”.)

Third, the decision not to build right up to the urban banks of the Yarra River (and the straightening and leveling of the river itself) has left them accessible to the public, both as a means of cycling and walking to/from work, and for recreational purposes. In many cities, riverfront access has largely been blocked off as adjacent land has been appropriated for private, commercial and industrial use.

At a time like this, I truly appreciate the foresight of Melbourne’s Victorian town planners – I just hope we can continue to enjoy their legacy in the coming weeks and months!

Next week: #Rona19 – beyond the memes

 

The State of PropTech

Among the many strands of X-Tech that we have come to hear about, PropTech is currently emerging as something of a hot topic, judging by a recent Meetup in Melbourne organised by MessageMedia. With the ambitious goal of exploring the “Past, Present and Future of PropTech in Australia”, it was clear that the field can mean very different things to different audiences.

Facilitated by Bec Martin, the panel comprised Shelli Trung, APAC lead for the Reach PropTech Incubator; Mark Armstrong, CEO of RateMyAgent; Alan Tsen, seed round investor with a focus on disruptive FinTech startups; and Nigel Dalton – ex-REA Group, who also gave a key note address.

Given the format and nature of the discussion, I won’t attribute specific comments to particular individuals. Instead, here are some of the panel’s observations (in no particular order), including some pitfalls for the industry, and key points that all market participants will need to consider.

  • In light of recent events, it was perhaps unsurprising to hear the view expressed that WeWork is “not very prop, not very tech”, as its business model and funding challenges became apparent. Generally, the view was that the co-working space fad has had its day (although Melbourne still manages to support numerous co-working spaces and models, not all like WeWork, since the local demand is there?).
  • We face significant local economic challenges (low inflation leading to minimal GDP growth and negative interest rates; declining wages/purchasing power in real terms; falling retail spending; over-extended household debt; and underemployment in the wider job market).
  • On the other hand, Australia still hasn’t had a recession since 1991, and house prices have just seen the biggest monthly increase since 2003, yet banks are imposing more stringent lending criteria.
  • Depending on which economic theories you favour, this either means easier access for first time buyers thanks to lower interest rates; or more rent arrears, increased mortgage stress and greater homelessness because of a lack of affordability and/or deteriorating lower cost housing options.
  • PropTech is not just two-sided online residential market places (although data analytics and digital marketing capabilities are integral to that particular segment).
  • PropTech should also embrace sustainability in terms of environmental efficiency and affordability. Social impact will likely mean adjusting home owner expectations in terms of dwelling size and carbon footprint. Equally, smart cities and more mixed use development is also being increasingly factored into urban planning and infrastructure design.
  • The increase in higher rise and higher density housing has also led to cost cutting in the choice of materials (flammable cladding), and deregulation and other factors have exacerbated structural defects where there is inadequate insurance protection for home owners.
  • What is happening where PropTech and FinTech intersect, such as the notion of fractional ownership? While this is something that is increasingly more likely (especially with Blockchain technology and tokenisation) if first time buyers have no other way to access the property market, what should be the appropriate licensing regime for these new financial products? What should be the credit risk criteria, lending models, prospectus design, funding structure and tax & accounting treatment? What if such developments include social and inter-generational housing? Or achieve the highest environmental standards/lowest greenhouse emissions?
  • For Australian PropTech startups wanting to go global, there were some warnings about the lack of cross-border tech transfer, and an absence of cultural awareness and curiosity by founders.
  • Meanwhile, on some measure, Facebook is probably the largest residential rental marketplace in the USA. What does that signify for future markets and property transactions?
  • Despite the success of real estate market places in Australia, the model does not easily transfer or scale in other countries. Equally, models from overseas might not work here. There was some scepticism about the so-called “iBuyer” model, and also the agency aggregation approach by firms like Compass (“you can’t buy relationships”). Plus, even local brands can go sour (e.g., Run Property and its subsequent merger with Little Residential to form LITTLE Real Estate).
  • IoT-enabled solutions are a growing theme, especially in aged care, and where AI learning patterns are being applied to energy efficiency, for example, or to improve facilities management (another PropTech segment ripe for disruption). This also links to the use of and intersection between On-line/Off-line data, such as CAD and 3D modelling, and “digital twins” (real-time databases of building design files) for mapping and monitoring physical structures. While in the UK, the concept of, and need for, Digital Twins has led to a raft of industry-wide initiatives and collaboration.
  • Despite Australia’s impressive work in creating standard data structures for residential property, there is still a lack of transparency when it comes to the results of private auctions (but isn’t that the idea – they are “private”?). According to the panel, similar data overseas is considered to be quite “dirty” (unstructured and non-standard).
  • The panel anticipated new PropTech opportunities for those companies offering “high touch/high end” services, and those providing “low touch / high tech” solutions.
  • One common data and infrastructure management challenge is dealing with legacy information systems, and sluggish internet speeds (despite, or because of, the NBN), meaning there will inevitably be some bifurcation in service and quality, depending on building design, purpose, age, location, value etc.
  • Finally, there were concerns that as security data and facial recognition technology becomes increasingly algo-based, it raises questions of privacy and misuse of personal and confidential data.

Next week: Pitch X – Launch Into A New Decade