Britain – What does the future hold?

On an evening where most of the business and political world had their eyes and ears fixed on Westminster, John Allan – chairman of Tesco & Barratt Developments, and president of the CBI – gave the first Bristol Distinguished Speaker Series Address of 2019 at the University of the West of England’s Business School.

Previously, amongst other senior roles, he was Chairman of London First and a non-executive director at Worldpay, where he was formerly Chairman.

He was Chairman of Dixons Retail and later Co-Deputy Chairman and Senior Independent Director of the Dixons Carphone. He was Chief Financial Officer and a Board Member of Deutsche Post DHL, and Chief Executive of Exel, the global supply chain company.

Allan has also has been a non-executive director at Royal Mail, PHS Group, the Home Office and National Grid.

Allan’s lecture immediately addressed the pressing issue on everyone’s mind – as Theresa May faced a vote of no confidence, following her Brexit bill rejection – but then went into his views on devolution, changing consumer habits, future of immigration, technological advancements and the troubles facing our economy.

The packed auditorium at UWE heard how they are one of the great British educational systems that are helping prepare students for the future world of work. Allan said: “Jobs will be unrecognisable for most of us – even within the next decade – however, the Enterprise Zone on this campus, as well as the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, are the first steps into an unknown world.”

With events unfolding simultaneously in Parliament, the reflections of uncertainty across the political and business spectrum has never been more apparent.

The comprehensive rejection of Theresa May’s first Brexit deal in the House of Commons, signalled a move into a “new phase of the Brexit saga”.

Allan commented: “It is vitally important that as a nation, we find a way of avoiding the prospects of a no deal Brexit. The deadline is 70 days away – if nothing happens we will crash out of the European Union on March 29th. All our trade agreements currently support about 70% of our trade – will disappear.”

Currently 45% of our total trade is with the EU – with the other 25% being ones like Japan and Turkey, who have a trade agreement with all union member states.

He continued: “Leaving with a no deal, will be seriously damaging to our trade markets, and seriously damaging to the UK economy. Companies have already suspended investments. A lot of international companies are just waiting to see how Brexit plays out – and then they will make a decision. Some of those investments are gone and will not be coming back.

“This also has a knock-on effect on jobs – but more importantly – highly-skilled jobs.

“Businesses and the public sector are spending millions and millions on an event that is completely unnecessary. That is money being wasted.”

Allan did acknowledge that, as discussed in Parliament itself, the time for in-fighting and party bickering needs to stop and consult widely across business and politics in order to come to a successful resolution.

He felt that it needed to be done rapidly and hear from as many informed people, so that the next public statement on where the country stands on Brexit is the correct one for the majority.

Allan said: “If they do this full-heartedly, they can still get a decent result, where the public and government can move forward. Right now – this is still possible. We are in a national crisis – a national emergency – people need to put their differences aside, pull together and come up with a solution that everyone can get behind.”

Away from Brexit – there were many other topics Allan addressed.

He talked about the affect an aging population, mixed with fewer immigrants moving to the UK will have on the employment market. He talked about how devolution will shape the future of politics. The results of Brexit will stoke the flames of Irish, Welsh and Scottish borders and independence. The domino affect will be in full force, once the UK gets past March 29th.

Its not just the other nations within the UK that are looking to devolution. The introduction of the seven regional Metro Mayors in England were also discussed.

He said: “The creation of powerful mayors in major urban centres is a great start to moving this discussion forward in a more compelling way, but it is clearly only just a start. It is not the complete answer.”

It was Allan’s opinion that in terms of the two major political parties in the UK, that they had “lost their way” in the muddle of Brexit. In the past, political allegiances were defined by class, not nowadays, it is defined by age. The older someone gets, the more they lean to the right. This is the major swing factor – as seen in the initial Brexit vote.

Allan believed that the major parties had not done anything to address this, and the one that does could see them take an advantage in the next few years.

Its not just political beliefs that have changed in nature – so have consumer habits.

Allan discussed the growth of veganism – and its affects not just in food and drink – but in the supply chain itself. Whether a global supermarket, or a local corner shop, this looks set to continue.

Allan said: “Changes in peoples eating habits will change the food industry as much as the retail sector.”

Plastics have really risen to the near the top of public consciousness ever since David Attenborough’s powerful BBC documentary – Blue Planet II.

Younger consumers concentrate on this as much as what is in the food, for example. And retailers need to be aware of this, if they are to survive.

He commented: “Major changes need to happen, and although they have started to happen, consumer pressure will increase governmental involvement – and then further focus on other pressing green issues.”

Like green issues, social issues are becoming ever more increasingly tense and challenging.

China, India and large African nations will increase their populations at an exponential rate over the next few decades – naturally increasing the number of immigrants across the world. Nigeria alone will see a population rise of 200 million people today, will rise to a total of 800 million by the end of the century.

Economic problems across the world will need to be addressed at the source, in order to avoid such huge numbers of immigrants.

He commented: “The problems of today will look like a sideshow, in comparison to what is to come.”

The global balance of population looks set to drastically change.

The main cause for drastic change within the business world, is the advancement of technology.

Over the last 100 years, there have been many wildly inaccurate predictions from those at the forefront of technological change. IBM didn’t think the world needed more than five computers back in 1943, Steve Jobs thought the iPhone would only be a slightly better option than the iPod, Nokia thought they were going to dominate the phone market, and there have also been predictions based on the world of science fiction – such as the flying car.

So, predicting the future of tech isn’t an easy job. Whether over or under-estimating – the future cannot be totally predicted.

Allan said: “The demand for the latest tech is extremely high across the world, so underestimating the rate of change can come at a huge cost. The same can be said for those who overestimate technology.

“More and more predications talk about the role of robotics, drone deliveries and self-driving cars – these might come true – or they might join the ranks of the 1950s view of the future – that every family had a hovercar or took holidays to the moon.”

These predictions are sometimes not just a bit tongue in cheek. Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has publicly stated that the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) is the biggest existential threat to humanity.

Allan has a more positive outlook: “There is cause for optimism. Whilst most predictions about tech will not come true, those that do prove correct are usually hugely beneficial to society. This can be seen with every wave of technological advancements throughout history.”

On the other end of the spectrum – Allan has a less positive view on the current levels of public trust is businesses and politics.

He said: “It is no secret that the levels of trust in politics and business, are not as high as they would want them to be. Businesses are not as low as politicians – but that is a low bar to jump over.

“The risk is that with new technologies coming through, businesses are already suffering from that lack of trust. This due to the fact that previous technological advancements have been used in an unethical way.

“Therefore it is really important that we create new technologies which have a clear and obvious public benefit and not just a means of making money. This could then be used to tackle some of societies biggest issues, such as climate change and access to education and skills. Tech can be used to serve the public interest.”