Mobil Oil and Long-range Planning

Publication Date
October 4, 2018

In the Mobil Oil Corporation’s 1968 Annual Report (a corporate genre more inclined to cataloging recent triumphs than projecting speculative futures), an announcement to its employees and shareholders presented a somewhat amended organizational practice. Extending its vision beyond the five-year intervals normally used to project business cycles and plan its operations, Mobil would now begin “probing into the more distant future.” In doing so, it endeavored to “comprehend technological, social, economic, governmental, and population factors” up to 30 years in advance. Seeking to actualize this [1]vision, it established an entire department for the purpose of forecasting and planning, the Long-Range Analysis and Strategy Group. As presented, its specific prerogatives – methods, targets, and mandates – remained unclear. Yet its goal was explicit: the effective management of change in an energy landscape increasingly beset by the destabilizing forces of scarcity, regulatory control, and geopolitical crisis.

Demonstrating how it had already made significant inroads to this long-range strategic planning project, Mobil highlighted what it considered its most promising tool in the attainment of this goal: architecture and, more precisely, land development. In doing so, the company recognized a heretofore unseen value in its far-flung and varied assets, which included port facilities and marine terminals on sea-hugging parcels. The first structure to go up in this program was a Hong Kong housing project, built in 1966 on land formerly occupied by just such a logistical site. The Mei Foo Sun Chuen facility featured seven groups of 20-story apartment blocks to accommodate up to 80,000 people and incorporated a central liquefied petroleum gas system for heating and cooking needs on site. Whereas later planning developments by Mobil would emphasize the total environmental system built through their efforts, early iterations of this strategy showed an intention to integrate the complete architectural and energy components of the Mobil corporate family within and under a single enclosure. The building could thus consume the company’s own products and implicate them in the domestic sphere, all while connecting the structure to a larger network of commodity infrastructures.

The Long-Range Analysis “strategy group” dedicated to visioning the company’s future assumed various identities over its lifetime. By the early 1970s, it had incorporated Mobil Oil Estates Ltd. a subsidiary operating out of Vancouver, British Columbia – later to be called the Mobil Land Development Corporation (MLDC) in a rhetorical revision indicative of its efforts at the time. Integral to its mission was the utilization of creative planning techniques to construct quality housing, all while protecting the environment (to say nothing of its externalized primary production material). Serving as a paragon of this model was Redwood Shores, a residential community 20 miles south of San Francisco. Rolling hills, man-made lagoons, and the sounds of thriving wildlife set the stage for Mobil’s conservationist development within a tract of land it had purchased in 1973. According to the company’s own Mobil World magazine, it had used an array of technologies including U-2 reconnaissance aircraft and satellite photography to determine what “the land should tell us to do.”[2] Responsive development would proceed in line with urbanization trends and landscape topography in a manner directed by socio–natural forces. The oil company would enlist the expertise of not only architects and economists, but biologists, environmentalists, and community groups to accomplish this task. The Redwood Shores model of ecologized oil-led development would serve as the testing ground for ideas to be implemented across the country and around the world – better cities everywhere by virtue of oil.

Architecture, then, became one of the energy company’s primary instruments in its so-called long-range plan. A long-range plan, it’s worth noting here, was thought to be a continuous process undertaken with incomplete knowledge of future conditions, and an acknowledgement of the potential for business objectives to change. While a timeline is to be defined from the start, the plan would always renew itself at various points along the way. The process “never reaches its completion date and is never finished” – an always unfolding object of corporate optimization.[3] For companies with high rates of fixed capital investment, generally those related to the extraction of raw materials, planning cycles would be longer than for those whose products were nonepochal. The durability of oil industry assets required extended forethought in the face of uncertain conditions. That architecture would be the instrument of choice for such a wholly flexible plan is perhaps less surprising when one recalls that the material foundation of the oil business was thought to be nigh at hand. The energy crisis of 1973 put the lie to the industry’s terra firma of infinite resources; architecture rebuilt this ground.

The only constant within this unpredictable field of operations, it seemed, was the pace of “environmental change.” Yet this environmental change had little to do with the terrestrial or atmospheric. The environment here instead referred to the total system of business investment, organizational structure, and diversified ventures – in other words, the ecology of capital. In maintaining the profusion of consumer goods and their global circulation, business had to comply with the exigent demands of scale and complexity. In the same way that the public was beginning to recognize the interrelated character of natural systems, oil industry executives and others saw the business environment as one that needed sensitive recalibration according to a determinable structure. Learning to regard complexity as a key area of expertise would ensure the efficient distribution of resources to avoid strain. Coupling this attendance to change with the commitment by executives to elongated growth horizons would therefore be the surest path to survival. Furthermore, environmental “audits” could ascertain imminent threats to the corporate body and suggest areas for preemptive change.[4]

For Mobil Oil, then, architecture neatly connected multiple spheres of the environment and projected them into the future: the corporation’s apparent environmental ethos built into form; its unavoidable reliance on a transformed natural material; and the larger business environment it inhabited. The history of Mobil’s architectural and landscape interventions suggest the powerful, that is to say, energetic, potentialities of built space in managing or responding to risk. As Ulrich Beck presciently pointed out, risk constitutes the “systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself.”[5] Hedging these risks through the timescales of architecture, Mobil displaced its faith in the geological towards the merely spatial. Had they looked far enough into the future, the company might have seen our current climate crisis coming.

[1] Mobil Oil Corporation Annual Report, 1968, ExxonMobil Historical Collection, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas – Austin: 2.207/F190. Environmental considerations are conspicuously absent from this roundup.

[2] David Burke, “Redwood Shores,” Mobil World, Vol. 41, No. 4, April 1975.

[3] H.F. Robert Perrin, Focus the Future: An Introduction to Long Range Corporate Planning (London: Management Publications Limited, 1971): 3.

[4] Ibid, 10-14.

[5] Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (London: Sage Publications, 1992): 21.

Publication Date
October 4, 2018
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