HAVANA, CUBA — For me and for many U.S. visitors, Cuba presents a quandary.
Standing still for 58 years without the benefits nor the downsides of modernism, the iconic island seems broken and messy, but it is also a rest from excessive consumption and our digital looniness.
Simpler and slower with a welcoming attitude, Cuba still has operating phone booths while we rocket forward on the G5. To grab an Uber in Cuba is to hitchhike. Kids play freely in the streets in lieu of an iPad epidemic, and strollers are a rare sight.
Over the decades, Cubans have faced constraints on individual freedoms and suffered from human rights violations. Yes, everyone has a job and the government provides health care, a free education and a paltry guaranteed income. But poverty is presuasive throughout Cuba. It is a system that does not work, which in part explains the new partnership with the US.
Today, Cuba represents living nostalgia — time stopped.
A natural response to change
It reminded me of how we do real estate today in the U.S.; it too is wedded to the past and often resistant to change.
I recently witnessed that yearning for another time when I was sitting on a panel at the Leading Real Estate Companies of the World (LeadingRE) mega gathering in Miami two weeks ago.
LeadingRE CEO and moderator Pam O’Connor started by asking me about the feasibility of on-demand real estate services. I put an extreme stake in the ground to boil some blood.
I responded that “instant everything” will transform real estate and speed up the transaction from weeks and months to a few days, accelerating the sales process and shrinking the time it takes for agents and brokers to get paid. The result: more seller and agent certainty.
It did not take long for the discussion to drift to nostalgia for the importance of relationships in real estate and the beauty of artisanal services.
Longing for the past continued when real estate consultant Steve Murray warned that the cost of office space was killing broker margins.
I suggested that any other business would close or radically shrink their physical footprint and turn to virtual technology tools to save and grow their enterprises, while providing more essential agent services than expensive and vacuous bricks-and-mortar.
Cold, callous and ornery.
Again, nostalgia persisted as my super savvy colleagues waxed about the importance of agents gathering in cozy dens of connection. In the discussion, warm and fuzzy didn’t trump all options. Brand guru Marc Davison suggested shrinking office size and renting excess space to entrepreneurs who could bring new energy.
Nostalgia is a natural reaction to rapid change. But it can also become an excuse for not investing in the future.
When both sides are wrong
Everything designed to keep the gringos out of Cuba worked in some ways.
Here, you won’t find too many ugly condo buildings, nor spot crazed U.S. consumption because our credit cards don’t work here and “everywhere” American brands are “nowhere” in Cuba.
But the overwhelming number of abandoned and deteriorating historic buildings are an in-your-face reminder of the lack of private capital.
Opening up the possibilities and benefits of U.S. investment has not been lost on the Cuban leadership. How that will be managed is Cuba’s next challenge.
And if real estate services turn into an insensitive field of self-serve bots and algorithms, something will be lost about buying, selling and owning homes. But ignoring the speed-it-up tech trends is abundantly naive.
Modernism and all its technology propelled the U.S. into the future faster than we may have been ready for. We could not make the cultural shifts fast enough to hold onto what was good about the past.
Consider the live music in Cuban hotel lobbies, versus banal house music from W Hotels playlists.
If Cuba catches up with the modern world and becomes some islandic version of the West Village, that would be a cultural crime. Indeed, some changes can cause more problems than they solve.
A common American refrain: “Go to Cuba before the U.S. ruins it.”
This story is the tale of gentrification everywhere, a tension where both sides are right and both sides are wrong.
But it is equally true that our fears about the future can hold us back from making changes that are good for everyone — practical solutions to everyday problems.
Just as Cuba is starved for private investment, a real estate services makeover in the U.S. can give both homesellers and their agents more certainty.
A lumpy and outdated process isn’t good for anyone.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated by the author.