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Collaboration and Cooperation for High Streets and Town Centres

posted 2 Jan 2012, 07:00 by George Grace

There are so many stakeholders – often conflicting – in town centre locations it is very difficult to move things forward without adopting the best and most thoughtful collaborative principles and techniques. This is such a challenge any lessons that can be drawn from other sectors that have managed to dramatically changed their approach from pure competition to more collaborative methods should be studied closely.

Visa and the banking sector in the 1960s

The best collaboration business story I am aware of is the Visa story which has many lessons for property owners, developers and investors in town centres. How many business organisations have grown by over 10,000% since the 1970s? Visa has. And it did it through collaboration. Visa was conceived as a non-stock, for-profit membership corporation with ownership in the form of nontransferable rights of participation. The founders designed the organisation to be highly decentralized and highly collaborative. Authority, initiative, decision making, wealth -- everything possible is pushed out to the periphery of the organization, to the members. This design resulted from the need to reconcile a fundamental tension. 

On the one hand, the member financial institutions and banks are fierce competitors: they – not Visa – issue the cards (eg a Barclaycard), which means they are constantly going after each other's customers. On the other hand, the members also have to cooperate with each other: for the system to work, participating merchants must be able to take any Visa card issued by any bank, anywhere.That means that the banks abide by certain standards on issues such as card layout. Even more important, they participate in a common clearing-house operation, the system that reconciles all the accounts and makes sure merchants get paid for each purchase. Visa by-laws encourage members to compete and innovate as much as possible. 

"Members are free to create, price, market, and service their own products… At the same time, in a narrow band of activity essential to the success of the whole, they engage in the most intense cooperation." 

This harmonious blend of cooperation and competition is what allowed the system to expand worldwide in the face of different currencies, languages, legal codes, customs, cultures, and political philosophies. More at on the Visa story in this Fast Company interview with Visa founder.


Building on the Visa theme as a lesson for high streets and town centres there are at least two partnership methodologies that come to mind, the first is for property owners and developers, the second for business occupiers: 

1. Voluntary Developer Forums

voluntary developer forums or partnerships. These are an innovative form of informal partnership that facilitate the delivery of complex development and regeneration projects, in which there are multiple land owners and public sector bodies. Very specific elements of the development process are co-ordinated to enable developers to continue to compete in the traditional way but at the same time cooperate in terms of interfacing with the public sector, in particular public realm, place making and s106 issues and considerations.

Arguably the best example of this approach in the UK property sector is Paddington Waterside Partnership, launched in 1998 with a small handful of founding developer members, now c20 members involving over a dozen separate major development projects in different land ownership across 80acres. Achievements are impressive, including two flagship hotels, over 1000 residential units, office buildings and extensive public realm improvements and neighbourhood management through a Business Improvement District (BID). For more, see Voluntary Developer Forums in Actions.

2. Business Improvement Districts

In 1970, when business was fading on a west Toronto main street, the business people in the community decided to take action. They formed an association, and used their own money to improve the street and promote the area. Their work helped the street become – and remain – a popular shopping destination. That was the start of Toronto ‘s first Business Improvement Area, Bloor West Village and started a mini-revolution across – quite literally accross the western world in the way struggling high streets and town centres from South Afrrica to Camden, London, organized themselves to survive and prosper. For more, see the BIDs section in Actions.

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