Read the first part of our fictional series exploring a vision of the future where commercial real estate and the latest technologies intersect seamlessly—and where people might fit in that intersection.
Hannah could still not believe that he had chosen her. Her grandfather had always lit up when he talked to her, but he was like that with all his grandchildren. Why had he chosen her as the executor of his trust? She didn’t even know that he had a trust...or what exactly a trust was for that matter.
But, now she found herself at his desk, surrounded by stacks of colorful carpets from his hometown in Ethiopia that he spent his life buying and selling. A task-bot on her screen was politely walking her through the steps to complete her grandfather’s morbid sounding “day of death” tax return.
It wasn’t much to look at, not much more than an aluminum cube.
“Hannah, do you want some coffee, grandma just finished roasting the beans?” her mom called from the showroom in front of the warehouse.
“Sure, mama, I would love some.”
She looked around at the metal building that represented the majority of her family’s inheritance. It wasn’t much to look at, not much more than an aluminum cube. It was much too big for her grandfather’s importing business, but when he bought it, the predominantly immigrant neighborhood it was in was undesirable and cheap. That was back when this area was on the outskirts of town, now it seemed to be swallowed up by the city, blending into the landscape it once used to border.
Hannah’s grandfather, the eternal patriarch, had left the building to the family. He had set up a co-operative ownership and divided the shares evenly to the whole family. He had also given a portion to the local community center, a place that he had utilized in the first few months following his immigration and was an active booster of ever since. But, for reasons unknown, he had given the executor position to Hannah. And now, she was feeling the squeeze of responsibility that he so effortlessly bore his whole life.
As her mother delivered coffee, Hannah could see the worry behind her eyes as well. “What are we going to do with all these rugs? Baba was the only one who knew what they were and how to sell them.”
Hannah had always thought that stacking the rugs in piles on the floor was wasteful. She always thought the building would look much better with the beautiful tapestries hung from the walls like they were in the showroom. Some of her best memories were recorded in front of the backdrop of these handwoven masterpieces. After school, she would take the school’s yellow buspod to the showroom and study surrounded by the warm colors, always amazed at how much more quickly she could finish here than anywhere else.
“Yeah, I don’t think that we can run the business without Baba here,” Hannah admitted, “I just wish we had a good use for the building. Uncle Dani is pressuring me to sell it, but I think Baba would have wanted it to continue providing for the family. He loved working here...” With the smell of the freshly brewed coffee, an idea hit her. She knew of a way to keep the building, her grandfather’s legacy, and support his offspring.
“Mom, call the family for a meeting, I have an idea.”
"If I do this right, I think that Papa's building could help take care of our family for generations to come.”
The long benches in the showroom that had hosted so many of her grandfather's “meetings,” what were basically excuses for him and his friends to drink coffee and talk politics, were filled with Hannah’s whole family.
“Everyone!” She shouted over the chatter.
“I know we are all still saddened by the loss of Baba. But, we need to come to a consensus about what we will do with this building that we now all own together.”
“We should sell it,” her uncle Dani said under his breath. He was still upset about Hannah being appointed the decision maker instead of him. He had emailed an electronic appraisal data aggregation from a site he has found online a few days ago. He had highlighted the estimated sale price, a less than subtle nod towards what he thought should be done with the property.
“If you will all follow me,” she said without giving her uncle's comment the privilege of her attention, “I would like to show you my idea for how we can all benefit from Baba’s inheritance, without having to sell this building that meant so much to him.”
They all shuffled into the warehouse, where a section had been partitioned off by a wall of rugs supported by a structure that Hannah and her mother had made by lashing pieces of bamboo that they cut from the overgrown lot behind the building. Inside the section was a desk, which Hannah stood behind, trying to gauge her family’s acceptance.
“You want to sell desks?” her aunt asked in her usual sarcastic tone. Chuckles came from the older members, laughs from the children.
“No,” Hannah said, “I want to rent out desk space. We can use Baba’s rugs to make partitions that can easily be moved or taken down depending on what the renters want. They can pay for one desk or many. We will keep the showroom as a communal space and have coffee, food, and injera for the workers whenever they want.”
“It is too risky!” shouted her uncle Dani as he made his way to the front of the crowd. “Who is going to make sure we don’t get sued? Finding tenants and writing the contracts is complicated. You have only sold a few houses as a real estate agent, Hannah, this is too much for you to try and do.”
He was right, she had only recently become an agent after her daughter was born. She had never done anything with commercial properties, which she knew was a completely different world. But she knew she had to try if she wanted to keep the building in the family. Plus, she found her uncle’s lack of confidence in her a little infuriating, which made her want to do it even more.
“I have done my research, there are a lot of teach-bots out there to help me. But, I need us to vote on this now. If I do this right, I think that Baba’s building could help take care of our family for generations to come.”
The crowd murmured and the family turned towards the grandmother to get her opinion as the eldest.
To Hannah’s surprise, she stepped forward, looked at the crowd and said with her small voice, “Baba, more than anything, was a good judge of character. He chose Hannah to decide what to do, so we should listen to her.”
The nods of the herd told Hannah that she had won them over, thanks to the weight of her grandmother’s remarks.
“Ok, let’s vote. All for?” she said as hands went up. “Ok, all opposed?” Everyone looked at uncle Dani.
“I just hope you know what you are doing!” He said, “Now let’s eat, I’m starving!”
She had never set up an office before.
The next Sunday, Hannah organized another family gathering. She had asked them for help getting the building ready for her plan. She knew her family was eager to help, she just had to bribe them with her mother’s cooking and an excuse to get together and gossip.
Her uncles and their sons circled around a stack of carpets, arguing on the best technique to build her makeshift walls. They ended up forming two camps, one that thought it better to build the frame first, then attach the carpets, the other thought it better to lay the carpets on the ground and build the frame around them. The two groups were now racing feverously to prove their points. All the while Uncle Dani walked back and forth telling both groups what they were doing wrong.
The women took the task of cleaning the warehouse and cutting more bamboo from the thicket in the back lot. When Hannah came to check on the progress she was surprised to see not a cleared out patch, but a trail cut into the jungle of shoots.
“Wouldn’t it have been easier to just cut the ones closest to the building?” she asked her aunt Martha.
“We used to take walks in this lot as younger woman,” Martha responded wistfully. “If we are going to do this work, we at least want to build a path to walk and complain about our husbands.” The woman cackled in unison.
By the end of the day, the transformation was complete. The new walls were stored in the back corner of the tidy industrial space. She had wanted to make the place look fancier, but for now, this would have to do, there was no time to waste. She had never set up an office before, so she would leave it up to her tenants to tell her how to do it.
"SnapList prides ourself on having human connection throughout the listing process."
At 1:59 p.m. the next day she heard a buzzing that indicated a blimpbot was approaching. She had left the door open as instructed and the tiny dirigible flew in and dropped down a screen. A nice looking younger woman with a slight Russian accent appeared and said, “Hello, I am Anya. Thank you for choosing SnapList. We look forward to helping you list your space as painlessly as possible.”
“They are programming talk-bots with accents now, huh?” she said to herself.
“No ma’am, I am a live person. SnapList prides itself on having human connection throughout the listing process.”
“Huh. Ok, cool. Sorry Anya, I just assume that I am talking to a bot if it is not in person anymore. So, what do I need to do to get this process started?” Hannah found herself taking a more agreeable tone now that she knew someone was on the other end of the screen.
“Nothing, Hannah, that is it,” Anya said as she typed commands.
The metallic blimp started quickly buzzing around the building. It ducked into every room and then accelerated out the back rolling door, only to return less than a minute later. It returned to its original position and Anya came back on the screen. “I think we have it all. Your listing’s rendering will go live in ten minutes on our marketplace,” she said.
“But, what about terms and price?” Hannah said, not wanting to sound green, but needing some more precise answers.
“We find it best to let the market decide the price,” Anya said, still typing. “Once we can judge the predicted conversion score, we will have a starting price, then it will adjust depending on the interest coefficient."
“Ok, that's what I thought,” Hannah said, obviously lying.
“Thank you for your time, Hannah,” Anya said as the inflatable drone turned around and sped off.
“What color do you associate with joy?” an expressionless voice asked.
Before Hannah could even finish her authorization protocol for the listing documents her screen started ringing. It was the first time she could remember that the ring didn’t have a caller profile. In place of the caller’s picture and registry info was just the letter S.
“Hello?” Hannah said incredulously.
“What color do you associate with joy?” an expressionless voice asked.
While it was a weird question, it was something that Hannah had thought about before. Her grandfather loved to talk about the relationship between colors and emotions, always looking for the next popular design for his rugs. “I dunno...yellow I guess.”
Just then the phone hung up. She looked again at her screen. Her timeline showed no record of the call ever being taken. She wondered what kind of weird prank hack this was. Then, her head was snapped around by the sharp sound of screeching tires.
Out of the building’s front windows, she could see the steady line of pods quickly swerving in unison, like a swarm of baitfish avoiding an incoming tuna. Through the parted herd appeared an old Land Rover. She had never been a pistonhead, but she recognized it from her early trips to Africa with Baba. The white car sped down the centerline of the road, its sharp corners a stark contrast from the aerodynamically smoothed pods it displaced. As it got closer the car took a took a hard left through an intersection and headed straight for her building. The tinted window was lowered just enough for a hand to stick out, showing its proud middle finger to the dozens of violation cameras feverously taking pics of the misdeeds.
After the car had come to a hard stop in the parking lot outside the bay windows, the traffic on the street resumed its normal plodding pace as if nothing had ever happened. Quickly, the door flew open and a short, brawny guy with a buzzcut stomped in through the door. He had on overalls, hiking boots and what looked like a surfer’s long sleeve rash guard.
“Y’all know where I can find Hannah?” he said in a thick southern drawl.
“I’m her,” Hannah said, still trying to compute the chaos of the last few moments.
“You got a sensor network set up in this building?”
“Oh, you are here about the listing?”
“Cuz I tell you what, I ain’t giving one more goddamn byte of data to those suits at Workly. Not one.”
“Oh, no I haven’t set up any monitoring yet. Don’t you get fined for driving like that?”
“Yeah, but it is not worth my time waiting behind these slow ass pods. I worked a deal with the city where they give me a discount if I auto-deduct my coins. Guys like me are the only thing paying the deduction administrator's salary, so they want to play ball.” As he spoke his eyes locked on her grandmother, roasting coffee beans in a pan as she had learned to do growing up in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. He walked towards her slowly, showing his excitement more with every step.
“Tena yistilign.” He said to her grandma who was surprised as Hannah by his flawless pronunciation.
“How do you know when the beans are ready?” he asked inquisitively.
“Mmmm, I dunno,” her Grandma said. “I just can sense it over all these years. It is the smell mostly, but also a little by the sound.”
“Amazing!” he said as he spun around, taking in his whole surroundings. “This is real. Authentic. Human! I love all these colors! To hell with the damn sterile tech aesthetic.”
“Who do we have the pleasure of speaking to?” Hannah asked politely, but directly.
“Not who, no one gives a damn who. It is what I am that matters,” he replied.
“Ok, then what do I have the pleasure of speaking to?” she said, sarcastically.
“Well, ma’am, I’m Skeptic, but my friends call me Skip.”
“Oh, ok, nice to meet you Skip,” Hannah said as she extended her hand for a shake.
“You’ve never heard of me?” he asked. Hannah sensed disappointment in his voice.
“No, is that bad?” she said, watching for possible anger.
“No, that's great! I love this place! As long as she comes with it,” he nodded in her grandma’s direction. “I’ll take about 60,000 square inches at dot oh three five coins per hour. Deal?”
Hannah knew that .02 coins per hour was her starting point based on her interest coefficient. She tried not to show her enthusiasm at getting nearly double that at .035. “Sure, that works, when do you want to move in?”
“Now.” Skip was already using his hand scan on his screen, canceling his old lease no doubt. “Now, that we are settled, y’all think I can try some of that coffee she’s fixin’?”