How Malls Can Save America
Even before the 2020 pandemic, high vacancy rates and millions of square feet of empty retail space were signaling a dramatic economic transformation. Driven by the exponential growth in technology, a new virtual landscape is reshaping all aspects of human life. This is redefining the needs of 21st-century communities and creating the opportunity to transform shopping centers into places that promote meaningful human flourishing in the digital age.
While virtual platforms can reach large audiences at lower costs, they still do not satisfy our fundamental human need to be physically engaged with one another. Our virtual lives have only exacerbated feelings of isolation created by the 20th-century shift from community-centered interactions to segmented places of work, school, and home. Now, the 2020 pandemic has made isolation a common reality.
Within this dynamic, shopping centers have an opportunity to be recalibrated as places where virtual communities are anchored in physical spaces to create a new type of interactive town center. The timing is right. In recent years, our material acquisitions have proven less satisfying and our spending patterns are reflecting this change. Personal-consumption expenditures on experiences have grown four times faster than goods.
Integrating financially secure technology platforms into vacant retail space will not only stabilize the shopping center’s balance sheet, but it will fulfill our human need for connection while generating foot traffic to support the remaining retail and restaurant tenants. Four self-sustaining components–co-learning/upskilling centers, co-working spaces, interactive/shared housing, and membership clubs–provide the keys to transformation.
- Co-learning and Upskilling Centers answer the need for continual upskilling required to keep pace with technology in both our personal and professional lives. Additionally, they respond to the unmet demand for new types of technology-related skills, requiring short-term certification, that our current education models have been unable to address. New education and training platforms have emerged to fill the gap. Traditional vocational training programs could also be incorporated. The need, as well as the desire, to continuously acquire knowledge and be with others is not limited to one age group or demographic which offers a broad market reach.
Udacity, Coursera, and edX are part of the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) which have grown to 110 million global students offering 820 certificates and 50 degrees. Corporate training programs like Google and Unity and boot camps like General Assembly have also stepped in to fill the demand. Much of this work is in “new collar” areas like cybersecurity, data science, AI, blockchain, virtual reality, medical technology, and cloud computing. With hackers penetrating every type of online system from personal to governmental, there are 3 million unfilled jobs in cybersecurity alone.
- Co-Working Spaces address the changing character of the workforce as well as the workplace. Whether a full-time employee or a freelancer, digital platforms have freed workers to work anywhere. Although most people enjoy working from home part of the time, the majority want engagement with colleagues and other professionals for some portion of their week.
The pandemic has made many companies rethink the need for large office spaces further fueling the demand for co-working spaces. With global memberships, UN’s Impact Hub and WeWork have been especially successful because of their focus on community interconnectedness.
- Interactive/Shared Housing offers the opportunity to meet new people while learning or working remotely. Shared kitchens and other spaces for social collaboration are what differentiate this housing from traditional independent living spaces. Potential operators could be online universities like Minerva or travel companies leveraging the global reach of all the components.
- Membership Clubs provide places for meaningful engagement around shared interests and activities. They would reflect the local culture and target 21st-century activities such as eSports, TED talks, GitHub, Pinterest, urban gardening/permaculture, and other social pursuits. These can be run using a health club-type business model (different levels of membership) or offered as perks for the users of the other spaces.
As the work of renowned psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl showed, the search for meaning is fundamental to mental wellness and fulfillment in life. We need places to actively connect with one another and engage with the world beyond ourselves to find meaning. Places where new friendships can be formed; where singles can meet and get to know each other; and where all ages, races, and creeds can mix together around ideas, projects, and interests.
With available space and centralized locations, shopping centers are ideally suited to respond to our human needs in this increasingly digital world. These new town centers can be situated in any area from redevelopment districts to high-end communities. By recalibrating shopping centers for 21st-century life, we have the opportunity to create meaningful environments that facilitate much-needed interaction, empower cultural change, and promote economic prosperity for all.
Read about my vision for lifelong learning and how we can create a new ecosystem to promote human interaction, cultural change, and economic prosperity in the 21st century.
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