Listening to Institutional Leaders

HR&A staff members Adam Tanaka and Amelia Taylor-Hochberg spoke with four of our collaborators about how they’re leading their organizations through the COVID-19 crisis and toward A Just & Resilient Recovery. Read our interviews here:

University-Led Development with Jonathon Bates, University of Utah Future of Community Health with Reann Gibson, Conservation Law Foundation
Future of Innovation Districts with Adam Klein, American Underground Future of Volunteer Organizations with Josh Lockwood, American Red Cross

How Will the COVID-19 Crisis Shape the Future of University Real Estate Development?

Q&A with Jonathon Bates, Executive Director of Real Estate, University of Utah

For almost a decade, Jonathon Bates has served as the Executive Director of Real Estate for the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where he also is the Director of the University’s Research Park. In response to COVID-19, Bates has had to adapt the Park’s master planning process to the uncertainties of higher education’s day-to-day activities, while continually reimagining how the Park can be an engine of creativity and growth for both the university and the city more broadly. HR&A spoke with Bates about how the Park fosters innovation and his approach to weathering the pandemic.
You have spent the past few years shepherding a major master planning process for the University of Utah’s Research Park. How has the pandemic impacted the project? What will change, and what will stay the same?
The pandemic obviously significantly impacted our planning approach. We have moved to an entirely online format for both stakeholder engagement and our steering committee work. It has also strengthened our resolve to create spaces and programming that increase that “bumpability” factor between researchers, students, faculty, staff, and our industry partners that is so critical to innovation.
Ultimately, we have supported the commercialization process for the university and incubated companies for decades, and the pandemic has not changed the master plan’s focus on ensuring we continue to grow and contribute to Utah’s economic vitality.
The University’s location at the base of the Wasatch Mountains makes it an ideal place for socially distant outdoor activities. Has the University pursued any deliberate strategies to increase access to outdoor spaces and get people out of doors?
Our setting against the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains is unique, giving us an opportunity to make ecological design our calling card. From the beginning of our planning process, we knew that our geographic location was a huge opportunity. We wanted to better plan and position our streets and walkways to make them more inviting places to conduct business beyond the brick and mortar office.
To that end, we are developing the concept of a green spine traversing the research park, with attractive outdoor spaces and an active transportation corridor. We plan to daylight an outdoor natural spring, and reinforce and expand our recently established pop-up venue for food and transportation — we call it “the heart of the park.” Individuals can convene over food and access e-bikes, scooters, university shuttles, and the local bus network.
How has the pandemic impacted the Research Park’s current operations? Are there any aspects of distance learning or remote work that you think will become more ingrained moving forward?
The percentage of individuals remotely working is still extremely high. Programming to build the research park community and the “bumpability” has gone 100% online, through video conferencing and online social events. But there is an aspect of community you do not find in remote work, so I think we will settle on a hybrid model where people can still physically connect on a campus from time to time.
Like bars, music venues, and other gathering spaces, higher education institutions are deeply impacted by social distancing constraints. What measures is the University of Utah putting in place, both in the short- and medium-term, to adjust the campus’ indoor and outdoor spaces to the new normal?
In the short term, the University made the decision to go 100% online for our academic processes. For the fall, students will have the option to take classes in person, and we are establishing social distancing guidelines in all spaces: on-campus housing, food venues, outdoors, and of course, athletic venues. Flexibility is key here — we need several different plans to adjust to as the pandemic continues to evolve.
How has the pandemic impacted the university’s economic development priorities and its partnerships with state and local government?
Thus far, Utah has weathered the economic storm of COVID resiliently, thanks to the breadth and diversity of industries here — in particular, the life sciences. That industry is anchored by the University of Utah and our integrated medical system, continuing to foster the incucation and spinning out of companies. With Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, we have been discussing how we can further foster the life sciences industry through an innovation corridor extending from our research park through the core business district.
How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the practice of university real estate development going forward? What will universities invest more in, or less in, when it comes to physical space?
We have been looking for ways to better monetize our real estate assets, through creative public-private partnerships, ground leases, and housing development. We’re also interested in future landbank opportunities for academic and healthcare expansion.
From a physical standpoint, we are going to have to continue to be flexible in our designs so we can pivot pedagogy and administration as the pandemic evolves. At the same time, we need to foster that critical cultural environment on campus that encourages interaction and leverages the outdoors. Ultimately I think the future is bright, with higher education institutions as placemaking and economic development leaders.
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How Will the COVID-19 Crisis Shape the Future of Community Health?

Q&A with Reann Gibson, Senior Research Fellow, Conservation Law Foundation

The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), an advocacy group based in Boston, works to protect New England’s environment through legal advocacy and social science research. One of its major initiatives is the Healthy Neighborhood Study (HNS), a longitudinal study of the relationship between urban development and health in nine Massachusetts communities, each selected for their common struggles to achieve greater public health and economic growth, in the context of explosive regional development pressures. Using a methodology known as Participatory Action Research (PAR), CLF partners with over 30 resident-researchers from these communities to develop the Study’s research questions, collect data and determine how it should be analyzed — all in service of informing future planning decisions in these communities.
HR&A spoke with Reann Gibson, CLF’s Senior Research Fellow and manager of the study, about COVID-19’s amplification of environmental and racial justice issues, and the importance of elevating community voice through data.
How has the pandemic impacted CLF’s preexisting environmental advocacy initiatives?
COVID-19 has not meaningfully changed our work to build healthier communities, but it has highlighted its importance. We’ve always believed that racial justice is at the heart of environmental justice, and we know that after decades of racist housing and environmental policies, Black and brown communities are being hit very hard. These residents are also on the front lines of the climate impacts that disproportionately affect them and compound the impacts of COVID-19. We’ve had to adapt to remote work, but luckily our current research phase for the HNS is focused on preparing our analysis, rather than gathering data in the field.
What have you been hearing from the HNS’s community organizations about how they are coping with the day-to-day impacts of COVID-19?
The nine communities in the HNS work with us because they are likely to experience pressures from transit-oriented development. Those communities have also experienced historical disinvestment and are vulnerable on many fronts. With COVID, city leaders and community partners are better aligned than ever to protect people’s safety and help them get what they need to stay safe. There have been lots of great partnerships with community organizations helping organize donations and distribute funds to people in need.
One of the first things CLF did was write an open letter using HNS data to highlight some of the vulnerabilities faced by these communities and highlight the supports that are most needed. The HNS tells a unique story from the residents’ perspectives about healthy communities, so that when they are looking for resources, they have data to call on.
How have the HNS’s Participatory Action Research (PAR) techniques changed to adapt to social distancing measures?
Mainstream narratives lack the language to talk about long-term residents’ experiences in a gentrifying neighborhood. We are creating that narrative. We would not be able to do that without PAR, where we source data directly from residents, and they help develop the questions. CLF’s role is to make sure the survey meets the community’s needs for the data. Otherwise, we risk just replicating the mainstream media’s narrative on gentrification and housing, which focuses on the number of new white residents or the number of new developments, or percent AMI, or percent affordable housing.
Post-pandemic, which policies and programs do you most hope the HNS’s data will influence?
Ownership over our environmental changes matters for health. The community knew that five years ago. Data is important, but we need to be mindful of how it’s produced, and how it can reflect that sense of ownership. Who gets to decide what happens in a community should be sourced from the community living there now, and based on their direct needs.
Many of our community partners hope that the HNS’s data will influence decision making on the local and regional scale and impact community control, housing, and investment. We hope the key decision makers will understand the risks of excluding people and make changes that center community voice in these processes.
The protests following the murder of George Floyd have prompted a nationwide conversation about systemic racism, including framing it as a public health crisis. Do you think this will change public health’s role in planning?
Absolutely. We are on that path. We need neighborhoods that are healthier and more affordable. We also need better data and tools to understand what is going on in communities. We hope this moment will help us see as a society how critical it is to prioritize health and equity in all the investments we make in communities. The reckoning on systemic racism’s role in our nation’s history is long overdue. We hope that this moment is finally a catalyst for change.
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How Will the COVID-19 Crisis Shape the Future of Innovation Districts?

Q&A with Adam Klein, Chief Strategist, American Underground

Adam Klein is the Chief Strategist for American Underground, “the startup hub of the South.” Based in Durham, North Carolina, AU’s approach to fostering startups is rooted in diversifying economic opportunity and connecting entrepreneurs with the rich local resources afforded by the nearby Research Triangle Park and multiple universities. While AU’s day-to-day operations have certainly adjusted in response to COVID-19, Klein is confident that dense, in-person collaboration will remain integral to a successful startup economy, with platforms like AU playing a pivotal role.
What digital engagement strategies have you used to keep your members engaged during the pandemic? Do you think you will retain any of these methods even as social distancing measures are relaxed?
We launched a community-wide Slack channel about three weeks before COVID hit, as a means of organizing community conversations. We have launched more community-wide Zoom sessions that are practical, expert-driven talks. These have enabled us to engage speakers beyond the confines of the Triangle that we usually would not be able to get, like a mental health expert based in London, and the former head of Google for Startups. We plan to have those continue, post-COVID.
How are you approaching the use of your physical space as Durham starts to reopen?
Because some of our businesses are essential, we have not fully closed the space. But as more of our members return, our goal is for people to be able to get to their office without touching a door handle. We have invested in anti-microbial door handles, copper covers, hand sanitizers, and chemical wipes. We installed foot pulls on all the doors, a small, easy hack that one of our members came up with. We have pulled a lot of chairs out of the conference room so that social distancing is standard, and invested more in videoconferencing tech.
We have also worked with our landlords to bring in more fresh air throughout the day and more frequently replace the HVAC filters. Finally, we are asking our members to commit to daily temperature checks, to stay at home if they are not feeling well, and not to bring any guests, at least for now.
Have any of your members pivoted to developing new or modified products and services in response to the pandemic?
Most of our companies are enterprise software companies so they have not really been impacted. One of our software development shops, CrossComm, developed an app that helps Duke Health’s ventilators to be split and shared. They also created Three Good, an app that asks people to spend a few minutes every morning saying what they are grateful for, as a way to start their day in a different frame of mind. Another really neat company is MindSumo. They identify talent by posing large challenges to students. They partnered with the National Security Innovation Network to launch a contact tracing challenge at Fort Bragg.
American Underground has long been a leader in promoting diversity and inclusion in the innovation economy. Given the current national focus on the persistence of systemic racism, what lessons or best practices can you share for expanding opportunity in underserved communities?
The work of anti-racism has to be core to an organization. It also needs to start with a long time horizon, knowing that as a society we did not get here overnight. The work of inclusion and equity are part of our DNA at American Underground, and as a White-led organization now five to six years into our work, we are only now starting to hit our stride in terms of our impact in the Black innovation community.
Too often, innovation organizations go to the Stanfords and the MITs, and don’t make the right connections with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other strong Black-led institutions doing powerful work.
Historically, Durham was home to “Black Wall Street” and known as the “Capital of the Black Middle Class.” How has that legacy shaped the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and what can other cities learn from Durham’s experiences?
It has shaped the city overall. The Black community has held political power in Durham for a very long time and continues to be a community power broker. We have a strong Black middle class and Black institutions, and so for people who are living in Durham, there is a desire to continue to carry that baton.
As a White man, one of my jobs is to ask how AU can play a supporting role. There is an awakening in the venture community that their investment thesis, that has historically centered on White men, is fraught with problems. AU has played an intermediary role, cultivating Black entrepreneurs and connecting them with VC institutions, so that we see economic growth in the Black community. Our work is about seeing wealth grow through broad ownership, not just in one community. For those interested in an example of this work, check out our Google for Startups Black Founder Exchange program happening this fall.
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How Will the COVID-19 Crisis Shape the Future of Volunteer Organizations?

Q&A with Josh Lockwood, Division Vice President, Northeast US, American Red Cross

Volunteer organizations play a central role in disaster response efforts, distributing supplies, coordinating services, and providing comfort to those most in need. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted conventional volunteerism, due to the constraints of social distancing and the exceptional duration and geographic dispersal of the crisis.
To learn more about how volunteer organizations are responding to the pandemic, we spoke to Josh Lockwood, Division Vice President of the Northeast United States for the American Red Cross. A seasoned not-for-profit executive, Lockwood oversees the Red Cross’ recovery efforts following disasters of all kinds, from hurricanes and housefires to mass shootings and train derailments. Prior to his role at the Red Cross, Lockwood was CEO of Habitat for Humanity in New York City, where he led the organization’s efforts to build affordable housing throughout the five boroughs.
How have the Red Cross’ day-to-day activities shifted since the onset of the crisis?
We have launched over 200 new programs across the country in response to COVID-19, including giving supplies to healthcare workers, feeding underserved communities, providing mental health support to grieving families, and doing wellness checks at nursing homes and veterans hospitals, powered by a trained volunteer base.
At the same time, the Red Cross is continuing its other initiatives. We collect 40% of the nation’s blood, so that hospitals and surgeries have access to transfusions. At the start of the crisis, nine thousand blood drives were cancelled, threatening the collapse of the US healthcare system. We had to do everything we could to make sure governors and mayors could allow us to collect blood in places that were still safe and convince the public that it was a noble thing to do, especially during a pandemic.
We also respond to 60,000 disasters a year, mostly home and apartment fires. During larger events such as hurricanes, we have deployed respondents directly. We have also transitioned other programs to operate virtually.
It has been a very intense period. We have lost members of our staff and volunteer corps to COVID-19, and those are incredibly tough moments that bring home the severity of what we are all dealing with.
Relative to other disasters, the pandemic is a long-term crisis rather than a one-off event. How has the duration of the crisis affected the Red Cross’ planning for the coming months and years?
Usually we are deployed for two to three very intense weeks after crises, but this is different. As such, we are taking a very different approach in terms of self-care and counseling for our staff. We have brought in psychologists to help us balance work and life, and we insert mission moments into our calls to remind everyone of why we are doing our work. We are also enforcing paid time off to ensure people can unplug.
Financially, we are very fortunate to have a very savvy business leader as our national CEO, Gail McGovern. We are better positioned than most not-for-profits to weather a drop in donations, which gives all of us great psychological comfort.
How has the Red Cross coordinated with state and local authorities in New York to deliver essential supplies and other assistance?
We are always well connected. When state or local authorities open an Emergency Operations Center, the Red Cross will always have a seat there. We also have a special role within federal emergency management written into our charter. We provide regular updates to mayors, federal officials, and so forth, to make sure they are aware of what we are doing.
Crises often contribute to a surge in mutual aid. Given the constraints of social distancing, how has volunteerism played out during the pandemic? And with lockdowns easing, how do you see volunteerism evolving in the longer-term?
The Red Cross has hundreds of thousands of trained volunteers nationally. Even without a pandemic, it is always a challenge to keep those volunteers engaged. So right now, with fewer services being delivered in the field, accommodating volunteers is much more difficult. That said, as a larger not-for-profit, we do have a virtual platform, and we have case workers and disaster responders who can do a lot of terrific work virtually. Until the vaccine comes, our focus is on engagement rather than recruitment.
As a disaster truly unique in living memory, what do you think the longer-term impact of the pandemic will be on the mission and scope of volunteer organizations overall?
I am not at all worried about volunteerism in America. There is a very generous and entrepreneurial spirit here. I do think we have learned how to perform virtually, so it is likely we will be more reliant on those processes going forward. We also need to think about maximizing the health of populations who may have preexisting conditions. Things like social distancing, wearing masks, and washing hands, will become second nature in our deployments and in our volunteer-led work. When the vaccine comes, I think there will be a rush of people racing to be out in the field again.
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