Carnival time at World Workplace

So the World Workplace carnival is officially underway. IFMA president Kathy Roper this morning opened the gathering of what she described as “alpha facility managers” for their week of “being facility nerds.” Emphasising the conference’s sustainability credentials (a far cry from previous years) Roper announced that host city Phoenix is the first US city to be on track to be a carbon neutral city with its 17-point Green Plan. She went on to introduce the city’s mayor Phil Gordon to welcome the thousands of delegates to his city.

Gordon went further, proudly announcing that although Phoenix had 5,000 new residents every month and created 45,000 jobs every year, sustainability had been its guiding force for decades. Mayor since 2004, Gordon boasted that the city uses less water now per capita than it had two decades ago. The Phoenix Convention Center is a green building, he said.

Warming to the sustainability theme was Bjorn Lomborg, author of Cool It: the skeptical environmentalist’s guide to global warming, who gave the opening address. He argued that there was a lot of fluff about global warming and facility managers needed to take rational not fashionable decisions. In an hour-long speech (a tad too long for my limited concentration and the audience became restless in places) Lomborg outlined four key points. Firstly that global warming is real and man-made and that its total cost (presumably in cleaning up after floods and hurricanes) is $15trillion. Secondly he argued that the consequences of global warming is vastly exaggerated and one sided which can lead to bad judgements. He cited the valid example of statistics which are used be the global warming lobby to argue for change: in the UK 2,000 people will die every year by 2050 because of increased heat. “They fail to say that the statistics show that 20,000 fewer people will die because of cold.” Generally more people in the world, apart from sub-Saharan Africa, die from cold than heat. Global warming will result in 400,000more heat deaths but 1.8m fewer cold deaths worldwide, he said.

Lomborg’s last key points were that governments needed to find a smarter way to tackle climate change and that more R&D was required; and that there were many other problems beside global warming where governments could do good work. “This is not the biggest problem on the planet,” he said arguing that for $75billion a year the UN could solve basic global problems such as lack of clean drinking water, sanitation, basic healthcare and education. “When kids in the third world are going to bed hungry, their parents aren’t worried about climate change, they want food and clean water.”

Lomborg’s talk provoked considerable debate, especially among American FMs where sustainability is a newer concept. Worryingly several took away the message that there was little point making the small changes as it would make little or no difference to the bigger picture. Lomborg was also rather black and white ­ – the UN is already helping to tackle some of the basic problems Lomborg outlined while also challenging global warming. It’s not an either or argument.

But this is World Workplace and Lomborg was quickly forgotten as a local band marched delegates from ballroom to exhibition room where several hundred stands offered everything from free popcorn (Emcor) to jellybeans as well as the latest FM innovations and developments. On the Planon stand, the IFMA Foundation launched its latest book Work on the Move – Driving Strategy and Change in Workspaces which brings together global workplace experts (including the UK’s Alexei Marmot and case studies from the Home Office and RBS from Advanced Workplace Associates) to discuss how work is changing, the impact it’s having on the workplace and how facility professionals can respond.

What sets World Workplace apart from the UK FM conferences is certainly the sheer size – thousands of delegates and more than 250 exhibitors make it the event to be, and be seen. It also means more revenue for some of the glitzier parts of a conference – the keynote speakers, the marching bands, the receptions are all occasions to remember.

But what makes it so different from the UK is its make-up.  World Workplace is all about networking. Once the opening address was over at 11.30 this morning, there was nothing but networking and visiting the exhibition for the rest of the day – until the evening Welcome Reception at Chase Field, the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team for more networking. Americans (and despite the International I in IFMA, the audience is largely American) are not afraid to sell or be sold to, which makes for a buzzing exhibition where people genuinely interact with the organisations there (if only sometimes to get the extravagant freebies). Even some British delegates admit that they can come to World Workplace and not go to one educational session – it’s all about who you meet in-between that makes the difference.


Cathy Hayward