Digital Placemaking Regeneration

Four big themes from Future PropTech 2019

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Four people sit on a stage in conversation in front of a projected background of their profiles

Future PropTech 2019 – described as “the world’s No.1 PropTech event” – took place on May 14th at Islington’s Business Design Centre. It’s aim, according to founder Gary Chimwa, was to “bring startup founders and professional services together with tech companies to co-create the present and the future of real estate”.

Keen to learn (and contribute), Calvium’s Jo Morrison and Kieron Gurner spent the day among 2,000 other attendees, taking in panel debates, keynotes, case studies, workshops, round tables, networking opportunities and an 80+-strong exhibition.

The event was packed with interesting and thought-provoking insights, but a few key themes began to emerge over the course of the day. Smart cities was one, exploring how our built environment is now part physical and part digital. Digital disruption was high on the agenda, as was its impact on service. Finally, was the role of community in these decisions and the impact places have on people.

To give you an example of these themes in action, here are some of our top insights from Future PropTech 2019.

Theme: Services

The first post-keynote talk of the day was from Elie Finegold, Venture Adviser at MetaProp NYC. Titled “Our Frictionless Future”, Finegold questioned the entire design and structure of our built environment. While automobiles have shaped our world and our cities to date, Elie contends that the next 25+ years will see huge disruption to the ways in which we travel and access things and therefore our relationship with the places we live.

Autonomous vehicles will undoubtedly have a greater role to play, e.g. drones and robots as well as driverless cars. We also live in a time of ‘radical mobility’: “We’ve come un-stuffed,” Finegold says. “The number of things we have has started to reduce – we don’t need shelves and tables and stacks of stuff. Now we just walk around with a smartphone.”

Added to that, we’re increasingly adopting an as-a-service economy. The “I’m not looking for the thing, I’m looking for a hole in the wall” mentality has brought us on-demand workspaces such as We, Industrious and Hana and services for many aspects of our lives such as Spotify, Netflix, Airbnb, Amazon Web Services and more. All this, he says, has “created a world where space and things have become disrupted.”

With all that in mind, he asked, how can we go about framing our relationships with our cities in different ways – building and using these spaces without the interpretation defined by the automobile?

He didn’t necessarily have all the answers, but he had some bold predictions:

  1. The city will be the network – Cities will find new ways to monetise their networks and infrastructures.
  2. Buildings will be the Google – A great deal of information is being aggregated around place: buildings will be surrounded by a plethora of data clouds. For real estate, investing in data collection and analytics will create new revenue streams.
  3. Service will beat ‘stuff’ – As capital equipment is able to move with transport, the service experience is more important than owning the “stuff”.
  4. Infrastructure rules: data + power – This, says Elie, will create a tremendous amount of power.
  5. Access beats storageA huge theme, says Elie: it’s important to think about this with value-add strategies for buildings. How do you create service mechanisms?

He concluded by asking whether cities would sprawl, or whether they would get closer together. The answer, he posited, would be driven by the fundamental economics of automated services and their expense.

High density drives capital investment, which drives high utilisation, which drives better living, which in turn drives more people which leads to higher density – and then the process starts all over again. In the next 5-30 years, as a result, he says, “bet on density”.

Four panelists sit in a semi-circle talking into microphones
From left to right: Sofia Hagen, Design Partner at DH Liberty; Gemma John, Founder & Director of Human Cities; Barry Jessup, Director at First Base; and Vanessa Lee Butz, Founder & CEO of District Technologies.

Theme: Community and inclusion

A more solid focus on placemaking came in the 12.20pm panel talk: “Placemaking – How to deliver commercial and community value”.

Comprising Vanessa Lee Butz, Founder & CEO of District Technologies; Gemma John, Founder & Director of Human Cities; Sofia Hagen, Design Partner at DH Liberty; and Barry Jessup, Director at First Base; the discussion touched on how placemaking “sets a community up for long term success” (Barry Jessup).

While the panel agreed that placemaking has become more challenging, they also agreed that the tools we now have to implement it are easier to apply – and that if we’re looking to enhance public participation, digital is the way forward. But, that comes with caveats, and a share of responsibility from placemakers to ensure spaces are for everyone. There are concerns, of course. Data was a large one. Social impact another. Both issues, the panel said, could be solved, in part, by collaboration and education.

Data can absolutely add value to the users of a place, by providing more personalised services and gathering usage data to improve the overall offering over time. But placemakers need to be careful about how they collect and use it. The public don’t always understand how or why their data is being used. The answer, could be in better explanations and a spirit of conversation towards the public about their data concerns.

With our Ideascape digital placemaking project for Porth Teigr, Calvium found that trust in the built environment industry was low amongst the public (a sentiment echoed in other sessions throughout the conference), but that increasing public awareness about plans for the spaces they inhabit and consulting them at the beginning of the project helped to regain some of that trust.

The panel were acutely aware of social impact in placemaking, and Barry Jessup suggested that the “real estate industry is terrible at measuring social impact”. This kind of attitude was iterated by several speakers, who seem to be pushing the built environment industry towards collaboration and openness, which has been (or is being) embraced by the tech industry already. It was great to see this meeting of approaches start to flourish.

The panel cited the another concern – that older people need to be actively brought back into our city centres and lifestyles to benefit the whole of society. The theme of inclusion – of ideas and opinions – was mentioned in various sessions throughout the day, showing that there’s a growing awareness and interest in collaboration. Communities are the ultimate users of places, so let’s hope this push towards sharing and listening continues and brings the benefits of a user-led approach to the built environment.

Theme: Smart cities

Smart cities were another topic that cropped up throughout the day, and we particularly enjoyed the afternoon panel discussion on “Smart Cities & Urban Mobility”. Exploring smart city technology and its potential impact on real estate, the session was introduced by Hannah Griffiths, Senior Consultant for Smart Cities at Arup, who described the term “smart city” as “always much-hyped, but who knows what it means?”

On the panel was Julie Alexander – formerly of Siemens, now Director of Technology and Innovation at Places for People. She agreed with Griffiths in a sense. In short, smart cities are full of potential, but a lack of collaboration, joined up thinking and awareness are all issues.

“The technology has advanced significantly and there are great solutions coming onto the market,” she said. “But customers don’t know how to adopt those solutions. What I see now is lots of great ideas, but these ideas aren’t pieced together.”

“Cities are a collaboration between the public and private sectors,” said Alexander. For this reason, she highlighted that it can be a challenge to procure certain solutions: different organisations will work in their own silos, while it can also be a challenge to ascertain who is the customer: who buys the technology, and who benefits?

Five people sit in a row on a stage, in front of a projected screen with their profiles on it.Improving the housing supply panel. From left to right: Susan Freeman, Mishcon de Reya; Stefan Webb, The Connected Places Catapult; Darren Rodwell, London Borough of Barking & Dagenham; Mark Farmer, Cast; Tom Eshelby, Stelling Properties.

The major challenge, she said, is the fragmentation in its ecosystem. Getting everyone to understand the value of smart city tech can be a struggle – and ascertaining ownership also proves problematic.

The solution she proposed was a complete overhaul in business models. Today, she said, everything is seen as a service – and we need to provide solutions that will resonate with people, that will allow for multipoint solutions and that will improve overall service provision.

As a final question, Griffiths asked, ‘How can we use smart city data to plan for the future?’ Again, Julie believed here that a new approach is needed. “I think at the moment we’re not using it, probably because we don’t know how to use it. We need to move the data on to the urban property team through design. We need to establish how designers and architects might use the data: could knowing how people want to use buildings feed into the design of future places? We also need to understand what data we have, how it supports customers, and how we can bring teams together to share the insights it affords us with.”

Theme: Data

Data was a key theme of the morning open collaboration panel on “The challenges & opportunities for real estate leaders”.

The panel consisted of Altus Group CEO, Robert Courteau; MRI Software CEO, Patrick Ghilani; Aberdeen Standard Investments Global Head of Real Estate Business Platform, Claire George; Palmer Capital Director of Innovation, Darryll Colthrust and Pi Labs Managing Partner, Dominic Wilson. A big talking point was the role of open data in digital disruption.

Courteau (also on the board of SideWalk Labs in Toronto) talked about the effects of open data on competition: “Everyone wants to see other people’s data but not share their own. The software providers are moving away from the single stack, believing in connectivity and APIs. How do you differentiate in a world where there is mass connectivity, but where you as a business, at the same time, want to retain your USP?

“If there is no IP,” he continued. “and we can share data across systems, there would potentially be a big problem. Some companies use data to provide a competitive edge for their business – with no IP around that, the competitive edge would be lost.”

A panel of four people on a circular stage in the centre of the audience - all speakers facing slightly different directions, sat below a projected screen with their profiles
(Left to right) Pat Ghilani, Rob Courteau, Dominic Wilson, Claire George and Darryll Colthrust (standing) talking on a panel about open collaboration

Dominic Wilson agreed, stating that, “open data is a direction of travel, but the challenge is that it can diminish returns on a competitive basis for some tech companies”.

Claire George at Aberdeen Standard Investments described her company’s outlook on data as a middle ground: “There’s a lot of data that we would never share, so we will maintain some proprietary datasets, but we can share other types of data”. She highlighted the need for a tool to make this type of sharing as easy as possible: “we need software packages to have open architecture so that companies can transfer data around”.

Businesses need to work hard to make this type of data sharing possible. “It’s important to adopt infrastructure in formats that allow information to flow, so that data can be accessed in a centralised location,” said Patrick Ghilani, pointing to plug-and-play solutions as an option. And as well as choosing the right infrastructure, the data itself needs to be managed in the right way. “Sort out basic management of the data within the systems in order to drive efficiencies across the business,” added Claire George.

A centralised database wouldn’t be a database, per se – more the creation of standard data formats that businesses could use, and the development of the tools required to share this data. As Dominic said, “The way that real estate is looked at and valued will be different in the future. At the moment, assets are valued in one way, but those that harness data will be able to leverage more data from the assets that they own. There will be greater opportunity for those who treat their assets as businesses, and not shells with capital values”.

Of course, as per the first session, there is another side to this coin, the people that live and work in these cities. Ownership, usage and analysis of citizen data has to, in our opinion, be communicated and agreed with the citizens themselves. People need to be aware of what companies are collecting and how they are using it.

Conclusion

Future PropTech 2019 was a day packed with some truly interesting talks – and a great awareness of the big disruptive issues to come. Job displacement due to autonomous tech, machine learning and 5G (which in turn will enable the Internet of Things to be more widely adopted) were all on the agenda – even if, as yet, answers are still needed.

It’s clear that the property industry is on the cusp of collaboration, and the tech industry is primed to court that. Around 40 proptech vendors were in attendance, with some giving talks about their services, which were met with much praise and interest.

But while it’s clear that tech can certainly propel the industry forward, it’s a solution for which awareness, education and smart partnerships are required. Rather than focusing on a specific technology (which can be a nice marketing story, if you’re an early adopter), the focus should be on the experience and value provided to the end consumer. Without the ability to demonstrate lasting value, the impact and legacy – or the potential to expand – will be stifled.

Open collaboration, as many shared, is the only way to get meaningful results. But before this collaboration can happen, it’s vital to find a trusted partner who has the experience you need to guide you through the innovation process.

And at Calvium, we’re here to help. Take a look at some of our recent work to find out how.