Business Geography and Human Conditions

By Hal Reid

Keynote addresses usually have the persistence of high school graduation speeches, many sermons and most political debates, very well intended but quickly forgotten.I had the opportunity to hear three speakers recently that were offering their insights during the CoreNet Global Conference in Atlanta (October 2003). The striking thing about the keynotes was the relevance to the future of the use of geography and those human conditions that would effect that use.

Don Tapscott who was speaking from his current book, The Naked Corporation; William McDonough who was speaking to the creation of buildings that were flexible, endurable and environmentally responsible; and Fred Schwartz who was talking about transforming the World Trade Center into the World Cultural Center.A sort of non-building, buildings

Why these speakers were important at this time is they point to a future that not only evolves differently than any we have anticipated, but far more quickly.

Keynote One: Don Tapscott was pursuing the theme of how corporations would become more open, ethical, and transparent.While this seemed to me to be optimistic, the key comments to me, were about today's youth.

"For the first time in history, children are authorities on something important".They have expertise in running the computer, programming the VCR (now the DVD), making the Internet go and as a result may be growing up seeing those who were more vintage, less competent.There was also a different view of geography as their online "Pen Pals" were all over the world.It was just as fast and easy to IM someone in his or her school as it was someone at the University of Beijing.Knowledge was expected to be instantly accessible, online and in real time.Wireless technology meant that you never left the library(s).

If you doubt the validity of children being authorities, Fox news reported on October 30, 2003, (Liza Porteus) that Kids were logging on to tell the Bush Administration their ideas on how technology can improve the schools. John Bailey, Directory of Education Technology, Department of Education told Fox News, "Students are the digital natives, if you will, and we're still trying to catch up with them."

Whatever their field of interest, they expected the information to be there.When they get old enough to buy stocks and mutual funds, they will expect to know what the corporation was doing, and what were the risks. If the information is spotty or unavailable, the operative word would be "next."

Imagine their view of geography, where the what, is now much more important than the where, and there is no difference between real and virtual geography.

Keynote Two: William McDonough (Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia, author - Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things) began talking about protecting the environment and building things that had low impact.To a group of people whose business is developing Real Estate, this might not be warmly embraced.

But what was quickly established was that we should do the right thing, in order to have sustainable development.It was necessary to be profitable, first.Otherwise, it was not the right thing.He gave several examples of creating buildings that were cheaper to build, were more flexible, and used technology and natural resources to develop something better.He also identified some bad situations.For example, it is estimated that 16% of the former USSR is uninhabitable.Because of environmental contamination, which is a result of unsustainable development - doing the wrong thing.

A number of Real Estate thinkers have been pondering what to do with the old KMarts, Malls, office buildings other than tearing them down and starting over.The problem with many of these structures is that they are single purpose buildings.It is hard to use an old KFC for anything else but some type of fast food restaurant.

If the future embraces the concepts of flexible workforces, intelligent buildings and sustainable development, will the existing structures just be monuments to the past? What do you do with 110,000 sq.ft.of old Wal-Mart, especially if it is in a small town? If Wal-Mart supplanted many of the local Mom & Pops, what happens if it goes dark?

It is no longer an issue of just protecting the environment, but developing with an eye to the environment so it can adapt to a very flexible future. Now it is always difficult to anticipate the future, but certain trends can condition how you approach the problem.If a building is cheap to maintain, is flexible in design and draws on technology and natural resources, it has got to be a better candidate for change than something that isn't.

One of the early international members of NACORE (now CoreNet) was a fellow who was charged with the Real Estate holding of the German Post Office.Every building in every town was a National Treasure.They were impossible to heat or cool and were no longer efficient.It was very difficult to create satellite stations, central facilities, and make the Post Office modern, because the political environment wanted to keep the old buildings. Unfortunately, these buildings were now in the wrong place.And of course, they were built to last forever.

William McDonough was involved in designing an expansion to Ford's Rouge plant.The new building has a roof that is primarily a park, complete with trees, dirt and the whole thing.It is bringing back species long gone from this area, providing a great place for people inside to have lunch and the building is cheaper to heat and cool, is significantly quieter and was less expensive to build.For example, it saved Ford $13M from their anticipated budget for this project.There may be a different kind of Ford in our future.

From the Ford media web site,

DEARBORN, Mich., June 3, 2003 - Ford Motor Company today completed installation of a plant-covered roof atop its new Dearborn Truck Plant final assembly building and earned global distinction for its achievement with a Guinness World RecordsTM designation for the World's Largest Living Roof!
William McDonough seems to prove that doing the right thing was not only a good thing, but also a profitable thing; an enduring thing.

Keynote Three: Fred Schwartz (Frederic Schwartz Architects, New York, The Think Team for Ground Zero) is an architect.So is William McDonough.The difference was that Fred Schwartz was addressing a major project concept: The World Trade Center design.The project obviously held international ramifications and there are a number of divergent views on how it was to be addressed.He began his presentation with two phrases, "The Role of Memory vs.Constant Renewal" and the concept of "Not Rebuilding, Re-imaging".His views were right down the centerline of addressing the future.The future must always bring some of the past along with it, hence "The Role of Memory".

A major part of the World Trade Center was that it could represent 10M sq.ft, Parking for 2,000 cars, a Train Station, A Cultural Center, A Hotel and of course Retail.If we consider what Real Estate might look like in 2010 in a new design, the nature of the workforce and all the other factors that will affect the future, imagine the challenge compounded by the emotional issues that surround Ground Zero.

The Think Group approached this with a design that would foster remembrance, but set the theme for both contained and adjacent development.Their concept was to create a theme of the World Cultural Towers.The towers would be the tallest structures in the world but not actually contain any of the typical office space but would be more symbolic.They would have an outdoor amphitheater - 20 floors up and this structure would be a stunning visual.

World Cultural Center Rendering
The peripheral structures would accommodate typical office, retail, etc., but reflect the theme of the World Cultural Towers.They would be, according to Fred Schwartz, almost a container of "Urban Poetry"

The Bottom Line
Here is what we can take away from these three keynotes.

1.The common theme was trying to addressing the future and how the use of geography is going to be much different.

2.The human factor is that today's kids who will be adults soon, expect information at their fingertips and don't distinguish between real and virtual geography.

3.The development of geography will be more sustainable and flexible. Perhaps this will mean a major reduction in single use buildings.Could this be that development will look forward and not at just this quarters earnings?

4.The Think Group may push expansion down the path of bring the past forward to the future, but also bring the present forward to forward."Urban Poetry" sets a standard much higher than the glass and steel rectangles of the 20th century.

Initially I said that most keynotes have persistence limited to about how long you remain in the meeting room.These three speakers set the stage for a very different time.If the presentations don't persist, the ideas of the speakers certainly will and they may have shown us more than we really can understand - today.

Published Thursday, November 27th, 2003

Written by Hal Reid

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