We all want more living space, but we don’t want urban sprawl. As societies get richer having larger homes is one of the main ways in which people deploy that additional wealth. But we don’t want to spend an hour or more commuting on a train or stuck on a motorway. Result: soaring house prices and “Generation Rent”.
IKEA, with their genius for creating cheap and stylish (if sometimes infuriating) solutions for the problems of modern life, have come up with the idea of kit for renters: multi-use furniture to enable people to use whatever space they have got in an effective way. A self-watering flower pot? Clever.
What makes this particularly interesting, however, is that this initiative is part of something much bigger: how societies are learning to use scarce space better. Here are three examples of the wider trend.
New direction: IKEA have a genius for creating cheap and stylish (if sometimes infuriating) solutions for the problems of modern life
One we see in just about every suburban street: loft conversions and conservatories. Simple economics – it is cheaper to get more space than move home – is driving a huge improvement in the housing stock of the country. Yes, we need to build more homes, and yes we really should be building bigger ones. The average newly-built home in the UK is just 820 square feet, whereas in Denmark it is 1,360 square feet. Meanwhile, conversions help us make more of the space we have got. The second, just starting in earnest, is the transformation of city centres as places to live rather than just to shop.
We don’t need as much retail space if we buy stuff online, and a warehouse near a motorway is cheaper than a High Street store. We don’t need as many banks if people bank online. So the trick will be to use the space that has been freed up for the services and homes that people now need.
And the third is a shift round the corner: using car parking space for other things. Car-sharing and Uber have combined to reduce the need for everyone to own their own car, and have it sitting stationary for 22 hours out of 24. Result: fewer car parks and more space for homes. Housing stock turns over slowly, so there are no easy solutions to the problems of Generation Rent. But stylish design and clever use of space helps. Since apparently one in ten of all European children are conceived on an IKEA bed, they clearly know what the market requires.
It is bit unkind, but watching the grandees of the CBI and other national and European business groups traipsing into Number 10 to press the Prime Minister on the need for a transitional deal with Europe, I found myself flicking back through the record of what business leaders said about Britain joining the euro 15-20 years ago.
Here is a flavour. Back in 1998 Sir Clive Thompson, CBI president, said the majority of firms were very much in support of joining the euro, but that they were not being helped by the Government’s reluctance to set a date for entry. ‘Businesses will not make a decision to invest unless there’s a very high chance of going in,’ he said.
They lined up behind him. Toyota chairman Shoichiro Toyoda: ‘It is time to state very clearly to the British public that we want Britain to join the single currency.’ Sir Richard Branson: ‘We cannot be members of the single market without being members of the single currency.’
Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP: ‘If the government rules out membership of the euro … it would be damaging for British business.’
And Carlos Ghosn, then head of Nissan, now of the combined Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance: ‘Why do you want to take a currency risk with the pound if you have the possibility of being risk-free with the euro?’
We all make mistakes. But what distinguishes the thoughtful from the blowhards is the ability to admit when you are wrong. Adair Turner, now Lord Turner, was the director-general at the CBI then and one of the most vocal advocates of adopting the euro. He now acknowledges that he was completely wrong. So his view on the ideal outcome for both the UK and Europe deserves attention.
In an interview in Business Insider last week he said he hoped for some version of the Norway or Swiss arrangement but with more control over immigration: ‘The challenge is to get something which is not a hard Brexit but is a soft Brexit with some degree of control over free movement of people. That’s the space that intelligent negotiation on both sides has to find.’
How we get there, given the disorganisation on our side and the unpleasantness on the other, is another matter.