The Platform


City officials and real estate players must open their eyes to the seismic shift in the workforce and the consequent evolution of market demands.

Urban landscapes across our nation present an illusion of stability, a mirage that obscures the vulnerability at the heart of our cities’ economic engines. Puzzling as it may seem, municipal leaders appear to be wandering through a fog of economic denial, unable to discern the precipice toward which they are inevitably drawn. Is it a mere oversight, a case of being uninformed about their trajectory toward economic ruin? Or might it be a deliberate choice, a decision to lend their ear exclusively to zealous partisans, the kind who offer applause instead of analysis, cheerleading in place of critical insights?

This perplexing scenario harkens back to the wisdom of Hippocrates, the ancient physician who once prescribed inaction as a potential remedy. Such guidance appears to have been the strategy of city advisors for decades, often resulting in survival, but these are not ordinary times. The landscape of the market has fundamentally changed, requiring a collective awakening from city officials to real estate professionals — all must open their eyes to the seismic shift in the workforce and the consequent evolution of market demands.

The precarious position of economic viability within major urban centers is not a novel revelation. In my previous writings, I’ve delved into these challenges, prompting nods of the agreement for the accuracy of my observations, while others seem entranced by the illusion that doing nothing will magically return us to the ‘business as usual’ of yesteryears.

A veteran consultant and friend, Craig Aamodt of ITC, echoes my sentiments, asserting, “You hit it on the head several years ago and have continued to be precise in your analysis. The vacancy rates which have increased have had a negative effect on building values and city economics.”

Amidst this, one might ask, where is the critical inquiry of the media? Where are the civic bodies tasked with challenging local governments on their stewardship of urban economic vitality and the safeguarding of our communal spaces, particularly downtown districts that are vital to the generation of sales tax revenues? The troubling truth is that there seems to be a collective reluctance to confront the reality that the emperor, so to speak, is bereft of garments.

Ignoring the plight of major revenue streams spells significant danger, threatening not only the fiscal stability of cities but also that of entire regions. The path of least resistance, of doing nothing, is a strategy marred by unsustainability.

Those in commercial real estate management should be at the forefront of the outcry, advocating for urban safety to entice the workforce back into office buildings. The desire to avoid commuting to an area perceived as unsafe is universal, and as vacancy rates swell, the devaluation of buildings is a natural consequence.

One must consider the recent impacts on property values in prominent cities such as Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle. Properties exchanging hands for mere portions of their anticipated market value should have served as glaring alarms to real estate entities. A prudent approach would heed the alternate aphorism from Hippocrates, which seems particularly apt in this era of change: “Declare the past, diagnose the present, foretell the future.”

With a pragmatic application of this ancient guidance, I offer a prognosis for our urban centers. City officials who fail to recognize the profound impacts of workforce shifts and the rise of remote work are steering toward a downturn that could take decades to correct.

The concept of a ‘Smart City’ becomes untenable if the basic tenet of safety is not addressed. The essence of a truly ‘smart’ city lies in its foundation as a ‘safe city.’ High crime rates necessitate immediate attention from those reliant on consistent tax revenue for city operations.

In the context of urban management, “History is half of diagnosis” is as relevant as it is in medicine. When considering the integration of new technologies and the advancement of real estate to bolster the function of cities, the sentiment holds true.

As Hippocrates astutely observed, “Physicians are many in title, but very few in reality,” this analogy extends to those professing expertise in the complex arena of regional economics. The landscape is rife with digital hucksters offering panaceas and hollow solutions to eager, yet naive, municipal clients. Some cities, lured by the promise of quick fixes, are investing in ineffective solutions at great expense, while others linger in a limbo of stagnation, devoid of strategic direction.

Re-evaluation of the resilience of our urban commercial platforms and the infrastructures that rest upon them is imperative. Adhering to the status quo and embracing inaction is tantamount to guaranteeing a cataclysmic implosion of both city and regional prospects.

James Carlini is a strategist for mission critical networks, technology, and intelligent infrastructure. Since 1986, he has been president of Carlini and Associates. Besides being an author, keynote speaker, and strategic consultant on large mission critical networks including the planning and design for the Chicago 911 center, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange trading floor networks, and the international network for GLOBEX, he has served as an adjunct faculty member at Northwestern University.