“The future is not forecasted, rather it is prepared.”

Maurice Blondel, French philosopher

In a recent survey on the accuracy of forecasting, weather forecasting won the day. At the bottom of the pile was economic forecasting. This insight suggests forecasting as a technique, has had its day, or at the least should be considered interesting but, through lack of accuracy, meaningless. In the context of accepting that a change in retailing is upon us, we should shift our focus from predicting or foreseeing what lies ahead, from imagining the future, to actively making it happen, as suggested by Blondel. However, we need to find the tools and the thinking to get us there.

Our methods of retailing have been evolving since the creation of rudimentary forms of consumption such as bartering. In Australia, it is accepted that the physical environments in which this consumption occurs have been transitioning from arcades to shopping centre to town centre; growing from district centre to regional centre; and replacing the food court with the cafe precinct. It is fair to say this change has been slow and incremental, seen literally in the change of old to new terrazzo across the growth-joints of so many of our existing centres. If we accept that a retail revolution is upon us, then how might we change our approach to growth that better showcases what we know the future has in store for us?

Futurology is understood as a science of the future in the same way that history is thought of as the science of the past.

As the Futurist Michel Godet puts it:

“The past is indeed behind us, the future is an almost blank page that remains to be written, and any kind of prediction is an imposture. Do we want the world to change with us, without us, or against us?”

I’d suggest we are interested in guiding our own destiny. Having collected the research and data on how our contemporary inventions and technologies are changing retail, we should not wait for the change in order to react.

One retailer that is not waiting for change is Westfield. Unprecedented amongst its retail peers, The Westfield Group’s latest entity is Westfield Labs, a global digital lab focusing on “innovating the retail ecosystem by leveraging the social, mobile and digital market opportunities that converge the digital shopper with the physical world”. In doing so, Westfield is arguably leapfrogging the natural evolution of the physical shopping centre, to bigger shopping centre, to town centre to bring the future forward and define a new way of shopping that is, in their words, both digital and physical. Westfield has embedded itself within the techno-who’s who leaders of Silicon Valley and announced its intention to be an innovator. More than a Westfield tool, the purpose is to guide the entire retail industry towards a technological tomorrow. Having debuted in October 2012, it is early days for the Lab.

The future, Westfield Lab suggests, is yet to be tested, their digital solutions yet to be defined. In the meantime, we continue to develop physical places of consumption. In doing so we should be cognisant of retail’s tipping point and intend to master the expected change, to tame it, and, indeed, to induce a desired outcome for our future retail places that will be physical and involve a connection to place. The connection to place is a sociological condition. It is what makes a group of people want (or not want) to be in a defined destination. If we consider that the collective, a community, can have a common history, the memory of a shared past, then I’d suggest that through the concept of implementing a ‘future memory’ we can provide the same collective with a common understanding of what the future will look and be like. If this is true, then what could be retail’s future memory?

In retail master planning there is generally a 10 to 15 year development program delay for the full vision to emerge, often with significant infrastructure, such as light rail or rail station, entertainment quarter, or a community initiative anticipated or promised at a key trigger moment within the timeline. This is true for either a greenfield project or a repositioned existing centre. In either context, the intention of future memories is to reinforce a commitment to the place and its future, but also consider how each stage and phase of development can be a real and authentic component towards the final built form, as well as a window to a new retail paradigm.

In greenfield development, too often master plans are drawn up for projects but do not have the flexibility and robustness required to ensure that they can be built in manageable and marketable pieces. They can lie dormant on drawing boards awaiting all the ‘planets to align’ in order to enable the wholesale delivery of the place. Rouse Hill Town Centre was lucky, and an exception. The political forces behind the project led to a relatively quick wholesale delivery of the retail, if not the full mixed-use outcome anticipated. It is a world with intense financial pressures, and increasingly difficult sites, none more so than often land locked existing centres under continued pressure to expand.

Future memories can provide the key. Related to a flexible but robust design-led development strategy, means implementation is not tied to delivering the whole vision at once, particularly when, as the Westfield Lab suggests, the vision is not yet defined. Rather, retail future memories are achievable through managed and staged delivery that is responsive to market conditions without compromising the design intent and identity of the place. In simple terms, every stage of any development should set the scene for the future identity of the place. To that end, the place should be representative of the future mix of retail and other land uses, community facilities, transport initiatives and open space networks, and other relevant activities anticipated. And, if the future of retail is both digital and physical, then digital retailing must start to appear and be coupled with every retail initiative from now. In this way, today’s retail centres can look and feel like a smaller, pilot version of what is to come.

Less focus on the perfect vision and more focus on a retail development strategy that is flexible and encourages change as technologies and innovations evolve will ensure retail is enduring. Market opportunities may come and go over the course of project delivery, as may the retailers themselves, but the framework for development should stay the same. Just as, the location of the future transit centre should be fixed, so too should the commitment to respond to new retail technologies. This will ensure that retail development is future-facing, will ensure place legibility for consumers, visitors, workers and residents, and let them know how to navigate the destination from today into the future. This ensures that the community are comfortable within their environment and have a collective understanding of how the project will be delivered.

This approach also does one more thing. It makes people want to be there in the first place because they can visualise and understand what the future project will look and feel like. With respect to retail’s digital future, this means they will feel less like the first-generation, the early-adopters or the pioneers, and more like the first community comfortable with both a digital and physical understanding of the retail environment.

Future memories can be physical or temporal. With Sekisui House we have been investigating a number of immediate future memory opportunities for Ecco Ripley near Ipswich in Queensland. One opportunity has been to ‘map’ the future Ripley Town Park by making the site a destination of the annual Brisbane to Ipswich Cycle, for which Sekisui House are a sponsor. In this way, it is the event itself that has started to provide an understanding of the future of the place. If you walk on the site today, a row of solar powered street lights line the future Ripley Main Street, identifying where it will exist and reinforcing Sekisui House’s commitment to sustainable development in Australia. With respect to digital retailing, Ecco Ripley has been defined as Australia’s first smart community. Programs and initiatives are underway to embed technology, information and education into each stage and phase of development, including the initial retail project.

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