TBY talks to Walid El Hindi, CEO of IMKAN, on market demand, social cohesion, and the importance of having a youthful workforce.

How do your key projects reflect the current demand in the market, and how integral is your research strategy within the scope of what you do?

The research element is a core value proposition at IMKAN; all of our projects begin with comprehensive research that looks at different verticals such as, design, sociology, technology, law, economy, fashion, food, and more. Our portfolio demonstrates forward-thinking and place-making projects. The Artery, for example, was born from the need for a parking structure that allocated a certain number of spaces by code. Our research team predicted future trends in parking by studying the social behaviors, habits and inhabitants commuting in thriving cities. We found out that parking structures are now less considered as recurring revenue assets. While globally the use or purchase of new cars is falling as a result of carsharing trends and technologies such as Uber and Careem. It is imperative to think ahead and much differently, to satisfy current requirements while also meeting future trends that will soon become a reality. Hence, we developed a hybrid space that is so flexible that we can convert the entire asset into something purposeful for the community. It is structured in such a way that allows for dynamisim, doubling as both an event space and parking garage. It has become an asset that gives back to the community and is more than just parking. It is The-Artery, the pulse of the entire Makers District development that feeds it with life, buzz, and soul.

What is your assessment of the environmental impact of such structures?

Interestingly, I like to refer to New York City as one of, if not the most sustainable city in the world because its footprint is so small. A concentrated high-level population in a small space means greater efficiency - such as utilities as an example. This is a different concept of sustainability. The cliché of real estate development is how we can achieve certain ratings for energy efficiency. We tend to forget something important: if you do not create an asset that generates life, you miss the point. One can have the most incredible building; however, if it is unoccupied or cannot be run efficiently 24 hours a day, it will have an impact on the environment. What is truly sustainable is building something that is utilized as much as possible. When one has a development that is active all-day long, and people are using it, it is a much more sustainable model. European cities are pulsating with life around the sections of town where there is retail, F&B, office, and residential; the space is fully used. Abu Dhabi, is home to business districts with buildings that have restaurants under them, and they all work well during lunchtime Sundays through Thursdays; however, at other times they are underutilized.

What needs to happen in Abu Dhabi to rewire the way developers think?

I would invite the city to look at its current hybrid of neighborhoods. There are neighborhoods such as Khalidiya where there are retail and shops on the ground floor and offices, residences, schools, and so forth above them. I would argue that this is the most vibrant neighborhood in Abu Dhabi today. Whether people might want to live there or not is a matter of choice; however, it is a great use of space. Through our research we understand, such vibrant neighborhoods are extremely successful, though they could benefit from a new approach. The buildings may not have been designed as efficiently as buildings in Europe, for example, perhaps there wasn't much consideration given to the sidewalks, or the amount of landscaping could be increased. If we embellish this, we could have a beautiful new city center for Abu Dhabi. Everywhere in the world, such neighborhoods are the “golden" sections; the architecture can't be beat, the atmosphere is unique, and it is where people want to be. However, if the proportions are wrong, it will struggle to succeed. In my experience, the balance of usage and scale, along with well-defined streets and sidewalk width and the right amount of landscaping and trees, is the recipe. If we put all these ingredients into a bowl, we will have the perfect meal. Perhaps Abu Dhabi currently offers more of one ingredient than the others.

When you approach a design concept, what is your strategy to enrich communities and promote social cohesion?

We like to add an aspect of psychology to our research, and this is what helps us tremendously. The basis of everything we have worked on thus far is social interaction. Looking at the example of the Makers District, we are working to build nodes of interactions for people. The more we create such nodes, the higher the rate of success for these developments. Everyone I meet, whether a client or prospective partner, asks how much something costs per square foot. I would flip the question by asking; what the rate of return on the investment is. Let's consider why certain places in Abu Dhabi today have a waiting list, while other places are half empty. The half empty places are significantly cheaper and possibly even half the price, while some prefer to wait in line for space in a different community or area. It is the same formula of scale, greenery, services, amenities, and how they all come together. This is a formula that takes years to develop through research and studying. However, once it is perfected, you do not give it to anyone else.

How can disruptive technology such as AI help in the creation of these environments?

These tools are a great asset to us. We have already engaged with a 3D printing firm out of Paris. New technologies also assist us in the public realm, which will make our work financially more efficient while providing invaluable data. For example, there are now microchips that can be inserted into concrete pouring. It is being used as a tool that can be scanned with a smartphone to collect data such as time spent in that zone, amenities, and so on. This is the type of technology we seek to integrate into our developments. 2019 will be a big year for us as we are providing many tangible proof points through the delivery of our first few projects. For the first-time ever, we will show off examples of some of the tech we have been talking about. We will hand over three projects in Abu Dhabi in 2019 as well as projects in Cairo and Morocco.

What is your assessment of diversity and gender parity at your company and in Abu Dhabi generally?

Some of the best ideas come from uninhibited minds, and we fully embrace this. When one enters into the business world and dives into the mindsets and realities there, certain restrictions come into play; people are prone to say “No, it is not possible. It is crazy, and it will never be approved." However, uninhibited brains and young students or youth coming in do not have such restrictions. We could bring in 100 ideas, and 95 of them might be unfeasible or commercially unviable. However, five of them could work and could be turned into something special. Getting these 100 uninhibited ideas is not possible without a young, diverse team. They feed the company with the vibe and the soul we need. In our research department, we have many interns from all over the globe. We have graduates from Cornell, Harvard and New York University to name a few. They bring a great deal of value to our organization, and not just in terms of fresh ideas, but also in keeping us close to the pulse to future generations. In the future, in 10 years' time, they will be our customers. More than 65% of the population is under the age of 30 in this region. Being in touch with the youth is integral to our strategy, and I hope to continue embracing that vision going forward.