Building Better Communities

September 3, 2020
Steven McCormack
5 min read

October 2008.

The finance director came into our small office, home to the hotel property team, and suggested that we withdraw our savings from the Royal Bank of Scotland. I was not long into my first surveying role, with £100 to my name, and primarily focused on the line-up rumours for Rockness festival. I barely understood the significance of the moment and the financial destruction that was about to occur. Within a year the hotel group had been liquidated, the bank was owned by the government, and thirty years of economic thinking had been utterly discredited.

It took a long time for me to appreciate how flimsy our economic construct actually is. My take on the world was simple and foolish. I recall my early mantra; austerity good, councils bad. Good fortune allowed me to sustain this perspective through the entire post-crisis period. Whilst by no means wealthy, I grew up in a loving and stable household. For a brief moment I was made redundant from my first surveying role. I was reinstated following the appeals of a kind hearted personal secretary. My university fees were covered by The Scottish Executive. I had no compelling reason to think of those who, through no real fault of their own, were now unable to put food on the table.

For sure, people had been personally reckless in the run up to 2008. When I think back, it did seem strange that everyone suddenly had huge flat screen TVs and new conservatories built on a whim. Yet this profligacy was nothing compared to the behaviour and arrogance of the financial and corporate sectors. The executives held responsible were then punished with early retirement and inflated stock portfolios.

I write these words in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. This time around, I am acutely aware of my comfortable circumstances. I can work from home. I have the support of a loving partner. I started my business in calmer waters. I can make mistakes without risking my health. It is in this vein that I think of those who keep the country ticking over; our shopkeepers, our nurses and our maintenance teams to name but a few.

If 2008 marked the twilight of the money hungry era, then let 2020 be the year when the sun finally set. When this crisis passes, as it will, we must reassess our values. Do we create productive, healthy and sustainable spaces for those who really matter? Or the pampered executive vice presidents of our metropolitan centres?

To clarify, I’m not calling for a workers revolution. I believe firmly in the power of commercial enterprise and personal profit. If there is one powerful lesson I still keep from my early days, it is a disdain for sticky bureaucracy and top-down solutions. Adam Smith and the shipyard tycoons of Scotland’s past would have been aghast at Strathclyde Regional Council, the failed monstrosity that governed the entire West of Scotland for over twenty years. It is back to the future in some respects. We must realign our private aspirations with our shared obligations. Commerce supporting community, and vice versa.

Who makes the change?

It is my argument that local, browser based business is the route to regional revival, and that our surroundings can ignite, support and sustain this transformation.

The task does not belong to a single real estate superhero. This will form part of a joint endeavour. And we should be honest; there are great rewards available for those who get this right.

Let me begin with the words you are kindly digesting. I do not pretend to have all the answers. I do not claim that There Is No Alternative. This publication is only a starting gun for something bigger. We must play to the strengths of the online world to elevate, scrutinise and refine our arguments for the offline world. We must use our digital community to share, challenge, teach and learn.

We must demonstrate the financial viability of locally focused, experience-first real estate. We will explore the appropriate business models, operating structures and commercial strategies. We will find funding partners that support our motivations, our vision and our values. We will identify potential lenders, investors, government schemes and crowdfunding opportunities.

For that we need feasibility assessments, business cases, market analysis, pricing data and cashflow projections.

Then there are our contracting and consulting partners. These are the specialists who will appraise existing assets and brownfield sites. These are the architects and interior designers who will create plans and walkthroughs. These are the builders, joiners, plumbers and carpenters who will bring our ideals to life. Our real estate will be holistic. It will embody how something looks, works and feels. It will be a combination of aesthetic, layout, technology and culture.

For that we need specifications, contracts and safety protocols.

To enable a seamless, personalised and on-demand experience, we will integrate two distinct worlds; software and property. We must find common ground between the collaborative and the adversarial. It is perhaps our greatest challenge. First, we must become familiar with the culture, language and methodology of digital product design. Jobs To Be Done. Proof of Concept. Iterate, Iterate, Iterate. Build, Measure, Learn. Second, we must build legitimacy and rapport with the developer and engineering community. We will convey an intimate knowledge of the paint points, failures and frictions of the current real estate experience. Third, we must demonstrate the inherent logic and value of our proposals.

For that we need concepts, working prototypes, wireframes, workflows and commercial partners.

Binding this all together is our project and construction philosophy. It is a combination of informed decision making and sharp execution. Projects respect the traditional demands of time, cost and quality. To this we now add adaptability, sustainability and welfare. It is a careful balancing act, influenced always by circumstance and motivation. Consider the heavy consequence of poor judgement; the cladding decisions taken at Grenfell Tower trimmed comparatively little from the overall project budget. The final cost turned out to be seventy two innocent lives.

For that we need rock solid principles, supported by roadmaps, frameworks and toolkits.

This leads to the defining question; who benefits? What is the wider context of our development decisions? We must respect the characteristics, aspirations and expectations of a community. Do they actually desire fleeting tourism? Do they really seek salvation in retail warehouses or back offices? Where is the consideration for social and commercial sustainability?

We can lead with our real estate. We can support new generations with our maker spaces, social spaces, co-living spaces, lifelong learning spaces and start-up spaces. We must be proactive, bold, and decisive.

For that we need action.

Consider not just the activity undertaken by the users of our buildings. Consider the new roles necessary to manage and promote their value. As per Paul Graham’s sage advice, Do Things that Don’t Scale. In the age of automation, the skills we need are intuitive and profoundly human. We need a diverse range of characters and personalities. In this coming era, work is theatre. We need empathy. Humour. Criticism. Creativity. Adaptability. Inspiration. Sensitivity. Persuasion. Discipline. Motivation. Demonstration. Personability. Reassurance. Encouragement. The very qualities created by strong, cohesive and secure communities.

Let me conclude with these final thoughts. Space is all powerful. It has an impact far from its footprint. It leaves a long legacy. It is at once physical and digital. It influences our life choices. It sparks our revelations. It is the story of our society. It is the fuel to our fire.

Signing out. Steven.


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