Fall Conferences 2019: Top Takeaways

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Fall Conferences 2019: Top Takeaways

While, come fall, many eagerly await the arrival of pumpkin spice, the Stok team looks forward to another seasonal treat: the fall conference circuit. One of the most exhilarating times of the year, a slew of local and international events brings together leaders and changemakers from across industries to share bold, diverse ideas for next year and beyond. Here are some of our team’s top takeaways from these not-to-miss fall conferences.


#1: Experience is the New Office KPI
Pulling on the summit’s theme of “Experience Matters,” many sessions homed in on not just how to create a positive occupant experience for employees, but how to measure it. Not everyone knows how to quantify employee experience yet, but we can expect it’ll be a rising topic of conversation alongside (and within) dominant discussions around designing for occupant health and wellness.

#2: The Financial Value of a Healthy and Productive Built Environment is Big—and Can Be Quantified
Stok teamed up with Delos and ServiceNow to present on nailing the trifecta of next-gen workplaces: technology, sustainability, and user experience. After presenting a methodology for calculating the financial benefits of occupant-centric design, ServiceNow shared how they’ve adapted to the evolving workplace landscape, as well as how we can use technology—from AI to super-smart buildings—to determine what’s next for the workplace. Stay tuned for a video and podcast from the session, out soon!

#3: Music is a Communication Tool in Building Unity, Trust, and Teamwork
In what was undoubtedly the most hilarious session of the summit, conductor and stand-up comic Rainer Hersch led the closing general session via an 8-piece ‘orkestra’. Combining music with comedy, Hersch provided a uniquely lively entertainment and learning experience, teaching lessons in harmonious leadership, teamwork, and motivation. Until you can witness his witty genius in person, watch one of his videos!


#4: Resiliency, Resiliency, Resiliency!
This year’s ULI Fall Meeting kicked off with a full-day Resiliency Summit to discuss climate change and its impact on real estate. Growing in attendance every year, the Resiliency Summit demonstrates the unbreakable connection between climate change and real estate. With many speakers re-asserting that climate change needs to be part of real estate strategy, a particularly interesting topic arose around the relationship of insurance, climate change, and real estate. Sooner or later there will be locations where insurance companies won’t insure a development due to consistent natural disasters attributed to climate change. As an industry, this is a relationship we should continue to follow closely.

#5: Housing, Housing, Housing!
In line with the nationwide housing crisis, housing production is now recognized as Washington D.C.’s single most significant long-term constraint to economic development. Washington D.C.’s Director of Planning, Capital One’s SVP of Multifamily Finance, and JBG SMITH’s EVP of Social Impact Investing explored how the regional tech influx has exacerbated the local housing crisis and what innovative solutions there may be, as explored in ULI’s recent Housing Supply and Attainability report.


#6: It’s Not Magic—Creativity and Diversity Are Key to Problem Solving
Duncan Wardle, Founder of iD8 and former Head of Innovation and Creativity for Disney, offered a refreshing take on how to approach problem solving. First consider your river of thinking, which he demonstrated by asking the entire audience to draw a house, only to be greeted by a sea of the classic two-window, one-door triangle roof house. To come to a truly unique solution, you must get out of your river of thinking; recognize it as the status quo and find your creativity instead. But one person’s creativity may not be enough—Wardle emphasized that diversity catalyzes innovation. We all have different experiences and opinions and should use them to our advantage when problem solving. It can sometimes be challenging, but the more you allow alternative viewpoints into your process, the better your solution will be.

#7: Understand Your End User
We’ve all seen the click bait articles titled along the lines of “the open office is the worst design decision you can possibly make for your employees.” A panel looked into these articles and traced them all back to one Academic Research article, which had startling holes in both the research methodology and findings. We drew two conclusions from this: First, find the original research before accepting conclusions by online articles. And second, the question isn’t ‘open office vs closed office’. The question is ‘what environment is best for your team?’. It’s all about understanding your end user.

#8: Boost Workplace Wellness via Biophilia and Mindfulness
Stok’s Matt Macko dove into how wellness at work drives profits in a Wellness Learning Theater. When considering how human-centric design impacts occupant productivity, retention, and health, real estate professionals should add biophilia and mindfulness to their list of considerations. Effectively addressing them via design strategies can in turn boost company profits, as outlined in stok’s 2018 report.


#9: Embodied Carbon and Electrification Are Headlining Sustainable Real Estate Conversations
Both relatively new topics in the industry, there was a major focus on embodied carbon and electrification in discussions around how the real estate industry can tackle climate change. Demonstrated by the staggering fact that concrete production makes up 8% of global emissions on its own, embodied carbon will play a key role in any solution we come up with. At the same time, electrification of buildings will also play a vital part, which California is catching onto with over 50 jurisdictions in the state considering banning natural gas in at least some types of buildings. Luckily for us, a session also shared that electric cooking is not only possible, some chefs prefer it as they have more control over temperatures.

#10: Mass Timber, Mass Timber, Mass Freaking Timber!
Stok joined Google, Microsoft, and Brummitt Energy Associates to share ways to achieve true zero carbon (both embodied carbon and operational carbon). With clear interest from the crowd in the standing room-only session, Google and Microsoft both dove into their efforts around mass timber as a critical path to embodied carbon reduction on projects. Of note, if as projected, we’re going to build a new New York City every 35 days for the next 35 years, we need to focus on sustainable sourcing of mass timber for it to be a viable long term solution.


#11: Reducing Emissions Isn’t Enough—We Need to Reverse Them
A number of sessions made clear that we’ve run out of time to simply reduce carbon emissions. Reversing climate destabilization trends by removing carbon from the atmosphere is the new imperative. Start-ups with technologies to do just that and sequester or reuse carbon dioxide are proliferating, drawing the attentions of VCs and other investors. Along these lines, friends at Arup and Microsoft showed how it’s possible to use alternative building materials (some not yet commercialized but will be soon, like mushroom insulation and argiwaste structural materials) to facilitate drawdown and actually create a carbon regenerative building that tackles both embodied and operational carbon.

#12: There’s No One-Size-Fits-All Microgrid
As experts in the Business Case for Microgrids session elaborated, the components and sizing of a system to locally generate, store, and distribute power are based not only on physical and financial constraints, but also on the user’s needs and priorities. Is the microgrid meant to save energy costs, reduce reliance on fossil fuels, act as a backup when the grid goes down, or some combination of all of these? If resiliency is a primary goal, how long must offline power be available? And what percentage of operations must be maintained? A hospital has very different needs than a school, and a building full of tech workers working on laptops can afford partial power for a lot longer than a grocery store where food begins to spoil within hours and customers are affected immediately. Since all these factors and more affect the components, layout, sizing, and cost of a microgrid, a multidisciplinary approach involving operations, finance, facilities, and engineering will likely produce the best solution.

#13: Fighting Climate Change Has Unintended (Fantastic!) Consequences
Tom Chi, a founding team member of Google X, masterfully illustrated how technology can become a net positive to nature. By unleashing “Invention Catalysts,” we have the potential to not merely slow the decline but become net positive environmental contributors. Imagine that autonomous vehicles not only are zero emission (on a carbon-free grid), but circulating on-demand in cities, they could potentially increase vehicle utilization rates 10x from the current 4% (picture all those cars now sitting idle in garages and parking spaces). With 80-90% fewer vehicles on the road, safety improves and resource demand is cut, all without affecting our ability to get where we need to go. This is just one of the “Invention Catalysts” Tom shared in his amazingly dense yet digestible 10-minute keynote. The takeaway is not so much whether or not any particular one of these ventures succeeds, but rather that such creative thinking at the scale and time frame needed gives us the opportunity to live up to our potential as a species. Watch an extended version of the talk to explore further.


#14: Climate Change Solutions Must Be Scalable
In his keynote, Dr. Ramanathan, an influential climate scientist from UCSD and former science advisor to Pope Francis, shared Bending the Curve: 10 Scalable Climate Solutions. While the latest climate science remains dire, this collaborative effort across University of California researchers has identified 10 solutions that can be scaled for larger or smaller communities to bend the notorious emissions hockey stick curve away from climate destabilization.

#15: True Zero Carbon Includes Embodied Carbon
Stok’s Boris Gamazaychikov and Charlie Christenson presented on how to achieve true zero carbon. While zero carbon efforts have typically focused on reducing operational carbon, that’s only half the story. Embodied carbon, which accounts for the emissions associated with the production, transportation, and installation of building materials, in fact plays a drastically larger role in achieving carbon neutrality goals on our condensed timeline. While it was many attendees’ first time hearing about embodied carbon, the highly engaged audience was enthusiastic about working to reduce it moving forward.


#16: See the Forest for the Trees
It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in the sustainable real estate bubble and forget the bigger picture, how we fit into it, and how we can leverage connections between industries for even greater impact. The keynote speeches at Bioneers had a big picture focus and referenced cross disciplinary solutions in a way that was inspiring and empowering. They served as a reminder that “being sustainable” can mean so many different things and that we need a diversity of skillsets and opinions to imagine and implement solutions. As international environmental and climate justice leader Heather McTeer Toney put it in her keynote, we need to stop typecasting environmentalists as “white, tree-hugging vegetarians who care more for whales than southside Chicago” and start seeing the bigger picture that everyone’s a part of to create a more inclusive and impactful movement.

#17: The Arts are Pivotal to Our Finding Solutions, Joy, and Connection
Bioneers integrates spoken word, song, dance, and drumming as a means to tap into other audiences and learning pathways, as well as to build relationships and shared experiences that inspire creativity, ground into origin, and generate solutions and new ideas. Brett KenCairn, Senior Climate and Sustainability Coordinator for the City of Boulder, is working with the city’s Arts and Culture Department to change and broaden its Resilience and Equity Program; communities are creating songs after natural disasters as a way to build resilience; Climbing Poetree is developing curriculum for kids in schools to teach about social and ecological justice. Whatever the outlet, integrating art into our solutions can foster greater joy and better outcomes, and should not be left out of our problem solving process.

We love participating in these events with our partners and exploring what’s next for the built environment, the natural world, and our collective future. If you’d like to connect with our team or have Stok speak at an upcoming event, reach out to us!