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"So Gahlord, what interests you about the real estate industry?"

I was having lunch with a new contact at the National Association of Realtors convention in New Orleans.

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Since I don’t sell real estate I get asked this a lot. Of course, it’s tempting to say, "The giant paychecks!" and I’d be a liar if I didn’t say that money is nice.

The intersection of all the things people do with land and property and what people do and why they do it is what really gets my attention: The meaning that people layer on top of the landscape.

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For example: in New Orleans there’s this IMAX theater built by Entergy, an energy company.

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Back in Vermont, where I live, Entergy owns and operates a nuclear power plant that has been the source of a series of leaks and groundwater contamination.

The same company is making different uses of land in different places. The meaning of "Entergy" is certainly different between Vermont and New Orleans. The difference in meaning has a great deal to do with how land gets used.

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Another example of land and meaning: I was talking with a New Orleans Realtor at a great, low-key party, and she explained how the area’s apartments were built long and narrow.

I was reminded of how in Kyoto, Japan, the houses in the old part of town are long and narrow because the tax code was based on the width of street frontage. Kyoto homebuilders kept the houses narrow to keep taxes low but stretched them out long to increase square footage. Human interaction with land and it’s use resulting in similar house shapes but with different meaning.

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Another Realtor shared with me the existence of a small town in the middle of Ohio where a guy has set up a music club. Due to the guy’s persistence and the location of the town between major concert venues, national acts often perform there on their way to somewhere else. So a little town of 8,000 people gets great concerts in a small venue.

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As a technology-aware strategist, what’s been fascinating about the real estate industry is how all of these bits of local knowledge become valuable. Real estate professionals translate the meaning of their communities into something economically valuable.

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Sharing local meaning rewards real estate practitioners. They’re rewarded by Google with better search results. They’re rewarded by customers who can see local expertise demonstrated instead of merely proclaimed.

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Technology is shifting and disrupting business models that deal with local meaning. Real estate practitioners are rewarded perhaps more than the traditional gatekeepers of local knowledge: community newspapers.

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My new friend politely let me ramble on in this way for awhile. Then he smiled and said he was reminded of the preamble to the Realtor Code of Ethics.

He quoted the first paragraph from memory:

"Under all is the land. Upon its wise utilization and widely allocated ownership depend the survival and growth of free institutions and of our civilization. Realtors should recognize that the interests of the nation and its citizens require the highest and best use of the land and the widest distribution of land ownership. They require the creation of adequate housing, the building of functioning cities, the development of productive industries and farms, and the preservation of a healthful environment." 

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt.

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