Kay Hughes arrived at the annual property jamboree for the first time with a certain trepidation. But she found its dinosaur reputation is no longer fully justified
Arriving at Mipim is like being transported to a huge white-tented, pamphlet-strewn city marathon but with a sea of mostly suited men. So at security, when the underwire on my bra set the alarm off, it occurred to me that some recalibration was required.
I started by heading to the familiar territory of the London stand where the impressive, ever-growing London model is surrounded by booths representing London boroughs, developers, architects and project managers. Once I had orientated myself within this massive alien trade show, I could see that the talks and renewing of past contacts are the focal point and catalyst for discussion.
Despite the general lack of international gender balance, the UK did well, with 40% women speakers on the London stand facilitated, in the words of Catherine Staniland, by the NLA seeking out professional, informed women in the industry. The UK government pavilion and Belfast were also relatively well balanced, but perhaps the Midlands could do with a push, or at least that’s how it looked when I popped into their stand.
Mipim is the hub of the land and building market from end to end, including land trading, pension funds, lawyers, planners, architects and suppliers globally. All relinquishing the week to meet, exchange ideas and talk. Where else can you visit Sheffield, Newcastle, Leeds, Berlin and Paris in a morning and directly access the decision makers?
City planners eye up the international competition and entrepreneurial mayors set out their vision to investors. Energy ebbs and flows around pacey talks and rabid conversations where peers intermittently exchange information in fast and furious snatches, punctuated by bizarre moments of sunny tranquillity.
My reservations about Mipim were the evident sheer frenzy to build homes and how that might affect quality and place for future generations. Perhaps a more mixed group would have a more rounded view.
On discrimination, there was talk of poor behaviour towards women in some real estate teams. Also there were disclosures from women who had changed career from finance or real estate into more design-focused jobs to sidestep self-esteem-eroding marginalisation in those male-dominated professions. But this was countered by inspiring women leaders such as Jo Negrini of Croydon and Amanda Reid of Newham planning department who set out clear, balanced visions and messages to the industry.
It is not a place for the timid nor, ideally, a place you would want to go on your own. Even the ebullient Andrew Waugh found it tough. In addition, elements of venal or poor behaviour do persist in the background, so having a sane cohort definitely helps.
How I feel about Mipim is that it is the market, where the raw transactional approach to land and buildings is overt. Purchasing the ticket is an acknowledgment of a wish to buy or sell and join in. It is a place where, despite the really supportive community of architects and consultants male and female, the financial and land-controlling interests primarily rest with a small male contingent. But in this age of internet media, meeting and speaking to people is still at the heart of how the industry works – and what makes Mipim interactive, enjoyable and exhausting. But it would be more comfortable and enjoyable if it was more representative.
Would I recommend Mipim to other women or under-represented groups? Yes. Why? Because we should “lean in”, and not to be there is to be less informed. Culture change can only occur if there is more representation.
One afternoon at the London bar surrounded by drinkers I ordered a tea. Joined by a friendly stranger he looked at the tea and said, “I think that is a better idea”, and changed his order. Mipim is a constructed culture, one we can only change by being more represented. So hold your breath and fork out for that ticket: show you mean business and break the mould.
Kay Hughes is the founder of Khaa and former design adviser to the London Olympic Delivery Authority