Conservatorio: a real estate business in support of socially diverse communities
When Conservatorio, a company devoted to sustainable urban revitalization in Panama City’s Casco Antiguo received its B-Corp certification two years ago, the company formally achieved a corporate categorization that sums up a business model that has been adopted since the beginning: one that commits companies to consider environmental and social impacts in their commercial and financial decisions.
But for Conservatorio, this certification is only a point of reference on their journey and the objective they have set for themselves since Keyes Christopher “KC” Hardin, co-founder and president of the company, moved to Panama in 2004, leaving behind a career as a corporate attorney in New York.
Hardin explains that the September 11 attacks in the United States were a turning point for him, that made him rethink what he really wanted to do with his life future. Shortly after, he took a vacation in Panama to reflect on his next step. After only two weeks in the country, he had decided to stay. In the year that followed, he met his wife here and it quickly became clear that for his new career he was interested in a stimulating job, which involved being creative, but above all, meant having a positive impact, a purpose.
“I started to get to know Casco Viejo and I understood that, at that moment, the neighborhood was beginning an inevitable process of revitalization. It was evident that there was a tension bubbling beneath the surface here that needed to be addressed: a tension between how to manage the protection both of the historical and the human heritage,” Hardin said. “By chance, I have always lived in neighborhoods that, in one way or another, grew very quickly and, as a consequence of that hurried development process, they lost their soul; some even ended up deteriorating. The reality is that the urban environments are very delicate, and a special touch is required so that the negative effects that may occur as a natural consequence of a revitalization process are properly managed and mitigated.”
“Conservatorio was born from the idea that urban revitalization is extremely important and that cities have to reinvent themselves: we need more walkable community spaces and more “social” lives that incorporate culture in our community. Our neighborhoods need to be more inclusive and maintain a balance between different socioeconomic levels. Our internal policy of real estate development seeks this balance precisely: for this reason, we always build an accessible apartment for every luxury apartment. Conservatorio builds, for example, some of the most expensive apartments in Panama City, but also some of the most accessible, all within a perimeter that does not exceed 10 blocks” he adds.
The transcendental lesson of all this is that you can still do something good for society and the environment that is also profitable for a business. Conservatorio was founded for sustainable, inclusive, human-centric urban renovation.
“As a company, we do what we can to contribute to the protection of both types [the historical and the human] of heritage. I believe that the sustainability of companies has only one way ahead and that it has to do with The Golden Rule: that is, companies must act in the way that we, as human beings, expect them to they act,” he explains.
While he thinks that companies in general should start thinking more and more in this way, Hardin believes that this is especially important in the real estate industry. “The real estate business is truly ubiquitous: it penetrates and reaches everything; in other words, we all live in spaces built by this sector. This means that if we want to have a better world, we need – among other things – for the real estate industry to have that long-term vision and start thinking and putting people first.”
Conservatorio has developed and renovated several iconic projects in Casco Antiguo; among them two boutique hotels that have become emblematic buildings of the area, but also affordable apartments for people in the neighborhood, woodworking workshops and subsidized spaces for art organizations. In addition, a program of intervention and social integration for gangs was developed: Esperanza.
“Esperanza was born as a response to the problem of gang violence in Casco Antiguo, having understood that the only sustainable solution for this issue lies in finding ways to (re) integrate these young people into society, ” says Hardin.
So far, the program has carried out interventions with gangs in Casco Viejo, touching a little over 100 lives of young people, and although Hardin explains that they have no plans to become a multinational organization, they would like to share experiences and good practices, hoping to inspire other organizations to replicate the model.
Conservatorio’s sustainability concerns are so entrenched that the company designed, through its subsidiary, Conservatorio de Innovación Urbana, an in-house methodology they named “Sistema C.” The purpose of this subsidiary, affiliated to the City of Knowledge, is to carry out research and development to identify methods and mechanisms for sustainable urban revitalization. The company believes in the value and positive impact of urban spaces that focus on the human being and hopes that the lessons learned in the company can be useful beyond the borders of Panama.
“We realized that City of Knowledge provided the ideal platform to, precisely, establish a research, development and consulting company as our subsidiary, that could share knowledge and provide advisory services to other companies in the region that would like to replicate what we are doing, “he commented.
“In terms of investment in research and development (R & D), the real estate industry is a dinosaur: on average only 1% is invested in R & D and therefore, it is not an industry that can be transformed easily or in an agile manner. But for us at Conservatorio, it is vital to invest heavily in this area and do it along with other companies in the region. In that sense, the City of Knowledge facilitated access and provided the right ecosystem to interact with other companies with ideas similar to ours,” he concludes.
Hardin is confident that other companies in Panama will continue to be interested in following the path of this new way of doing business and is optimistic regarding awareness of the private sector’s critical role in the development of the country -particularly those companies with vision, capital and a social purpose.
“I have visited many countries, but I find that Panama has a special characteristic: here, naturally, people tend to get along and I think this should never be taken lightly or taken for granted. As human beings we cannot lose empathy: we need to walk the same streets together and recognize that we are here for each other, “explains Hardin with conviction.
“We are like farmers, in a way: we live, work and invest in a single geographical area. Any good action that we do for the benefit of the community, gives us a positive reward. Similarly, any negative impact turns back to us in our detriment. At the end of the day, our clients and our community are one, and in that sense the way forward, for us, is simple.