Want a Cool Retirement Home? Build it Yourself.

Trabensol 3

Although there are examples in the 1920s in New York, and similar concepts that date as far back as the 17th century, in Hakka walled villages in northern China, cohousing as a clearly defined idea originated in the 60’s in Denmark as an alternative to impersonal housing solutions and developments in modern cities. These communities were composed of private homes and supplemented by common facilities. There are hundreds of these communities in Denmark today and in other countries of northern Europe and more than 120 in the United States.

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The concept is now being revisited in Spain. One experiment has just opened in Madrid. In the late 90’s a group of friends thought that it would be fantastic if they could all live together once they retired. By 2000 they already had about one hundred people on board and they created Trabensol (short for Trabajadores en SolidaridadWorkers in Solidarity), a cooperative. The project was meant to be a fun alternative to living in a typical retirement home.

Trabensol 1

After a long search that took them all over Spain they finally chose Torremocha del Jarama, a small town of only 917 residents, located 65 kilometers north of Madrid, that has had the same mayor -from an independent party- since 1979. The recently-finished 6,720m2 complex includes 54 apartments and spacious common areas for different activities. The new residents have already moved in and they invited the people from the village to visit the facilities. They have already registered in the town and in the medical center. The whole idea is to be able to take advantage of all the possibilities of living together and make decisions about their future, which seldom is the case in old age. They did not want to depend on a retirement system which is far from perfect.

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In the group everything is decided democratically, and every single decision, from the choice of contruction company to the color of the walls was decided by vote. The total construction budget was 5 million euros, 3 of which were from a mortgage credit from ethical bank Fiare –a non profit unit of Italian Banca Popolare Etica. The rest came from their life savings or the sale of properties. Each one paid 145,000 euros to belong to the cooperative. This, however, does not mean you own anything, it just gives you the right to use the premises. If you leave the cooperative, you get your initial money back. If you die, your will determines what happens to that amount. The cost of maintaining the complex is covered by a monthly fee of about 850 euros per person, if living alone, or 1,050 if two people live in the same apartment. This includes food and services.

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Everything has been designed to be sustainable. The complex has its own central square, orchard and greenhouse. It has areas devoted to therapeutic baths, library and video, meeting rooms, workshops and meditation/exercise rooms. The government of the Region of Madrid subsidized the project with 82,000 euros and energy giant Endesa awarded them a prize in sustainability as well.

Star architects don’t devote any of their time to thinking about the elderly and for many governments they are an afterthought, so this group of retirees decided to design and build the coolest of retirement homes themselves.

This is a documentary about Trabensol.

More info here:



Highway to China

Frustrated by the lack of efficiency and capacity of Brazilian ports, Eike Batista, Brazil’s richest man (and the world´s 7th fortune according to Forbes), decided that he simply could not afford to wait. He would start building himself what will be one of the biggest ports in the world, a project that has already been called the Highway to China.


Construction of the future Acu Superport, situated some 400km north of Rio de Janeiro, near São João da Barra, is already underway, and is expected to cost $2.7 billion. The first element of the port complex is a cement causeway, that will have a four-lane highway, pipelines and conveyor belts to transport resources like iron ore (Batista´s main business), soybeans or oil to ships. The causeway extends 3km into the Atlantic Ocean.

We have enormous iron ore mines, so it’s a logistics business, because without logistics we can’t transport to China” Batista says. “There are huge mines and huge oil reserves right in the vicinity of this complex, 85% of Brazilian oil production is within 150 km radius”. The area Batista is developing would include oil refineries, car factories, an energy plant, and will occupy an area bigger than Manhattan. And he wants to run as much of the operation as possible, so it can be truly efficient. When finished, it will be the biggest port in Southamerica and employ more than 50,000 people.


The port would not only serve Batista´s companies, but other companies and industries as well. He has also managed to woo foreign investors into sinking money into the development. A Chinese company has already pledged to invest five billion dollars to build a steel factory there.

It is precisely China´s insatiable appetite for iron ore from Batista´s mines and other raw materials, and the painfully slow movement of containers through Brazilian ports, what has led him to come up with this idea. China is currently Brazil’s main export destination in value terms, according to Datamar: a 31%. The US, in contrast, is a distant second, at 11% in 2011.

But he has found in this lack of appropiate infrastructure an incredible opportunity for doing business on an even grander scale, and in the process he will help Brazil be more connected to the world.


This year, Ports in Brazil are expecting to handle a billion tons of cargo for the first time, according to estimates by ANTAQ , Brazil’s National Agency for Waterway Transportation. This would mean a 12.3 percent increase compared to 2011. Investments in the past six years have been responsible for these records levels. Batista’s new port will certainly contribute, because it is the single biggest investment in ports in Brazil.

To read my article in PDF, with photo credits, etc: Highway to China.

For more on Brazil-China relations, read this PDF.

Hungry for the Real Thing

Intellectual property rights enforcement is considered today crucial to sustaining economic growth across all industries around the world. Some economists estimate that up to two thirds of the value of large businesses in the US can be traced to intangible assets. Intellectual property protection stimulates innovation, the thinking goes. Creators will not have sufficient incentive to invent unless they are entitled to obtain value from their inventions.

The origin of the concept of intellectual property goes some time back, the legal term is pretty recent. We can find the first traces in Jewish Law but the notion of intellectual creations as property did not appear until the 16th century. Patents evolved from royal prerogative -Queen Elizabeth I gave royal grants for monopoly privileges- to the legal right of any inventor to have exclusive control over the production and sale of his invention. In section 1 of the French Law of 1791 it says that all new discoveries are the property of the author. The author is granted a patent for five, ten or fifteen years. It was not until the 19th century, however, when the term intellectual property began to be used, and it has not been common worldwide until the end of the 20th. Although there are some unresolved ethical issues with intellectual property, especially when it comes to life-saving medicines or genetically modified seed that are given intellectual property protection, in general terms intellectual property is considered absolutely fundamental for trade and development.

One of the most flagrant cases of breach of intellectual property was discovered by a blogger in China this year. 5 fake Apple stores that sold authentic -but unauthorized- Apple products. So realistic were the stores that even the employees thought they worked for Apple. Chinese entrepreneurs are not only copying products now, they are appropriating successful retail concepts, replicating the look and feel of stores and in effect pirating the whole brand experience, the most valuable asset for many companies.

11 Furniture, a Chinese furniture retailer in the city of Kinming, has taken this practice a little further still. They have created a 10,000-square-meter, four-story replica of an IKEA store. Not a full copy, because they have not actually used the IKEA logo, but nearly everything else, including the blue-and-yellow color scheme, the mock-up rooms, the rocking chair design, the cafeteria, and even the miniature pencils. The name in Chinese “Shi Yi Jia Ju” also sounds like the official IKEA Chinese name “Yi Jia Jia Ju”.

China is feared because it seems to be out to conquer the world, but at the same time it is obvious that Chinese are fascinated and seduced by western brands and culture. Let’s not forget that Rome conquered Greece, but it became Greek in doing so. Roman elite spoke and wrote Greek as fluently as Latin. Greek philosophy, religion, science, art and thought permeated into every aspect of Roman life. Horace once said “Graecia capta ferum victorim cepit et artis intulit agresti Latio” (“Conquered Greece has conquered the brute victor and brought her arts into rustic Latium”).

The future doesn’t just appear, it has to be invented. To invent you need the drive, the money, both of which China definitely has, and of course the imagination. Imagination is fuelled by learning, and the best way to learn is to copy. However, one thing is to copy products, labeling, stores, or uniforms. Copying the ideals, values or aspirations is not that easy.

China does have real IKEA stores, especially in the wealthier coastal and southern cities, in Beijing and Shanghai. So if you want the real deal, you can have it, but you would need to have your purchase shipped. Why the hassle when you can have 11 Furniture? IKEA has said wisely that the best thing to prevent such stores from opening in the future is to open more stores and make IKEA products available to more people. So in the end, maybe having fake stores isn’t that bad after all. 11 Furniture and the fake Apple stores did breach intellectual property rights but they also brought free publicity for Apple and IKEA. They also showed there is demand for their products. If anything, they simply paved the way for the American and Swedish brands, giving customers just a taste and creating anticipation for the real thing.

(To read the original article, published in Nov 2011, in PDF: Hungry for the Real Thing)