FROM THE EDITOR – What do people (customers) really want?

Posted on Dec 5, 2011 :: Editor
Margaret LeBrun
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU lost almost everything you own?

Tony Nelessen, who I’ve been in touch with as we at Insight Publications have been planning our third annual InDevelopment Conference, told me that after Hurricane Irene wiped out 90 percent of his possessions, it was a traumatic and devastating experience. When a brook in front of his house rose 17 feet over a retaining wall just before dawn one late August morning, it took 15 minutes before his home was flooded with 4.5 feet of water.

Nelessen will be the keynote speaker at our third annual InDevelopment Conference for commercial real estate and economic development professionals in February. Renown among professionals in the urban planning industry nationwide for his trademarked Visual Preference Survey tool that involves public participation in development projects, Nelessen was a little hard to get a hold of this fall. After our recent phone call, he explained he and his wife have been “a little preoccupied.”

That was an obvious understatement. They lost their cars and everything on the first level of their home, including art and memorabilia collections and some 1.5 million slides gathered in his work over the past several decades.

“The thing that is so interesting for me is that in the first three weeks it was really depressing and traumatic — you don’t feel well about dumping all this stuff in the Dumpster,” he says. But after about three weeks, the realization sunk in that they would not be replacing everything and that their lives were permanently changed. They began to give in to the notion that living with less means living more simply.

“After all those years of stuff is gone, you realize you don’t have to worry about it – what kid’s going to get what when you’re gone,” Nelessen says. “You don’t have to worry about what suit to wear. There are no choices anymore, because you don’t have anything.”

They moved into the second level of their home while the insurance settlements were being processed, and resolved to live with less. They went to thrift stores and, like a couple of newlyweds, bought what they needed. “Now, with everything we buy, we’re saying, ‘Do you think we really need that?’”

Our conversation naturally came back around to what he plans to discuss when he comes home to Appleton on Feb. 3. Nelessen, who grew up in Little Chute, runs a consulting firm in Belle Mead, N.J., and teaches at Rutgers University. In his “visioning” work, the notion of sustainability is top of mind for developers and residents of the communities he consults with.

As the cost of fuel increases and the cost of products increase as shipping costs rise, communities will look for answers from the past, he says, before our economy was so dependent on automobiles. Nelessen recalled that streetcars and trolleys were once commonplace in small towns, like Little Chute, nationwide. Today, some of the most livable cities — like Portland, Denver and Jersey City — have brought them back.

Nelessen is working on a new book, titled, “What People Want,” based on his extensive research conducting community visioning sessions across the country. For those interested in how his visioning process works, he will conduct a separate workshop the afternoon of the InDevelopment Conference.

This month’s cover story, on Menasha Packaging, offers insight into what one manufacturer has done to incorporate green practices in its everyday environment. The company has launched more than 40 sustainability initiatives, including the installation of five wind turbines outside its Neenah campus. By the year 2020, Menasha Packaging plans to reduce carbon emissions, water consumption and solid waste by 20 percent relative to current production levels.

When company leaders considered the future, they asked customers what they want. Nelessen would not have been surprised. “They wanted us to be more sustainable,” says Menasha Corp. President Jim Kotek. Turn to page 28 to learn more.

Margaret LeBrun

About Margaret LeBrun

Co-Publisher, Executive Editor View all posts by Margaret LeBrun →