Cisco Canada Blog

Killing Progress with Financial ROI’s (and Spreadsheets)

September 15, 2011

If I received a buck for each time that someone asked me: “Show me the ROI?” – I’d be rich by now. If by “ROI” one would mean “holistic economic sustainability” then it wouldn’t be all that bad. Unfortunately, more often than not, “ROI” just means “lowest first cost, with obvious pay-back times”. By that definition, I wonder if Nikola Tesla and his friends (commercial electricity in 19th Century) would have had the same experience that I have daily; or if Willis Haviland Carrier (electrical air conditioning in 1902) and Elisha Graves Otis (elevators in 1852) would have sold any of their expensive and unproven innovations.

In those transformative instances, it was often other drivers that pushed for the innovation. Things like comfort; demand and expectations; or the aspiration of doing things differently and pursuing new adjacent opportunities triggered some of the most exciting inventions in the construction and real estate industry. Of course, I am not promoting to forget about financial ROI’s and ignore the importance of economic sound decision-making. All I am asking is that we take on the entrepreneurial attitude of 100 years ago where one was willing to take a leap of faith in accepting new and unproven technologies and methodologies.

How many of us out there still don’t believe that the Internet and the underlying Networks become instrumental for the performance of our built environment. How many of us still don’t believe that our children and their children will expect connectivity, wireless, and access to a personalized environment when the set foot in a home or building. Home many of us still don’t think that mobility, “cloud computing”, and virtualized compute power will change the landscape of the built environment and everything that we do in it, as we know it.

Funnily enough: it is all happening – Corporate real estate professionals decide on new leasing space by the number of bars they receive on their mobile phones. Students will come home irritated from their first week in college if it so appeared that there wasn’t any wireless. Building systems in high-end North American properties are monitored and operated from world-class operations centers in India and the Middle East. And oh yes, the ROI has proven to be there – it is cheaper to build a building with one converged building-grade network as opposed to installing multiple silo-ed networks for silo-ed applications.

Technology in buildings can simply not be “value-engineered” out of construction anymore in exchange for prettier marble in the lobby areas. Technology in buildings has become the right thing to do; and a critical asset to next generation infrastructure.

To keep the conversation meaningful, we have to redirect our attention from pure financial ROI’s to the balance of economic, environmental, and social ROI’s. And that means that “soft” factors will end up weighing as much into the equation as those financial metrics that we have become so comfortable with. The financial pro-forma’s need to change to reflect the true value and return of 21st Century infrastructure assets. If we had Excel 100 years ago, we would still be analyzing spreadsheets and be debating with Willis over the financial returns for electrical air conditioning.

Thus now: let’s just do it.


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  1. Well, yeah…if you COULD show the ROI you WOULD be rich…your remark was not intended that way but it’s accurate. Another way to approach this frustrating quandary might be to identify where there really is return and attack those beachheads (in VC-speak)?

    There is probably a difference between the problems Carrier and Otis were trying to solve – with unknown tools – compared to being armed with lots of cool tools and searching for problems to apply them to.Being a finance guy of course I like to approach problems with spreadsheets and ROI. This is done poorly in this space in my view as people look at simple payback or maybe IRR as if the situation were static going forward.

    Modeling increases in temperature, increases in fuel costs, increases in the cost of capital, and crucially, modeling an exit or refinance value that feeds from a multiple of net operating income (as compared to running the model forever) can change some investment rationale a lot. Particularly if the tech intervention both reduces operating costs AND raises revenue for the landlord because it’s so compelling.

    When you and I see each other later this week at the Zofnass Conference on Sustainable Infrastructure at Harvard Design School I’ll present on this topic – then we can resume discussion of this blog post?