Bright copper skin shines along the sweeping arm of a building on the new Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation campus at the edge of Seattle Center. The brilliant surface seems to reflect the weight of world hopes and of distinctly regional ambitions. For as the largest charitable foundation in the world gives away about $3 billion a year to improve global health, fight poverty and advance education, and as it influences politics and policies on every continent, its impressive, highly visible new headquarters is likely to become a continuous reinforcing thread within the fabric of civic life in Seattle.
Officially, the foundation will open the doors of its NBBJ-designed headquarters next spring. World leaders will visit. Global experts will convene in Seattle’s civic front yard and make decisions that will resonate for decades. Foundation staff, who will number about 1,200 by the time the doors open, will constitute a talented pool of altruistic, dedicated high achievers, hand-picked from among the brightest minds in the world. Consolidated on one campus from five dispersed locations, they will carry volunteer energy and leadership into schools, charitable organizations and other causes across a wide swath of public life.
The headquarters could become the sort of economic engine envied by any met ropolitan area in a struggling economy. Development leaders here see jobs, investment and networks of interconnected endeavors in life sciences and technology flowing from the foundation’s simple vision of a world in which all people lead healthy, productive lives. Already, for-profit companies that make clever cost-saving devices for use in the developing world are finding ways to modify these devices and sell them to developed markets. One such company, Micronics Inc. of Redmond, specializes in fast-reading diagnostic tools. The Gates Foundation gave the company grants to develop technology to perform diagnoses in rural areas of developing countries, but Micronics CEO Karen Hedine says that such technology will likely appeal to consumers in the United States and Europe as well. The company is already selling products that provide nearly instant blood-typing results.
In short, what Microsoft did in making Seattle synonymous with computer software, the Gates Foundation may do for global well being and philanthropy. The modest, low-slung buildings of the new campus could become the distinguishing symbol of a family foundation that once labored quietly in the background, shunning the spotlight.
As economic recovery proceeds slowly, perhaps even imperceptibly in some sectors, there are those who see global development as a remarkably healthy and strategic part of the city’s economic mix. They would like to capitalize on Seattle’s image as a place that knows how to do business in overseas markets. And beyond the purely economic desire for jobs and investment, they see an opportunity to embrace altruism itself.
Bob Aylward, executive vice president for business operations with the Seattle Mariners, has become a passionate cheerleader and says he hopes to do good for the world by helping promote Seattle as a center of global-health advancement and philanthropy. Aylward is one of a handful of civic leaders who’ve joined together on a project to link the global-health sector to the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair in 2012. “There’s an opportunity to put our shoulder to the wheel and grow the awareness of our city and be the best,” Aylward says. His committee, Global Health Nexus, is working with the Washington Global Health Alliance, an advocacy organization that helps its members collaborate on projects.