BUY-TO-LEAVE

Another recent buzzword highlights the impacts of commercial innovation upon urban infrastructure and on the lifestyles of both rich and poor in the metropolis…

 

 Image result for empty luxury apartments

 

In 2015 I wrote about the fact that estate agents, journalists and grassroot activists were using the phrase lights-out London to describe the phenomenon whereby parts of the UK capital, especially those super-prime districts in the centre, have been deserted by ‘real’ people and are in the hands of absentee landlords (the government’s term is non-resident landlord, NRL) or absentee owners. There were then around 700,000 empty properties across the UK: in London 75% of buyers of new-builds are foreign, many of whom practise not just the buy-to-let tactics favoured by a generation of small domestic investors, but buy-to-leave. Wealthy non-doms are keeping around 20% of accommodation unused (units referred to colloquially as empties or more formally as vacant assets) in the knowledge that their investment will simply grow in value; other properties are unoccupied for most of the year, meaning that local economies in these areas are suffering a triple whammy. Spiralling house prices prompt private individuals to sell up and move out, at the same time the cost of office space is driving businesses further and further from these prime locations: once thriving shops and restaurants find themselves half-empty.

25% of investors coming from Gulf states to buy property in London planned purely to gain from rising prices without living there, according to the Guardian in 2016, who also reported that a quarter of all those who planned to buy a property in London were targeting capital gains rather than looking for somewhere to live or to let out. Even those buying second or third homes for their own families did not reveal how often or for how long the properties would be occupied.

The Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017 has refocused attention on the issues arising from absentee landlordism and official laxity – or possibly official collusion: many of Kensington and Chelsea Borough’s councillors are themselves landlords and active in the ambivalent regeneration projects which are supposed to provide both public and private housing, but which many see as vehicles for gentrification and, when housing poorer tenants, guilty of poor safety standards. 72 of the Conservative MPs who voted against a parliamentary motion to make homes ‘fit for human habitation’ were landlords; one was the newly appointed Police and Fire Minister, Nick Hurd.

Regulators haven’t been completely inert: the Bank of England’s Prudential Committee intends to crack down from September 2017 on portfolio landlords – those with four or more mortgaged buy-to-let properties – subjecting their businesses to stress tests to ensure that they have income streams and business plans in place.

Global, and local turbulence goes on, however. The company – a consortium of Malaysian investors – redeveloping the huge and iconic Battersea Power Station site on London’s riverside (‘the Everest of real estate’) promised in 2011 to include 636 affordable homes among its final range of ultra high-end housing units. In Summer 2017 it reduced this number to 386, saying the original commitment was based on lower construction costs and a seemingly unstoppable boom in newbuilds which since the Brexit vote has calmed considerably. At the Greenwich Peninsula site on the other side of London Hong Kong-based Knight Dragon have reduced the number of affordable homes from 35 to 21 percent.

 

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At the beginning of August 2017 The Labour Party condemned as ‘simply unacceptable’ the revelation, stemming from the accidental disclosure of council data following the Grenfell Tower fire, that 1652 properties were unoccupied in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  A Guardian report drew on the same information to publish the names of owners of vacant properties, among them oligarchs, foreign royalty and business speculators. This prompted the Liberal Democrats to demand increased surcharges on long-term empty homes, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan to promise to tackle the issue before the end of the year.

 

You can find more examples of the official jargon used in the field of development and regeneration here (I was particularly struck by one of the listed entries: 

Community Cohesion

There is currently no universally accepted definition of this.’)

http://www.jargon-buster-directory.com/development-regeneration-jargon.php

 

…and the latest from Battersea here, courtesy the Telegraph:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2017/07/22/inside-battersea-power-station-everest-real-estate-test-case/

 

 

BIZWORDS AND BUZZWORDS – 2

Back in the 70s and 80s ‘Val-speak’ or ‘Valley-speak’ used to refer to the modish slang of the well-to-do girls living in and around the San Fernando Valley in Southern California. Now it is more likely to denote the jargon circulating in Northern California’s Silicon Valley and beyond, the language of startups, digital entrepreneurism and tech innovation.  This language has now, characteristically, itself been commodified, packaged and sold by some of its users (see below). In the UK I have also been tracking the new language of technology, digital marketing and finance, and the terms thrown up by so-called hipster culture. Here are three examples…

 

FLAT WHITE

 

We all know that the finance sector is a major driver of UK growth, especially and disproportionally in London, but there’s another sector currently outperforming it, a sector that as yet doesn’t even have a name. Douglas McWilliams of the Centre for Economics and Business Research reported in 2016 that ‘the firms that are driving growth are all those businesses that you can’t easily describe…a mixture of IT, culture and marketing – you can’t define them by any Standard Industrial Code.’ The catchiest catch-all term for this phenomenon is the Flat White Economy, so called because the bicycle-riding hipsters supposed to be coordinating it favour Flat Whites, a coffee style imported from Australia, over Lattes or Cappuccinos. This motley collection of creatives, digital marketers and start-up entrepreneurs, many centred on East London’s Silicon Roundabout hub (based on Old Street and Shoreditch, the third-largest technology startup cluster in the world after San Francisco and New York City) is not uncontroversial, with some commentators doubting its capacity for longer-term growth, others seeing it as part of an overheated, overrated London-centric bubble.

 

ULTRA-URBAN

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The hipsters who have been steadily colonising our inner cities over the last decade haven’t actually given us much new language: too precious for street slang, too cool for corporate jargon, they tend merely to over-use existing terms like ‘craft’, ‘artisan’, ‘vintage’ and ‘pop-up’. Two recent exceptions, however, are the expressions UltraUrban (as it is often spelled) and Epicentral. Both are being used literally to denote central areas (ultra-urban is a technical term from planning and waste–management) like London’s Silicon Roundabout,  Berlin’s Kreuzburg or Budapest’s VII District, but also as adjectives with approving overtones of edginess (if that’s not a contradiction), authenticity and cultural dominance, applied to clothing, galleries, avant-garde music, etc. Should you, however, be allergic to ultra-urban first movers and all they represent, the Yelp website has used word maps to identify hipster hot zones to avoid in a range of cities across the US, Canada and Europe. In related news the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced in 2017 that non-dairy milk such as soya, rice and oat milk now features on the list it uses to track prices. The list is used to calculate CPIH, the headline measure of inflation. Gin also returns to the product basket after a 13-year absence following a rise in consumption and a growth in the number of ‘artisan’ gin producers. The ONS also said that their list will now include bicycle helmets.

 

LASTING SPACES

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The dynamic – and often precarious and ephemeral – nature of the latest retail operations has been symbolised by the term pop-up. Temporary outlets spring up in unexpected places and disappear, while the urban landscape is potentially blighted by the high-speed turnover of small traders and obsolescent businesses. Now, however, the first signs of an opposing trend have yielded a very different expression. Lasting spaces may refer to newly established green zones, to boutiques, markets and drop-in welfare centres intended to stay put and reinforce permanent communities, also to novel interpretations of living accommodation such as container homes. The notion of lasting spaces forms part of what has been dubbed the local love or love local phenomenon, taking hold in the US, Australia and the UK. As well as simply showcasing local produce and promoting local enterprises, trendspotters see this as an important innovation in consumerism allied to the SoLoMo (‘social-local-mobile’) movement bringing together smartphones, social media and hyperlocal commerce.

 

Promoters and marketers of Silicon-valley language can be found at:

 http://www.siliconvalleyspeak.com/

And here is one of the very few articles to highlight the language of innovation from a UK perspective:

http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20170313-the-secret-language-you-speak-without-realising-it?ocid=twcptl

BIZWORDS AND BUZZWORDS

For more than twenty years I wrote the Bizwords column for British Airways’ Business Life magazine. The series, which  highlighted examples of the most topical, colourful or outrageous jargon circulating in the corporate world, has just ended, but in its memory here are some of the last items published…

 

REPLICABILITY

What had once been a technical term – for the successful reduplication of test results – or a neutral definition – the ability to recreate a product, service or environment – threatened to become a dirty word in 2016. Replicability came to symbolise second – or perhaps third – thoughts by many progressives concerning the hipster design aesthetic and its global spread. Retro logos, distressed decors, artisan micro-brands and wired-up, gentrified workplaces, copied and imitated across markets and cultures have resulted in what columnist Kyle Chayka dubbed ‘AirSpace’, a faux-authentic, frictionless zone through which an affluent mobile elite can travel (checking for local recommendations from apps like Fourspace or Yelp, then Instagramming their discoveries to friends) without ever really leaving home territory. The replicated style, which, though much-mocked since its inception, once defined a desire for difference and originality, has morphed into a new all-enveloping mainstream.

 

 LEAD-MAGNET

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 Digital Marketing is a non-stop – and seemingly unstoppable – generator of new terminology, so agencies must help novices to keep up by posting glossaries of the latest buzzwords. Turning prospects into leads into actual customers involves, in the jargon, directing traffic to your landing page (ideally frictionless) or welcome gate which is likely to feature a lead-magnet, aka opt-in bribe, a benefit such as a free consultation, free trial, discount offer, or a content-upgrade like a toolkit or guide to induce the visitor to give you their contact details. That is a conversion, the start of a relationship with the site visitor who should then go on to register with you, follow you on social media and/or purchase something. (Measure success by your conversion rate, failure by your bounce-rate). The series of steps you use to draw in the customer, from ads via webpages through interactions all the way to payment is known as the funnel.

 

W.E.I.R.D

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If a colleague tells you that your target demographic is WEIRD, will you know how to react? The letters of the acronym stand for ‘western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic’ and are used to point up a crucial flaw in the studies of human behaviour underpinning much global marketing. The problem is that the samples on which assumptions are based are not representative: ‘Westerners’ are thought to make up around 96% of respondents in psychological studies, US citizens at least 68%. W.E.I.R.D subjects tend to be outliers, exceptions, in terms of many traits such as visual and spatial perception, notions of fairness, cooperation – even in how to design and respond to survey questionnaires. Differences between so-called traditional or collectivist societies and the individualist west are well-known, but even within a modern multiculture like the US, UK or Australia ‘human’ responses vary according to ethnicities, microcultures and niches. Still searching for universals, analysts now have to grapple with the much more complex reality evoked by their latest buzzword: superdiversity.

 

CLIMATARIAN

A raft of novel foodie expressions reflects the huge impact of the gastronomy economy (not to be confused with economy gastronomy which is one such term meaning luxury cooking on a budget). The progressive connoisseur and the green militant have recently come together in the form of the climatarian, an activist consumer who combats climate change by favouring poultry, pork and sustainable fish instead of CO2 culprits beef, lamb or venison, insists on unfrozen produce from sources close at hand to counter refrigeration and transport emissions and uses 100% of every meal by processing skin, bones, vegetable offcuts, etc. In his lexicon entitled ‘Eatymology’ US author Josh Friedland has collected more examples of the new food-speak, including carrot mob, a so-called reverse boycott whereby crowds of enthusiasts descend on an outlet in order to celebrate its healthy credentials, and – less healthily perhaps – gastrosexual, an individual who uses cooking prowess in order to seduce. In a similar vein militant locavores (promoters of local produce) if male are now known as brocavores, while food porn is flagged by the hashtag #foodspo.

 

I’m always collecting jargon, buzzwords and new and exotic usages like these. Please contact me to donate examples (and you will be credited in upcoming articles and publications!)

 

 

SHARP NUMBERS AND STATUS SPHERES

 

I’m interested in the extent to which the trendy jargon of business and lifestyle really is transient, as it’s often presumed to be. Many of the buzzwords which I discovered and tried to analyse back in the noughties decade are no longer current. Some of them never managed to escape the rarefied circles in which they were invented and briefly exchanged. Others, however, still resonate  – and still, remarkably, are seen as innovative and novel. Here are two examples of what I mean: can you decide in which years the following words were written?

 

Image result for presenting numbers interesting way

SHARP NUMBERS

I’m almost certainly in the top category – a so-called high skeptic – on Obermiller and Spangenburg’s grading of consumers’ resistance to advertising claims. I’m endlessly irritated for instance at prices that end in 95p or 99p rather than go the whole hog. This tactic is crude and familiar, but other forms of number manipulation and the quasi-technical terms describing them increasingly crop up in commercial conversation.

Theorists of customer behaviour and information load describe my bugbear as the (positive) nine-ending effect, closely related to the (negative) left digit effect – if increasing the price causes the leftmost digit to change, the sale may well be lost. In analysing consumer inference and the processing of brand information the experts cite a numerical superiority effect. This simply means that claims expressed in numbers (‘78.6% effective’) appear to be objective  – based on empirical data – while claims expressed in words (‘finished to the highest technical standards’) tend to be judged as subjective. The same distinction operates between round figures or round numbers, often suspected of being approximations or guesstimates, and sharp numbers, assumed to demonstrate verifiability. This quirk of human psychology the experts describe as precision heuristics. Round numbers incidentally don’t always have to end in zero: given our system based on tens, fives are also salient (i.e more memorable and processed more readily).

Mathematician Stanislas Dehaene highlighted these and other psychological features of number-perception a decade ago, (and Proctor and Gamble’s claim that their Ivory soap was ‘99 and 44/100 per cent pure’ is a century old), but only recently have they begun to cross over into public awareness. The housing market in particular has woken up to a related phenomenon, that buyers have an innate tendency to treat sharp numbers as lower than round ones. They may for example unconsciously perceive £725,000 as higher than £725,647. Sharp numbers play a key role, too, in the pique technique, also known as mindful persuasion, whereby a request is made in an unusual way to pique the subject’s interest, usually illustrated by the simple example of a beggar asking for 97p instead of a pound. Such requests have been shown to have a potential 60% success-rate as opposed to 10% for round figures.

In US financial journalism, by the way, the phrase sharp numbers has another, predictable, sense: it means the numbers that hurt.

 

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STATUS SPHERES

According to research by Standard Life Bank two out of three Brits in their 30s and 40s are now suffering from status anxiety about their homes, prompting TV consumer psychologist Benjamin Fry to attempt a more detailed diagnosis. They are apparently experiencing improvenza, which sounds like another affliction, but is touted not as the disease but the potential cure, involving as it does reconfiguring the work-life balance and, as often as not, renovating rather than moving. The notion of status anxiety as a defining modern malaise has been around for some time, but was popularised by UK philosopher Alain de Botton in his 2004 book of the same name. US trendspotter Faith Popcorn has since argued that it is moral status anxiety which increasingly defines our attitudes. She and others have been predicting the end of conspicuous consumption, to be replaced by conspicuous austerity (slogan: ‘less is the new more’), thrifting (opting for low-cost, low-profile living) or conscientious consumption, whereby our individual standing is defined by how far we manage to combine spending and leisure pursuits with self-improvement and charitable works.

Amsterdam-based Trendwatching.com, who also single out status as the key driver of new consumer behaviours, this year upped the stakes by coining the expression status despair to describe the awful realisation, for example, that a fellow oligarch has a more sumptuously fitted-out private jet than you. Journalists have identified other manifestations of this new angst, ranging from yacht-envy to bag-envy. The latter, according to media strategist Tracy Hofman, can be countered by what she calls status flair, ‘the thrill that resonates when you realise that the quilted Chanel handbag you acquired in 1990 is now back in fashion!’

Trendwatching claim that, in an experience economy, hierarchies based purely on spending power are outdated, supplanted by so-called status-spheres; different areas of activity such as ‘participation’, ‘giving’, ‘experiencing’ from which individuals derive self-validation and peer-recognition. In the same way those physical status symbols – visible, tangible purchases for display – are giving way to status stories, told not by manufacturers but by consumers bragging to other consumers, presumably by word-of-mouth and by way of blogging and viralling, about their personalised adventure holidays, their web-presence, not-for-profit investments, eco-credentials, etc.