Built for commercial success means built to nurture people

By Rehan Khan. Published in The National www.thenational.ae on 6th September 2010. Any entrepreneur will testify that two of the greatest barriers to success are regulation and access to resources.

Regulation tends to be about the cost of doing business as determined by government policy. Access to resources will in most cases be related to finance and how to attract it.

The first is a barrier that the majority of governments have tried to lower in recent times: the cost of trade licenses, business incorporation certificates, employee visas and the like have been reduced.

The second is a thornier issue that in the UAE still represents a major challenge for entrepreneurs: banks and other lending institutions are reluctant to lend to entrepreneurs, and although there is a growing private-equity sector lending to small and medium-size enterprises, it still cannot satisfy the ambition of entrepreneurs in the local market.

But to this list I propose to add a third barrier to success: the problems that have resulted from the myopia of local property developers.

Entrepreneurship, particularly involving small and medium-size businesses, which represent by far the largest source of employment in the UAE, is almost unilaterally recognised as vital to speed up the recovery of any economy after a recession.

The agility and innovation of this segment are rarely found in large corporations, bar a few exceptions such as Apple. Even the technology company’s competitors say its workers have the minds of engineers and the hearts of artists. So ensuring that small and medium enterprises are flourishing is a priority for all who are concerned about the overall health of the commercial sector.

Yet even a cursory tour of some of the major master developments shows that developers have ignored the needs of small and medium enterprises.

For example, a drive through a half-completed project such as Business Bay in Dubai reveals that the high-rise towers built in this development have been constructed to serve major corporations, whose staff sit locked away in their towers. They may enjoy panoramic views, but they are isolated from real commerce and trade taking place at the ground level.

This type of contemporary commercial master development is an obstruction for entrepreneurs, as it hinders creativity and innovation. By its very nature, entrepreneurial success requires a built environment that resembles the traditional souq or the European equivalent of the village green.

Traditionally, these places allowed merchants and others to meet their customers, suppliers and business partners. They were places to build relationships informally and develop insight, to advocate opinions, hear from others and formulate new ideas, and to understand the market and learn from those with experience.

The result was a community of energetic, innovative individuals in which all, whether big or small in their trading capacity, flourished.

In contrast, today’s commercial built environments, with high-rise towers artificially stitched into the fabric of the city, foster disparate and isolated individuals. Office workers in these high-rises are often impoverished by a lack of contact with those outside their organisations.

These employees are programmed to be more comfortable in online social networking communities than real ones. They live their days within office cubicles, departing momentarily for lunch before being condemned once more to their solitary existence.

It is common for office workers in high-rise towers not to even know their neighbours on the same floor. They will see them every day in the elevator but rarely say anything to them beyond asking on which floor they would like the lift to stop. These built commercial environments do not create spaces where people can network with others.

There is an enormous amount of academic research indicating that in residential communities, a built environment that does not provide safe spaces for community members to interact, and green, traffic-free areas for relaxation, will be full of lonely and unhealthy people stifled by a lack of opportunity.

And the same rings true of commercial property. That is why we should be building environments that help entrepreneurs from small and medium enterprises flourish. In just about every instance, the environments will be low-rise settings. Dubai’s incredibly successful technology and knowledge parks, such as Internet City, Media City and Knowledge Village, are testament to this.

These low-rise environments have a mix of commercial, leisure, food and beverage and retail, and they have plenty of green space. They are vibrant entrepreneurial settings abuzz with energy and, most important, a sense of community.

Because these low-rise environments have created a sense of community, they remain tenanted for much longer, which in the long term works to the developers advantage. Tenants by contrast have easy access to amenities and plenty of open spaces to meet, talk, network and exchange thoughts and ideas. This is an ideal setting for entrepreneurs.

It is time the development community recognised this and ended its fascination with constructing towers. To benefit from the success of entrepreneurs in small and medium enterprises, developers must design communities that thrive at ground level, which is where the spirit of the souq and the village green resides. Think small, and low-rise, to create a big success.