The first day of the BCO conference in Geneva covered the future of offices, the economy and the possibilty that 25 year olds may one day rule the world

The city of Geneva is a calm and tranquil destination, entirely appropriate to ponder the BCO conference theme, “It’s time to rethink the future”.

The conference started with an intriguing session on “The new world order - politics and economics in an age of change”. With scene-setting by Richard Kauntze complete, Charles Spierer, president of CBRE Switzerland, talked about how Switzerland, and in particular Geneva, has bucked the trend of negative growth. There were a few reasons given, such as the ability to trade in niche industries (time-pieces, perfume, chocolate – yummy!), effective monetary policies and a diverse economic structure where taxes are approved by the people. One reason given which struck me as a parallel with performance in office buildings was the issue of a high quality life. Create the right environment for people to work, live and behave and good results often follow.

David Smith, economics editor for the Sunday Times, took us through his views on prospects in an age of instability. Lots of macro economic commentary followed along with graphs showing jagged lines, a big drop on all of them around 3Q 2008 (meltdown), but some interesting observations on why lending is still considered difficult, which in my view is still a significant issue for the commercial construction market as it tries to come out of decline. Observations being the lack of lending is partly a natural response to the crash, an encouragement by regulators for banks to hold more capital and sort out their balance sheets, and finally the withdrawal of foreign banks from the UK who no longer want to play here anymore.

To counter this, and to deliver on the notion that you can lay all of the economists in the world end to end and still never reach a conclusion, David did offer some greenshoot signs of recovery - modest growth occuring, stock markets recovering and whilst there are many countries steaming ahead, we are not a Portugal, Ireland, Greece or Spain - which seemed to be the good news.

Michael Howard next, and a very polished presentation on a new world order – or the speculation of perhaps a temporary disorder instead?

Howard ran through what he sees as the key political global risks that could affect the economy. All very valid and hard to argue against, but I did find myself itching to quote Churchill, who once said “I’m always optimistic, there seems little point being anything else !”

Thankfully, Richard Kauntze rounded the session up with some positive spirit and reflections on the UK. More specifically that London is still considered to be the number oneglobal city for trade, followed by New York and Hong Kong.

Dr Chris Luebkeman of Arup then lifted spirits further with a presentation on “What will normal be?”

A very thought-provoking piece, admittedly with no real conclusions, but very interesting all the same. This piece reinforced the need for us all to step back and think about the world we live in and how “normal” means different things to different people, according to age, nationality, culture and values. Linking this to how we create cities, buildings and environments is what my fellow professionals in the room need to work out, along, of course, with how to run our own businesses and lives.

I really enjoyed this session and, as an aside, it reinforced that the best way to present to an audience is with some interaction, humour and slides containing pictures, with words and graphs playing the supporting role.

The afternoon session on the 2030 office was interesting and interactive, although I have to say that the wisdom offered by key industry figures was fairly predicatable and the stuff we readily read in the press. The session posed many questions for the audience to answer and two things struck me. First, the room was often equally divided on some big issues, reinforcing that we continue to live in a period where predicting the future is actually very difficult, more so at this current time of instability. Second, my belief that many answers to questions would have been very different if the audience was a much younger one.

A case in point being that the room believed we have not embraced technology in our businesses as much as we perhaps could have done. I strongly suspect that if businesses were being run by 25 year olds, we would have made the leap by now. Watch out for the X and Y generations, or clickizens as I’ve heard them referred to today.

All in all an interesting first day and having chatted with quite a few people from all disciplines of our great industry, the market mood is a predictable one of cautious optimism!

I look forward to viewing some buildings tomorrow…

Iain Parker is a head of offices at Davis Langdon