The Commercial Real Estate Industry Needs to do More in Leveraging Machine Learning

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Machine learning and other cognitive computing technologies remain the hot, disruptive solutions marketed and touted by every software company out there, as the amount of money coming into AI-related startups continues to outpace other segments. However, the resulting “hype” has created a lot of unfortunate noise about machine learning’s value, and some commercial real estate leaders are having trouble navigating the buzzwords as they try to understand what this really means for them. Despite the noise, the power that machine learning can bring to an organization is absolutely real, clear and demonstrable, augmenting how we work and personalizing our experiences as consumers and employees. Instead of using rules-based programs, machine learning does just what the name implies: it learns from data and history to provide insights and patterns that are not found with the normal business intelligence and other standard, legacy analytic programs. On top of that, some of the most impactful results are those that leverage data that is sourced and specific to a company, building, employee or region, thereby providing personalized results that are unique and actionable.

A report by Deloitte earlier this year revealed that early innovators leveraging machine learning, Natural Language Processing (NLP), computer vision and other cognitive technologies are already seeing business benefits. In the survey of 1,100 IT leaders, 55% said that their company’s adoption of AI has enabled them to increase their lead over competitors, with 9% stating that it actually enabled them to leapfrog ahead. That’s pretty compelling. So what about the commercial real estate industry? Is the industry taking advantage of the power that machine learning can bring? The answer is not yet.

This isn’t to say no one is leveraging any of the cognitive computing technologies—but its adoption has been limited at best. There are some wonderful machine learning solutions available today across all segments of the industry and I’ll name a few later, but first, why is the industry slow to adopt machine learning compared to other industries? Here are four big reasons:

  1. Data and knowledge intensive – The commercial real estate industry is fairly old compared to others, and it has historically been led by a relationship-driven, “run-on-my-gut” type of management, albeit with a relatively high success rate. That success rate feeds a legacy set of leaders that are skeptical of and resistant to change. Coupled with this, the industry truly runs on data but doesn’t have a great track record for compiling, housing, cleaning and leveraging that data. The legacy software applications were historically not open and did not support data integrations well, so consolidating the data took a lot of effort. This has been a major inhibitor in the industry moving as quickly as others in leveraging data and machine learning. That’s changing rapidly on the vendor side as new entrants provide more modern alternatives while pushing the legacy vendors, but there’s a lot of data already locked up in a myriad of systems across each company.
  2. Fragmented, with a myriad of legacy and modern applications – The industry has not attracted new software innovation in the past due to its heavy fragmentation (there are tens of thousands of owners, and even the biggest are relatively small compared to other industries). Though owning or investing in real estate sounds simple, the information needed to oversee and manage commercial real estate is fairly unique and broad (rent rolls, investor administration, complex lease terms, multiple regulatory agencies, tenant support, building operations, etc.) Therefore, it takes a collection of unique applications to meet end-to-end business needs, as there is no one application that truly meets all needs for every segment (commercial/multi-family, hotels, industrial, single family, geographical regions, etc.) On the positive side for machine learning, this fragmentation also adds to the volume of data that can be captured across the investment and operational lifecycle.
  3. Lack of attention to data quality – With all this data coming at every commercial real estate organization, very few have the data governance maturity needed to yield high quality data. A recent poll that I saw of fellow commercial real estate CIO’s showed that one of the biggest hesitations in moving forward with machine learning and similar technologies was a lack of confidence in their data quality. It’s not the only reason, but most CIO’s rightfully realize they need to have good data in order to achieve the best results.
  4. Resource constrained – On the earlier point that the industry is primarily made up of small- to medium-sized companies- this factor translates to organizations not having large employee bases, so they are inherently resource constrained. However, that is the catch-22 about machine learning, as it can make employees more efficient by automating the more mundane, operational tasks, freeing up more time to focus on customers and knowledge-based tasks. The employees will also be armed with new, data driven insights to carry out this work.

Ok, so now that we’ve reviewed why the industry has been slow to adopt, let’s focus on nine ways that machine learning can add business value to the commercial real estate industry, and some examples of companies that are already bringing value:

  1. Proactive and predictive insights on asset conditions and failures: One valuable use of machine learning that is getting traction and validation is the ability to more efficiently operate and manage a building’s physical assets and IoT devices. Specifically, the ability to convert the fault alerts produced by building equipment into actionable notifications, providing early warnings when important assets might be failing or need attention. There are a number of companies that filter through these warnings based on patterns and historical resolutions, while some are also looking more broadly to include other data points—such as work order history or manufacturer/device history—to identify and predict when an asset is in danger of failing. Fixing or replacing a piece of hardware proactively is much more cost-effective and incurs less employee impact, so predicting when an asset might fail can be beneficial. Some of the companies addressing these issues are BuildingIQ, Enertiv, and Switch Automation.
  2. Gaining proactive insights into tenant space needs, operational issues and other factors affecting NOI: Most of the “insights” available today are via operational applications or traditional business intelligence tools. That’s great for understanding what happened in the past, but these tools are not ideal for helping predict what might happen next. They are also not good at leveraging the disparate sets of data available in providing proactive property and tenant insights. By combining both internally sourced data (workorder, lease expiration’s and terms, parking, a/r, etc.) and external data (weather, tenant growth metrics, etc.), Okapi is one company actually using machine learning to provide insights in this manner for commercial and multi-family, while diffe.rent and home365 are a few examples in the single family space.
  3. Occupancy and space utilization, and the personalization of the workplace: Understanding an office’s space utilization patterns is one of the most impactful, but less optimized functions of a corporate real estate organization, with the biggest issue being the ability to easily understand how office spaces get used on a daily basis. As companies fight for talent with an increasingly agile workforce and with spaces that support activity-based work (places for concentrated work, phone calls, meetings, casual conversations, collaboration, etc.), this challenge has become ever more important to solve. Understanding and predicting usage is important to ensure that space is being used optimally in enabling employee productivity, while helping identify future opportunities to support growth. Machine learning can analyze a disparate set of data coming from sensors, room booking, badging, and other siloed sources and highlight usage patterns that might be unique to a specific building, region or department. A few companies playing in this area are Digital Spaces, Density, and Vergesense.
  4. Enhanced tenant and employee engagement: One of the biggest trends in commercial real estate is the explosion of employee and tenant-facing apps that aim to connect users to the services and communities that matter most. They support conference room booking, facility and work order requests, class registrations, ride hailing, cafe menus, and many other features that are increasingly expected by today’s employees. The more sophisticated apps leverage machine learning and historical data to suggest specific conference rooms, advise of non-bookable working spaces that might become open, or recommend class registrations or specific parking spaces, among other tasks. It may not sound like much, but any friction or key strokes you can remove from an employee’s day go a long way in their job satisfaction. Some examples of these technologies are CBRE’s HostWorkwell, and HqO, to name a few.
  5. Insights into property valuations and buying opportunities: The selling price for commercial real estate has many factors, so determining the best value for an asset, or highlighting underpriced assets, are great examples of where machine learning can add value. Most buyers use discounted cash flow and other financial models to help determine an asset’s current value, so the more accurate an assumption is on rent growth, occupancy, and market rents and demand, the better the valuation model will be. In 2018, there was more than $562 billion worth of commercial real estate transactions in the U.S. alone, and this large transaction volume offers a treasure trove of data and information. It’s a lot easier said than done, but companies like skyline and others are developing machine learning algorithms that offer investors and partners access to the sophisticated insights machine learning can offer.
  6. Computer vision: Computer vision is leveraging machine learning against images and videos for insights, and it’s an area that is early but one that will be very transformative for real estate over time. Computer vision is also used by robots that can navigate and monitor both indoor and outdoor spaces in various ways. There are many use cases in production today (I’ve lumped them together for simplicity) such as occupancy counts, identifying demographics of shoppers, security notifications on crowd gatherings, license plate and visitor blacklisting, employee building access, employee or tenant sentiment, and even early warning notifications to law enforcement when an active shooter first brings out a gun. Though there are real concerns about privacy when not used properly (a larger topic on AI ethics that needs its own summary), the technology is there and already in use. Companies like trueface, aegis, Knightscope, ambient ai, and Cobalt Robotics are just a few examples.
  7. Automating the lease abstraction process: Real Estate is one of the most document-intensive industries, so it makes sense to leverage machine learning to automate some of these unique processes. The lease abstraction process in particular, is manual with the non-standardized use of leases across the industry, along with the variation of terms and clauses found in every lease. By utilizing NLP, a form of machine and deep learning that analyzes words and context from history to take actions, the lease abstraction process can be augmented to improve efficiencies and lower expenses. Leverton was one of the early pioneers in the industry and were recently bought by MRI, while DealSum is another. However, most of the cloud platform players have advanced NLP capabilities, with Google being one of the leaders in this arena with their Document Sense product. We are very early in this segment, as labeling is complex and time consuming, but it is one that has high ROI opportunities for the larger firms with a high volume of leases.
  8. Automating the work request process: Most facility management applications can be cumbersome and time consuming to create a ticket, since many of the applications require multiple inputs (location, request type, urgency, description, etc.) to process and assign the ticket. To improve and simplify the user experience, NLP models can leverage the words used in historical requests to automate the process, requiring only a basic description of the problem. Machine learning programs can learn from the language used to describe a problem, taking words like “water leak,” “broken handle,” “coffee spill” and other words used in previous requests to assist and automate the creation and assignment of the ticket. Most work order systems today don’t yet have this capability built in, but I’ve personally been involved in the development of similar work efforts that leverage some wonderful machine learning platforms like Google’s GCP AI products and Microsoft’s Azure AI.
  9. Leveraging chatbots to interact with tenants or employees: This last example of machine learning is actually one that is the most pervasive and real use case across all industries today. Known more formally as “conversational AI,” chatbots and virtual assistants leverage machine learning and historical data to automate the most redundant, typical and time-consuming requests carried out by employees. You’ve likely come across a chatbot while visiting a website, or maybe you’ve “chatted” with “someone” via web support, when in fact it very well could have been a chatbot. The beauty of a chatbot is that it’s always on and waiting, and it can handle the first level interactions that cover the majority of requests. Developed properly, they can escalate the issue to a live person if a question isn’t being answered or upon request by a user. In commercial real estate, chatbots have been deployed to answer tenant questions and resolve facility issues, with just two examples being the Bengie app from Building Engines and CBRE’s host.

This is just a short list of some of the machine learning use cases and companies being leveraged today, but I hope it provides insight into what is possible and the business value that machine learning can provide. Over time, these and other capabilities will become more mainstream in the commercial real estate technology world. For now, it’s the early innovators that are ahead of the game and leading the pack.  Are you one of them?