As our politicians prepare to cut the UK from its neighbours, the world of commerce continues to march the opposite way – towards ever greater international co-operation
I am writing this on 11 November 2018: the centenary of the end of the war to end all wars. Except it didn’t. Trump is over from the US for the commemoration, Macron and Merkel are embracing and the radio is full of tales from the First and Second World Wars. I can’t help noticing the irony that at this very moment the other stories the radio is broadcasting are of our attempts to get out of the EU, the very institution set up after the Second World War to make sure that war could never happen in Europe again. Some feel this purpose is past and that with or without the EU war cannot happen in Europe again; that we are too sophisticated. With the rise of rabid nationalism and religious tensions, I’m not so sure.
I despair of the current small-minded politics of nationalism, but I can take heart that I am part of a global firm, with our global network of collaborators
But while the UK, the US and others are reverting to inward-looking, defensive nationalism, the world of business is relentlessly looking outward and becoming global. The first time I confronted this commercial globalism was with one of my biggest banking clients, over a decade ago. I had already fitted out more than 1.5 million ft2 of offices for them, including their headquarters and major trading spaces. I was competing for another UK project. We didn’t win. At the debrief it was explained that their new PMO (project management office) had decided as a matter of policy to procure their architectural services on a global/regional basis and they would only deal with architects for a UK project who could also service them through owned or partner offices throughout the EMEA region (Europe, the Middle East and Africa). We had no such network. Hold on, I said, so if we can’t operate throughout the EMEA we don’t qualify to do your UK work?
This was just the beginning: soon virtually all major multinationals were running self-administered or outsourced PMOs and setting up regional frameworks. We quickly saw the threat – and the opportunity. We set up our own Middle East hub office in Dubai, which grew to become the biggest architects’ office there, and made alliances with nearly 20 European architects to form the IDeA network – our International Design Alliance.
While nationalism shrinks from diversity and multiculturalism, global firms celebrate these traits. Bring people of different nationalities and cultures together and you might get real chemistry and maybe real innovation
IDeA has taken on a life of its own, its members collaborating with each other. Next month we will host its annual conference in London when we can all update each other on what’s going on in our countries. For us it’s a great success. We have the capability to work almost anywhere, with local representation through architects who know the local customs and regulations. Some of our oldest partners have become good friends. Our Russian and Italian partners always come to our Christmas and MIPIM parties bearing gifts of vodka or Chianti and we meet others for dinner whenever they are in town. These personal relationships make working together easier and success more likely, because we understand each other.
We discovered that there was an art to finding the right partner. If we went with locals who could do the job we were bringing to them without us, it didn’t work. We had to find great architects who felt that we were genuinely bringing them jobs that they could never compete for by themselves. As a result, sometimes our partners will bring us work opportunities that are a bit too big for them to handle
In many ways, when we took my old practice Pringle Brandon into Perkins+Will in 2012 it was part of the same story. Perkins+Will did lots of international work where, from their US base, they might win a project in some foreign country. This would be executed with a “raiding party” team and on completion they would return to the US. After decades of doing this, they decided that to be truly global they needed local offices with local people who understood the culture and customs of the place. Now Perkins+Will is in the US, Canada, Brazil, the UK, France, Denmark, Dubai and China. We have built the makings of a truly global firm.
While nationalism shrinks from diversity and multiculturalism, global firms celebrate these traits. If you bring a group of similar people from similar backgrounds together to solve a problem, you will get a fairly predictable solution, which is unlikely to be very innovative. But bring people of different nationalities and cultures together and you might get real chemistry and maybe real innovation.
I despair of the current small-minded politics of nationalism, but I can take heart that I am part of a global firm, with our global network of friends and collaborators working for great clients across many borders. It seems to me that now and in the future, commerce in well-regulated markets trumps politics. That’s a good thing.