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Building the world trade center of the future

This article appears in the issue June 2014 [Volume 23, Issue 6]


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Topping out at a symbolic 1,776 feet, the new World Trade Center (WTC) tower in New York City is a bold statement of economic resilience and mankind’s ability to look to the future. Tracing its origins back to the 1939 World’s Fair, New York’s WTC is the first of more than 300 located in 90 countries. Since 1969, it has served as headquarters for the World Trade Centers Association (WTCA). For most of its 45 years, the WTCA has been focused on providing office space and support services in prime locations, from which member companies can expand their businesses into international markets.

In our previous article, we looked at how goods, enabled by knowledge flows, can move quickly and effectively through an ever-expanding global supply network (formerly known as the supply chain). Let’s take a deeper look at the knowledge component of that network, and see how one world trade center is making that its focus in lieu of the traditional approach.

Bridging the old and the new

For more than three decades, Michael Runde has sought to bring a world trade center to the Washington, D.C., suburbs, first in 1983 at the Port of America in Maryland near the southern border of D.C., and more recently in Loudoun County, Va., just north of Washington Dulles International Airport. Unfortunately, timing was not favorable in either case. Down cycles in the real estate market resulted in cancellation of the first project and protracted delays in the second.

During the span of those three decades while real estate was going through its boom and bust cycles, the area adjacent to the Dulles airport was becoming a major telecommunications and data center hub. Known as the Washington, D.C., Area Netplex, it’s estimated that over half of all U.S. Internet traffic passes through its massive underground fiber optic network and highly secure data centers every day. The region also boasts more technology professionals than anywhere else in the nation. Given that backdrop, Runde realized that the World Trade Center Dulles Airport, as it’s officially known, is uniquely positioned to offer a suite of services beyond those of traditional WTCs.

The benefits of doing business internationally are obvious: increased sales in new markets, especially for those companies offering products or services not readily available in other countries. The challenges, however, are formidable: customs and other trade regulations, foreign currency fluctuations, vague and undecipherable laws and statutes, shifting labor markets and demographics, corruption, access to capital, complex tax regimes, you name it. Seemingly simple tasks like obtaining a visa for a business meeting can quickly turn into a nightmare if the right sequence of steps isn’t followed to the letter.

By now you should appreciate that the key to business success in global markets is much more than having office space in a uniquely named complex, although the prestige factor that comes with a world trade center logo certainly helps. The main ingredient is knowledge.

A global knowledge hub

You’ve probably witnessed the following scenario firsthand. Someone has a need. The person next to that person knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody and, voila! Problem solved. That’s the basic idea behind setting up an office in a WTC. Gaining proximity to people “in the know.”

But what about all the instances in which such a connection isn’t made, where the person with the knowledge was one building or even one floor away from the person with the need, each completely oblivious to the other? That’s where the concept of a knowledge hub comes into play.

Runde began incorporating that idea into the world trade center model. It included becoming the first (and as of this writing, the only) WTC that is also a member of the International Association of Science Parks and Areas of Innovation (IASP). That gave him direct access to 388 science parks in 70 countries, filling a major gap not addressed by mainstream WTCs: linking international markets with emerging technologies. He also began collaborating with trade organizations, including the Consumer Electronics Association. His network continues to spread as he establishes relationships with service providers, financing sources, universities, research institutes, government agencies and other important players.

Just as the typical WTC office complex needs infrastructure (roads, utilities, security, janitorial services and the like), the next-generation WTC needs a well-architected digital infrastructure. For WTC Dulles, the following key infrastructure elements are being built:

  • Network layer. A global knowledge hub must allow easy access for data-sharing and collaboration while protecting proprietary information. For this, Runde and his partners have tapped into what is perhaps the most neglected treasure trove on the planet: billions of dollars of technologies developed and paid for by the U.S. federal government, available for licensing at minimal cost. One of those technologies is a platform developed for defense and homeland security that supports secure collaboration and data-sharing over an open, unclassified network such as the Internet.
  • Data layer. With the secure network layer as a foundation, services offered by the next-generation WTC will include access to a rapidly expanding database of businesses and technology providers. That currently includes nearly 15,000 WTCA and 128,000 IASP members and tenants worldwide, along with a growing list of trade association contacts.
  • Application layer. This is the “sweet spot” for KM’ers. Knowledge-based data analytics can help sort through the massive volumes of publicly available economic and trade data, tender offers, trade missions, travel alerts, global banking regulations, etc. Other KM tools include concept mapping and attribute matching for pairing businesses with technology developers, and expertise locators for finding and vetting subject matter experts and potential host nation business partners. Case repositories for capturing and refining knowledge based on previous experience round out the initial suite of planned applications.

Making the most of cloud-based services

On the surface, this may seem to require significant upfront investment. However, with cloud services providing cost-effective access to processing, storage capacity, SaaS (software as a service) and PaaS (platform as a service), a business model can be set up to start small and scale up.

That provides WTC Dulles with a distinct advantage over other WTCs that have to keep a close watch on their occupancy rate. From hosting to collaborative spaces to secure storage, the cloud allows expansion and contraction as demand fluctuates, minimizing the impact of the real estate market roller coaster ride.

From its vantage point in one of the world’s high-visibility technology corridors, with close proximity to universities, think tanks and the backbone to the next-generation Internet, WTC Dulles is in prime position to take on the role of a global knowledge hub. The result will be faster product-to-market cycles for technology companies, enabled by the ability to quickly learn and make adjustments from successes and failures—a key factor in successful innovation.

We’ve only discussed one type of knowledge hub here. Many more are on the way. Think about how the world is going to look not only as more knowledge hubs are built, but also as they become more interconnected.

Consider your own situation as a KM leader. Using the next-generation world trade center as a model, how will your organization, community or industry benefit from being part of, or better yet, the center of, a global knowledge hub?


 


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