The Worst Ever Land Deal and Design Intelligence

Originally published by World Architecture Festival, October 2019

Ever heard of Run? You should have, especially if you are either in Real Estate or American. And if you are in American Real Estate and you don’t know about ‘Run’ then shame on you……

The account of Run was just one of many fascinating stories that surfaced last week during two days of brilliant presentations and workshops at a symposium held at the RIBA  by David Gilmore’s ‘Design Futures Council’. It goes like this:

Run – also known as the Island of Puala Run – is 0.6 miles wide and just under 2 miles long. Pretty close to the size of New York’s Central Park…just a little wider but not so long. So, what’s Run got to do with real estate and land deals? Just a little as recounted following a brilliant presentation by Alastair Parvin of the ‘Open Systems Lab’ – an architect who specialises in ‘open digital innovation for industry and society….working to transform cities….with private, public and third sector organisations to design 21st systems’.

Look Open Systems Lab up….and YouTube Parvin: his stuff will blow your mind. And its deadly serious.  Like how to make a city the size of London every five weeks to meet global  demands. As someone else said….it’s what we build in that time that determines our survival. The stuff you all know about: ecologically responsible architecture and energy or we kill the planet.

Because Alastair is all about ‘systems’ he posed the simple question ‘which system is getting in our way’ in terms of solving our global city and development problems. The answer: LAND. Not land per se but land as a system of exchange and investment. Land in the sense of Location, Location, Location type land. 

Parvin pointed to uncomfortable facts such as the massive escalations in house prices ….a consistent pattern across the world….which continues despite pretty static wage levels for the majority. His point is that we have the science and the knowledge, and certainly the money to solve all our city problems but we operate land in terms of value, investment and tenures in a way that distorts outcomes, wastes resources and opportunity, and strangles futures.

So to the Isle of Run, one of 18,307 Indonesian islands. (Wow: world’s 16th largest economy, biggest Muslim community, with 719 of the world’s six and a half thousand languages:  how do they manage such a fragmented country?).

……the date was 31 July 1667 and the Dutch finally got their deal: they acquired the coveted Run. This tiny little place was of critical importance to the Dutch, for years a leading power of a spice trade so critical to ongoing European progress. Indonesia…which the Dutch had increasingly controlled from the later 16th century, was their imperial pride. But there, tucked in amongst the Banda Arc of islands, bang north of Darwin in an Australia yet to be discovered and mapped by Flinders and the arch enemy Nicolas Baudin, lay the haven of Run. And the dastardly British owned it.

It had some Nutmeg trees, and some Mace, but not much to excite the Dutch except it was not theirs. Pretty amazing that they managed this deal with the British on that Sunday back in 1667 because only five weeks earlier the Dutch navy had bombarded British towns around the Medway and, even worse, had made off with the pride of the British fleet, HMS Royal Charles. The flagship was towed to Hellovoetsluis  in Holland where she was ashamedly placed in dry-dock as a tourist attraction.

But the British never let pride or acrimony get in the way of trade and a good deal so it was that they finally succumbed, in the most haughty and disdaining of manners, to letting the Dutch have their little mound in the Bandu Sea…..but not for money. The British wanted more and they got it: the most valuable land swap ever to take place…. before, since and surely forever. The Dutch might have got some coconuts and the nutmeg that they could sell on a 32,000 percent yield in the European markets, but the British got what was, for them, a much coveted swamp. 

That swamp was ‘New Amsterdam’ on the East Coast of America…. now of course New York.

But fortunes ebb and flow…Britain lost New York with America’s Independence just a century or so later whereas the Dutch held the Isle of Run well into the 20th century.

Those two days at the Design Intelligence Leadership summit were rich in content with a series of stunning presentations. Paul Finch gave an amazing account – vintage stuff – of the development of the architectural profession, Laura Lee had kicked things off with a great opening presentation on Day 1, which was followed by rich offerings from the likes of Eva Ravnborg from Henning Larsen, and Grimshaw’s Managing Partner Kirsten Lees. Other speakers included Andrew Morris, Ben Derbyshire and Peter Oborn with events rounded off by the amazing Indy Johar of ‘Dark Labs’. I mention these by name because their subject territories were settled around alliteration – a clever Gilmore/Lee initiative which offered a moving theme for the two days: Rebellion, Revalue, Reimagine, Reinvent, Redefine, Respond, Reflect, Re-generate, Recreate, Redistribute, Indy’s Real Revolution and then finally: Renew. 

We face the gravest of problems in this difficult world and dark clouds have formed over every horizon. But events like this offer us hope: we can design our way through and out of this mess. As David Gilmore said to me after the event: with talent like this around the future is indeed bright. But the biggest message  came through time and again off the delegate floor….against new  and exponential problems tipping points to better futures are possible but, as Alastair Parvin so rightly  pointed out, we cannot solve 21st century problems with 20th century systems. Change is crucial: the old paradigms simply won’t do. Think bravely.

We must for otherwise Manhattan will revert to swampland in the metaphorical blink of an eye. That said, Run will go on much as before.