Presidents Viewpoint - View from a "Flat" World

Originally published in the 2006 newsletter of the American Institute of Architects, Westchester Mid-Hudson Chapter.

by Michael Shilale, AIA, LEED - March,, 2006

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I am sitting in the airport in Orlando with my laptop computer “borrowing” what I hope to be an internet connection offered free to travelers waiting for their delayed flight.

As amazing as high speed internet connections in Starbucks and airline terminals are, you only need to read “The World Is Flat” by Thomas L. Friedman to glimpse the ground shaking changes taking place in our world while we’re all sleeping.

My three advisors cringe when I read a new self help or business book- because it permeates all the advice, insight and dialogue I offer at our monthly planning meetings.

Apologies to you all for the following.

The first chapter of Friedman’s book is fascinating enough with it’s detail about how homes in Japan are designed with quick sketches then scanned and sent to China for production of Contract Documents.

It goes on later to detail how graphic designers and illustrators see a dissolution and commoditization of their services with the use of digital photography and the global expertise in the graphic “trinity,” Quark, Photoshop, and Illustrator.  If you don’t’ know these software programs just think of AutoCAD and the other 2d, 3d drafting and design programs.  Our pencils, inks, and watercolors of yesterday, atomized and able to be uploaded and downloaded instantaneously anywhere on the planet.

It is not just outsourcing that both threatens our profession and offers immense possibilities.  It’s also homesourcing, open-sourcing, supply chaining, in-sourcing and informing.   These and other Friedman forces are leveling the playing field for architects, engineers, designers and drafters throughout the world.

The challenge for architects seems to be to follow Friedman’s advice and dig deep inside ourselves to find our core competencies and talents.  Architects have traditionally been most valuable to society when they imagine and create. According to Friedman, these are two of the most valuable ‘natural resources’ on the planet.

Architecture, as stated most eloquently by Marvin J. Malecha, FAIA and Dean of the School of Architecture of NC State, is a very different discipline.  The sciences are focused on understanding what our physical world is.  The arts and humanities are focused on understanding all that is not physical in our world.  Architecture focuses on understanding and envisioning what is yet to be.

In 1893, architects from America were able to envision a new “White City”, as told by Erik Larson in “The Devil in the White City”.  An experiment that led to the City Beautiful movement.   It is now time for Architects to discover a new world.  Not one unknown to one civilization, like Columbus did, but a world like Dean Malecha says is yet to be.  A world that is sustainable, livable and beautiful. 

The “Flat” world has given us many benefits and opportunities. 

High quality, low cost, profitable Airline companies.  Jet Blue does this in part by homesourcing it’s booking agent services so when you call Jet Blue to make your reservation you are talking to someone in their home, with only a phone, computer and high speed internet connection. 

Quick turnaround on laptop repairs for your Toshiba.  UPS thought they could save days by offering to repair your laptop in Kentucky rather than fly it to Japan.  They were able to convince Toshiba to train American, UPS employees how to do it here.

Low cost computers and other technology.  One of the most illuminating parts of the book is where Friedman details the life cycle of his laptop computer he ordered from Dell from initial phone call when he places the order to its arrival at his doorstep,  13 days,  22 countries and 400 companies later.

The potential for peace and prosperity throughout the world is another benefit of a “Flat” world. 

His stories of benevolent entrepreneurs in India, China, and even Cambodia are all Nobel Peace prize candidates. 

Friedman’s  “Curse of Oil” is not only the drug we in the developed and soon to be developed world are addicted to, but also the instrument of oppression in the oil rich states.  This is something our political leaders need to understand.  It seems cheap energy can be just as powerful as a smart bomb.

What this means for our cities, villages, rural and suburban communities can only be dreamed.  When ‘resources’ means only the ability to dream, connect and collaborate world wide our communities can be reinvented.  Our communities which are born and fed by transportation, now need only a broadband connection and an Aramex account (the Arab Fed Ex) to mine, refine, and sell their ‘resources.’

We Architects have a lot of work to do.