As Covid-19 brought disruption across industries, connections and networks have never been more important. The World Trade Centers Association (WTCA) has helped to facilitate trade and investment across the globe since it was founded in 1969. 

In the week of WTCA’s General Assembly, fDi speaks with Robin van Puyenbroeck, who has been the executive director of business development at WTCA since June 2020. He discusses the lessons learned during the pandemic and how trade and investment activity is changing in the age of digital globalisation.

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Q: What have been the main impacts of Covid-19 on WTCA and its members?

A: It boils down to the fact that every crisis is an opportunity. The main impact was that it allowed us to really redefine who we are and to a large extent to reinvent ourselves by using technology. We are a membership-based organisation, and bring together more than 300 world trade centres from all over the world. We had a very traditional setting, where we got together in conferences and meetings, and all of a sudden that stopped.

Our members have a huge portfolio of commercial real estate, including conference and exhibition centres, airports, universities and free trade zones. The impact was about thinking how we are going to carry on here, embracing change and realising the impact and power of that network and community. Out of this whole Covid-19 situation, we have become more interconnected as a network and a community. It has sparked a lot of creativity.

Q: What have been some of the key lessons?

A: I think that having the skill to be flexible and adaptable is critical in a business and an investment environment right now. We’ve learned that things can dramatically change overnight. We have to be adaptable, flexible and nimble.

I think it’s an existential question that any organisation, whether it’s public or private, will face at some point in its history. We have seen in the past year that the organisations that have come out stronger became disruptors. This was already underway with the rise of technology, or ‘digital globalisation’ as I call it. But Covid-19 has reinforced that, and fast-forwarded a process that otherwise would have taken five to seven years.

Q: How has the conversation around trade and investment changed since you joined WTCA?

A: The challenge has been how to conduct trade and seek investment if you cannot go on the road and physically meet with people, because this was the way things were done. For us, the game-changer was being able to operate in an environment of trust. We’re like a community. Our members are coming together in member councils on topics from agriculture, conference and exhibitions to real estate and business clubs. They discuss best practices, and support and help each other.

For example, if you’re a commercial real estate owner with office space, you have a problem if no one is going to your building. But that is only a problem if you look at it narrowly as a need to have tenants and collect rents. If you’re a tenant in a world trade centre, you belong to a global community, meaning you are connected whether you go to the physical space or not. The redefinition of purpose of what a building or facility is has come out of the past year. The real estate was about belonging to that community. That extra value is now a critical component of the value proposition of real estate.

At the same time, we are seeing a lot of challenges. Trade barriers, tariffs and protectionism have all gone up around the world. The global trade infrastructure is really under pressure and needs to be modernised. We need to find a way to make it inclusive for everybody.

At the end of the day, the large corporations have become the change makers. Now you see governments trying to rebalance and find their new centre of focus. For example, the US’s suggestion of a global minimum corporate tax. That is a government stepping in and showing that they still drive the bus. The issue that societies face right now is that the economy is not inclusive.

Q: What do you think about the future of work?

A: The pandemic has allowed us to rebalance our work life. It doesn’t matter where someone is working — whether they’re working from a beach house in Mallorca or an office in London. The beehive is both physical infrastructure and something virtual.

People will be more inclined to live where they want to than ever before, now that they are no longer confined to living within commuting distance to a particular location. But people will still come together — this is human nature. We are social creatures. We’ll come back together in an office space, but no longer in the same way that we did before.

We will need more space to house few people, basically, because there will be an ongoing concern about safety and for Covid-19. We will sit in more spacious offices. It’s a reinvention of what office space really is.

Robin van Puyenbroeck, is the executive director of business development at the World Trade Centers Association (WTCA)