During President Obama’s State of the Union address this January, he spoke of “winning the future” through increased U.S. investment in research, technology, education, and infrastructure in order to equip the nation’s citizens to thrive in a knowledge-driven economy. Referring to the wave of innovation spurred by the space race of the late 1950s and 1960s, he said, “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”

A similar analogy might be applied to ULI and the land use industry in general. While many markets and property sectors continue to struggle, there is a general feeling that the worst is over. This point in time—when the wind is no longer in our face, but not yet at our backs—might be considered our industry’s Sputnik moment, when we apply the lessons learned from the bust, readjust our thinking and expectations about real estate, and perhaps most important, consider the role the built environment will play in accommodating the “new” or “next” economy.

This “win the future” theme dominated the discussions at ULI’s Midwinter Trustee Meeting in Washington, D.C. (held, coincidentally, the same week as the State of the Union address). Participants were asked to discuss both short- and long-term priorities for the Institute as a way to ensure its relevance to members and reinforce its position as the global authority on responsible land use.

For the short term, the overriding emphasis, not surprisingly, was jobs and money. The conclusion among trustees was that the realities of this changed economy are necessitating that ULI revisit its program of work, focusing on opportunities specifically oriented toward member value and increasing member engagement in an environment of still-tight credit and still-high unemployment.

Among the ideas for short-term priorities:

  • Provide more immediate take-home value. ULI can reinforce its member value by providing more materials that apply land use policy to real-world practice.
  • Build on ULI’s excellence in networking and information sharing. The Institute can be responsive to the short term by better using existing tools, such as online technology (uli.org, social networks, etc.) to extend the face-to-face networking and information-sharing opportunities offered at meetings. This on­going virtual programming could be used multiple ways to serve different member needs, ranging from employment search and retraining programming to webcasts with longtime ULI leaders sharing expertise.
  • Rethink products, services, and activities related to ULI priorities. Expanded programming should include information on current and near-term opportunities for investment and development; regular “state of the industry” analyses from ULI leaders; analyses of public funding constraints and their impact on infrastructure and other land use–related factors; use of specific metrics to make the business case for green development; and a look at who is providing investment capital and debt now, what is being financed, and where.
  • Expand ULI’s reach. ULI needs to explore new ways to stretch its reach and visibility. This will reaffirm ULI as the “big tent” organization that constantly cultivates and retains new members and forms new partnerships, including among those who may not have direct ties to land use but which have a stake in prosperous urban regions.

While these “here and now” issues are pertinent in the current economic environment, they are related to long-range, strategic planning that can help ULI and the land use industry achieve its future. In the discussions of long-term priorities at the Midwinter Meeting, several factors were raised as being highly influential and having lasting ramifications for real estate and land use, particularly in the United States. Among these are global competition, particularly from China; severely constrained state and local resources; education challenges that are causing the younger generation of Americans to lag behind globally; an increasing scarcity of energy; an imperative for increased infrastructure investment; and the need to accommodate demographic shifts resulting from aging baby boomers, generation Y entering the housing and jobs market, and migration trends among immigrant households.

A recurring theme threaded through both the short- and long-term discussions was the need for ULI to maximize the use of technology as a tool for communication and interaction. To be relevant in the years and decades ahead, ULI must embrace and harness technology, not just as a tool for instant, constant communication with members, but also for providing information to nonmembers and society in general.

This means using technology to provide a gathering place for access to expert information and expert voices, reaching outside ULI’s traditional space to engage new audiences in a broad conversation about how best to create innovative living and working environments. As ULI chairman Jeremy Newsum said, “It is this connection of disciplines that will allow the real estate discipline itself to be more powerful.”

The thoughtful ideas and insights resulting from the Mid-Winter Meeting boiled down to “finding our fit” in the new postrecession order. We are raising the bar for ULI—in terms of our ability to help members succeed in both the short and long term, and in terms of making a positive impact on the growth of our urban regions. I look forward to turning these thoughts into products, services, and activities that better position ULI as the go-to resource—the one organization that provides members with a competitive edge by virtue of belonging. It’s an opportunity to turn our own Sputnik moment into lasting success for the decades ahead.