Opening Speakers Emphasize Need for Innovation

Can developers be innovative? That was the topic of discussion during the opening session at the 2013 ULI Spring Meeting in San Diego.

Can developers be innovative? While it’s not the priority since developers need to focus on what their customers want and therefore what makes development profitable, they can benefit from use of innovation, said James Waring, executive chairman of CleanTECH San Diego, during the keynote session of the 2013 ULI Spring Meeting in San Diego. “Innovate Real Estate” is the theme of the Urban Land Institute’s big spring event this year. Innovation comes with risk, but it also encourages a search for best practices and the best products, he added.

As needs change, if you can adapt you’ll have a much better chance of surviving, said Greg Horowitt, co-founder & director of global enterprise for Global CONNECT at the University of California at San Diego, invoking Charles Darwin’s theory of survival. “Built to evolve” should be the mentality, rather than “built to last,” he added.

Horowitt noted that being innovative does not require shifting thinking 180 degrees. A slight—even 5 percent—change in perspective may allow you to think in a completely new way. He and his fellow speakers invoked Silicon Valley, where innovation is encouraged and failure is simply a reason to abandon an experiment and move on. “Don’t copy Silicon Valley. Steal the elements of Silicon Valley and make it unique,” said Paul Saffo, futurist & managing director of Foresight, Discern Analytics.

But the discussion was not entirely conceptual. On a more practical level, the speakers noted that the real estate industry can help drive trends to make them more beneficial. For instance, while Jessie Knight, chairman & CEO of SDG&E, the local power company, pointed to his company’s partnership efforts with major homebuilders to encourage energy efficiencies within new homes, Waring pointed out that plans to increase the number of solar rooftops from 70,000 to 270,000 would be more effective were grid management improved so credit was actually awarded for the solar use.

The speakers extended their message to municipal thinking, as well, declaring that a natural progression is to transcend city, regional and state borders. “Borders don’t want to exist” said Saffo. He added that government tends to resist this, but regions naturally form their own entities, centered on “productive residents” rather than “citizens,” and ignoring this will weaken the country. The comments arose from the welcoming remarks of San Diego mayor Bob Filner, who spoke proudly of the first bi-national Olympic bid, a joint effort of San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, which cross national borders to operate more naturally as a region.