Problem? What problem?

May 15, 2013 admin

You probably can’t get through a day without hearing people voicing frustration with being unable to solve some problem in their life or business. In fact, you probably can’t get through a conversation without hearing that complaint.

But what a lot of people don’t understand is that if they are unable to solve a problem, it might be unsolvable, and they need to move on to solving what can be solved. For example, we’re not going to solve the problem of global warming. The planet is going to just keep warming, weather (very different from climate) is going to become more extreme, and sea levels are going to continue to rise. We can’t stop it (despite the North Carolina’s legislature’s vote to make rising sea levels illegal).

What we can do is solve the problems that extreme weather causes — reinforce dams, develop evacuation plans, provide subsidies for heating and cooling homes, upgrade weather service warning systems, etc.

We can also rethink what makes something a problem. Global warming is a problem primarily because it disrupts how we’re used to doing things. By rethinking how we do things — where we build, what we build, how we heat and cool, how and where we grow food — we can take advantage of the changes rather than fighting them.

The same can be said for demographics, which has become a hot topic at real estate conferences because a falling population means falling demand for real estate. Yet focusing on trying to reverse demographic trends is a waste of time, energy and money. Jonathan Last, author of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, pointed out at Clarion Partner’s recent seminar that no one can get people to have children if they don’t want to. No political incentives have worked. Neither liberal inducements such as family leave acts nor conservative approaches such as Singapore’s money payments to those who have children combined with shaming of those who don’t (Singapore makes Rick Santorum look like a “dirty hippie” according to Last) have improved fertility rates.

So maybe we shouldn’t be focused on reversing what appears to be an irreversible trend, and instead solve the problems the trend engenders. Germany is a wonderful example of out-of-the box thinking (who knew?).

Because of a long-term trend of falling birth rates, the decline in the number of young men has led to an oversupply of prostitutes. On the other end of the spectrum, however, an aging population has led to an undersupply of elder-care workers. Being pragmatic Germans, they saw two problems — too many prostitutes and too few elder-care workers — with one solution. Retrain the prostitutes into care workers. According to Last, the Germans noted that prostitutes don’t mind working nights, possess good people skills, aren’t easily disgusted and have zero fear of physical contact. So Germany devised a formal program of retraining, and two problems solved.

The key, of course, is recognizing what can’t be changed and moving on quickly to problems that can be fixed, or taking the unsolvable “problem” and flipping it into an opportunity. But if that were easy, everyone would be doing it — not just those wild and crazy Germans.

Sheila Hopkins is managing director – Europe and infrastructure with Institutional Real Estate, Inc.

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