Is Digital Finally Real in Commercial Real Estate?

With the recent Realcomm conference still fresh in my mind, I wanted to share my thoughts on what I saw and my takeaways. It happened to be Realcomm’s 20th anniversary and the event was a great indicator of the changes happening in CRETech. Being at the conference reminded me that there is a great community of industry leaders pushing the envelope on leveraging technology to drive great business outcomes.

In a nutshell, the biggest themes were digital, innovation and IOT, with AI sprinkled throughout. The commercial real estate industry has traditionally been a laggard in the adoption of innovative technologies, but that’s changing. Though some digital adoption had been occurring, I’m only now seeing a deeper understanding of the broader integration capabilities needed to drive full adoption. Fully embracing the cloud, pushing mobile capabilities, and leveraging data were already there in some fashion, but I wasn’t previously seeing a real understanding of the user experience, an API mindset, nor agile thinking.

This year, examples of digital strategies and related vendor pitches on this were more prevalent than ever. While it’s clear not every company is really creating and driving a true digital strategy, the underpinnings of these themes were discussed more by the investment managers and owners than they ever used to be. Additionally, the larger, legacy CRETech vendors are finally delivering more open API’s to support the deeper integrations needed to leverage the ever-growing point solutions. Here, the legacy vendors are being pushed by the continued explosion in CRETech startups that are attacking each segment of the built wall industry. These innovative, easy to use and open applications are forcing the legacy vendors to pivot, finally realizing that they can’t always own the whole stack. The startups are coming out with products that are much easier to use with a big focus on the user experience and open API’s, something the legacy vendors never understood.

The larger players still have a long way to go on becoming truly agile though, as their release cycles are way too long. That’s still a reflection of their cobbled together technology approach, but they are trying.

Lastly on this theme, a big shout out for Yardi’s acquisition of Phoenix Broadband, a co-working technology firm. Co-working is a trend that is here to stay beyond WeWork, with most owners and landlords creating their own space-as- a-service environments. The Medus service platform caters to this need and Yardi was smart in getting in early.

Internet of Things (IOT): The Smart Building concept has been talked about for 10+ years, but a broad and integrated IOT ecosystem was always difficult and expensive. It’s now becoming real with an increased focus on the personalized experience, a greater availability of domain specific cloud solutions, the plummeting cost of sensors, the growing capabilities of edge devices, the broader move to an IOT subscription model, and the proliferation of CRETech startups attacking every segment.  There’s still a plethora of point solutions though and there is a lot of work to do on the security requirements. Just look at the recently hacked casino that was attacked via a connected fish tank thermometer in their lobby!

SmartCities and the App First World– Companies like Citylink.AI are pushing the limits of location based marketing and experiences, pushed by the IOT, digital and AI forces. With an app based world that is now being broadly adopted within the workplace, the employee and tenant based experience apps are taking off. Like the new CBRE 360 occupier and tenant services and app, many companies are looking to consolidate the various point solutions, embracing the personalization of the space using AI. Understanding what services or rooms employees like to use, where they typically park, how they commute and the temperature they like their space at, the convergence of IOT, AI and mobile are finally fulfilling the Smart Building promise. For an industry that has historically been a laggard, and one where the promise of an IOT based Smart Building has been more promise than reality, adoption is great to see.

More broadly on AI, I’m a little biased here, having led the “AI in CRE” panel again this year, but there is no technology trend that is more real and useful to the real estate industry in my opinion. AI will augment our work, automating and performing manual tasks quicker, while helping to make better decisions and improving the decision process.  We’re very early in our ability to truly leverage AI, but there are many real use cases happening now as shown below and the industry is starting to get it. In an informal survey, 1/3 of the respondents last year were thinking of, or had rolled out an AI project. This year it was 50%, though that is still behind the larger 60-80% pilot/adoption rate more broadly. With companies like Leverton, Okapi, Capital Brain and others helping to bring AI into the CRE world, and with the growing democratization of AI, I’m confident the CRE industry will catch up. It’s the most important technology for augmenting and supporting the future of work, and those that are ahead of this trend can be early disruptors.

Congrats again to the Realcomm team on their 20th anniversary and I’m glad to finally see these digital and innovation themes being talked about more than before. With all the startup money coming into the real estate industry, it’s only a matter of time before the industry is truly on par with others, but the CRE industry is finally starting to catch up.