The country that invented the iPod is struggling to transfer that knack for high-tech innovation into commercial building design. From Shanghai’s colossal World Financial Center to the world’s largest commercial development in Dubai, high-tech building designers and developers are blazing trails on foreign shores.
“Innovation is stuck in neutral in this country,” says Jim Young, co-founder and producer of real estate technology conference Realcomm. Young kicked off the general session at Realcomm’s annual conference earlier this week in Dallas. The conference, titled “Making connections @ the intersection of commercial real estate, corporate real estate and technology,” drew more than 8,000 tech-savvy and tech-curious commercial real estate executives to the Dallas convention hall.
“In a wireless world, the U.S. is losing the battle to create the most high-tech commercial space,” said Young, who as Realcomm producer spent the past few years surveying high-tech commercial properties throughout the world. In fact, 52% of all major U.S. office buildings don’t even support property-specific Websites, according to a preliminary survey by the Building Owners and Managers Association.
So where are developers building the most innovative new commercial properties? Young says that Middle Eastern hot-spot Dubai — where more than 1,000 new buildings are under construction — is one market leader, by quantity, if not by quality. When Young took a Realcomm delegation to Dubai last fall, one fellow tour members summed up the massive development as follows: “It's like seeing Orlando, Las Vegas, New York, San Jose and Miami Beach all being built at the same time in the same place.”
Some startling facts: The world’s largest mixed-use tower is under construction in Dubai. When completed, Burj Dubai will include 160 stories — and the top floors will be reserved for apartments. Developers also plan to build an underwater hotel in Dubai, not to mention an 11 million sq. ft. mall. Guests will be able to watch dolphins and others sea life from their hotel room 80-feet below the water’s surface. The mall, when completed in 2009, will be the world’s largest enclosed retail space, twice as large as the biggest U.S. mall. Many of these new buildings will include 21st century building automation systems, and a monorail system will connect many to residential districts scattered across various islands and peninsulas.
Most of the new office buildings under construction in the U.S. today are using the same outdated technologies that were invented as much as 20 years ago, says Young. He finds it ironic that most Americans spend the bulk of their lives inside buildings — especially office buildings — yet their workspace has reluctantly embraced many new technologies.
Who hasn’t been forced to either hug a windowsill or leave a building entirely to get decent cell phone reception? In Shanghai’s 101-story World Financial Center, which is currently being built in China, that won’t be a problem. The entire building, not to mention the high-tech Pudong District surrounding it, will be fully wireless. Cell signals will be transmitted throughout the entire complex, even as far as six stories below ground in the tower’s many basements. Vertical access through the tower will also be more efficient. As many as 16 of the tower’s 31 elevators will be “super double-deck” cars that can carry more passengers through the building much faster.
One small success: American innovation is playing a role in Shanghai’s World Financial Center. Connecticut-based United Technologies Corporation designed these elevator cars through its wholly-owned subsidiary Otis Elevator Co.
“Look around today, we were involved in the earliest part of most major innovations, from the auto to the airplane,” says Young. “The big question now is: Can we get it back? Can we shed our bureaucratic tendencies and strive for true innovation again?”