Global Economist Thinks Locally


This July, a conference celebrating the 75th anniversary of the meeting of the Bretton Woods Committee — which only gave us our current global economic system — will convene to attempt to usher in what comes next. And when it does, Said Dawlabani will be there to put in his two cents.

The retired commercial real-estate agent is now an author and theorist about the global economy. His internationally-recognized 2013 book, “Memenomics: The Next Generation Economic System,” applies evolutionary and cultural values to explain how macro-economic systems evolve.

Dawlabani believes that the disruption caused by the digital age and changing demographics will impact retail business everywhere on the planet. But the Light asked him specifically what La Jolla needs to do to stay competitive.

The digital economy is disrupting everything. It started with music, newspapers and movies, but now it’s disrupting brick-and-mortar retail and pretty much every other job other than coding. In the future, will servicing machines be the only career left for humans to have?

“If you do programming work, you’re fine. But the biggest growth is going to be in servicing humans — jobs that require high touch and human skill. If you’ve noticed the places that have gone out of business in the last 10 years — in The Village, for example — what’s taken their place? Doctors, yoga places, restaurants, hair salons. Those are the things that are high-touch, high-human interaction. Those are the jobs that will thrive, because a robot cannot deliver a massage.

But a lot of the jobs that we’ve taken for granted, I’m afraid, are not going to appear on the other side of the disruption. The driving theme behind the digital economy is that if your job is quantifiable, it’s going to be gone within the next two decades. Cambridge did research that showed as much as 47 percent of jobs in Western culture will disappear as a result of this disruption — the use of apps, the internet of things.”

What can La Jolla do to keep its business district competititive using this knowledge?

“I think the zoning guidelines have to go out the window. It amazes me that the City hasn’t caught up with that. They need to look at that and require less retail of whoever is looking to redesign or repurpose a property. To require a developer to have a first floor be retail in order for them to approve two more floors of residential is just so passé. Because there is enough retail out there, and I’ll bet you that the tenants that came to these units were going there because it’s a newer facility, so other land was lost out because these were newer and more convenient locations — not because of the issue of supply and demand.

Also, the places seeing high occupancy are the places that become a destination. City leaders must make a downtown area very conducive to pedestrian traffic and engaged with having a nice feel of community — to invite people to come out to have an experience while they shop and spend the day.”

It sounds like you’re talking about the Belevedere Promenade — which would have reconfigured the Prospect Street/Girard Avenue Dip to create a pedestrian shopping walkway. (That project was approved but never enacted due to the lack of an estimated $2-to-$3 million in public funds for it.)

“I think a major shift like that would need to take place. There needs to be a self-sustaining ecosystem that would accomodate someone’s afternoon out for it to become a destination. It would need to offer similar amenities to the (Westfield) UTC mall. It has to be designed for the 21st century in mind. But I do like The Conrad. I like the potential it has. The people who come to a concert there probably make an evening out of it and visit other retailers there — maybe a dinner ahead of time and a night on the town afterward.”

How much of a problem are the high rents charged by landlords?

“Unfortunately, a lot of the landlords in La Jolla are still holding on to the old values. They don’t want to rent to a B-credit tenant, or they don’t want to convert a traditional high-end retail space to a restaurant. And landlords in La Jolla are very well-to-do, so they will hold on to get the price that they want and leave something vacant for years. Most landlords are afraid of the message it sends if they lower the rent or get a B-credit tenant. Then, all their other tenants are going to say, ‘Hey, look, I’m an A-credit tenant, I’ve been with you so long, let’s renegotiate the lease.’ That’s a bigger fear than keeping it empty. After all, it’s a tax deduction.

That psychology needs to change, because the disruption is here to stay. You’ve seen restaurants come and go, and now the digital disruption is even hitting them. People are staying home, and with streaming services, they’re finding entertainment at home, coupled with delivery service.”

Yes, but don’t restaurants still make money from deliveries?

“They do, but not as much. And when people stay home, because of the conveniences that the digital age has provided, there aren’t the economic externalities that come with going out. You don’t pay an attendant to park your car, you don’t take a walk and get a coffee or a beer somewhere else. It is a confluence of many factors, so there isn’t really a magic bullet that will tell landlords what to do. They just need to be aware that if there are new retailers who seem to be not the traditional retailer, that seem to be empowered more with what millennials want, just to be open to the idea.”

What else would be a step in the right direction for La Jolla?

“The hippest thing would be if you can get an Apple Store to move to The Village. That would bring its own economy with it.”