Don’t be a turkey, get on the commercial property gravy train

Last week, the RICS Commercial Property conference tackled the biggest issues impacting the built environment sector, arming delegates with fragments of the formula for future success. The morning CEO Question Time panel put a trio of CEOs in the spotlight. In addition to airing concerns about the current political climate, rapidly shifting societal attitudes, diversity and inclusion, the ageing population coupled with the ongoing housing shortage, climate change and the complexities involved in exploring new business models to drive and diversify revenue, they all zoomed in on the accelerated pace of change we’re witnessing, crowning it the key challenge for today’s C-suite.

The Crown Estate’s Alison Nimmo claimed “change isn’t cyclical, it’s seismic – what’s going to work in the future is going to be different to what’s worked in the past.” Fellow panellist Robert Noel of Landsec commented that the property industry has to figure out how to blend tech and human behaviour – “tech is changing the way we do everything, and it’s changed beyond recognition,” he said. “Every business is going to have to be become a digital business.”

Nimmo suggested that in the face of enforced transformation, organisations must first consider the ‘value add’ and they must, above all else, remain true to their sense of purpose – “focus on what adds value to your customers,” she urged. For Noel, sustainability is not necessarily about faddism, or the latest gizmo, it’s about how a business can be in existence and healthy in 10 years’ time. Both suggested leaders have to think through all the noise and just focus on where they’re going and how they’re going to get there.

To that end, Shaftesbury’s Brian Bickell stressed that the industry has to ride the tidal wave of technology that’s crashing down on the market. If it remains passive, just getting swept along, it will eventually drown. In addition to pleading the audience to not be ‘property people’ (“try to think like our retailers, our restaurateurs, our workforce…”), Bickell argued the case for strong, multi-skilled leadership. Nimmo agreed. “We’re investing and hiring people and very few of them are chartered surveyors,” she said, “they’re analysts, place-makers, experiential engineers… that’s how we need to pivot and reshape our business in the new world.”


An eye to the future

Before we pivot, we need to understand what this new world really looks like. Antony Slumbers’ technology round-up was not only one of the stand-out sessions of the day, but it also painted a picture of the future using the present as its canvas. Channelling Kai-Fu Lee, Slumbers’ presentation flagged the venture capitalist’s take on the future of artificial intelligence – “AI algorithms will be to many white-collar workers what tractors were to farmhands”.

Stressing AI’s capabilities – its ability to reason, predict, plan, and aggregate and synthesise complex data sets – Slumbers argued that any work deemed repeatable, structured or predictable will be automated in the not-too-distant future, freeing up us humans to do what we do best – create, design, innovate and inject empathy into everything we do. “AI and machine learning will fundamentally change command, everything will be driven by design, and the user experience will be paramount,” said Slumbers. It’s a ‘winner takes all’ market, he concluded, but man and machines have to work together.

On the other side of the conference theatre’s walls, there are massive developments within the realms of AI and machine learning (ML). Only this month it was announced that UK digital transformation firm Mitra Innovation has joined forces with Amazon Web Services (AWS) Marketplace for Machine Learning to demonstrate and democratise AI’s capabilities to the wider market by offering pre-packaged, ‘off-the-shelf’ ML algorithms. This is testament to Slumbers’ remark that AI is becoming a commodity. All businesses, including those in the property arena, can exploit technological innovation to their advantage.

Of the Mitra / AWS announcement, Mitra’s CEO, Ashok Suppiah, was quoted to have said – “AI is progressing at a phenomenal pace but I think it’s fair to argue that the majority of businesses are yet to leverage the speed, the power and the intelligence that comes with it – and this is down to the fact that AI’s lifeblood is data. If you do not have the data, you cannot extract any business intelligence, regardless of how clever the robots are getting. That’s a key problem for today’s corporate world.”


Many offices are not fit for purpose

And, as the speakers as part of the RICS conference sang in unison, this is a key problem for the property industry. Leesman’s Tim Oldman, one of the afternoon panellists, attributed this lack of data to the fact that a scary proportion of corporate offices are not fit for purpose. It’s a relatively simple idea, argued Oldman – create spaces that offer people an awesome day at work while allowing them to fulfil the requirements of their role. But that’s not happening as per the data from 3,000 workplaces worldwide. “Only 64% of 425,000 employees globally can agree their workplace allows them to work productively,” said Oldman. “Tenants need to push back on poor products”.

The onus is on the property industry to collaborate with their tenants. As part of an afternoon panel debate, focusing on technology and the future role of the agent, Kontor’s James Townsend said, “like all professional services, we’re not great at managing our data. Data management is a huge issue. Tech can help.”

Elsewhere, firms have argued that we’re looking at tech in the wrong way. Lewis Richards, chief digital officer at Atalian Servest, is one of them. He has been tasked with developing the facilities management company’s technology-led workspace solutions, allowing the firm to provide a seamless FM and mobile technology offering to its global client base. Richards argues it’s about developing capabilities based on overarching mega trends that the world is bearing witness to. For him, it’s not about starting from scratch, nor is it tech for tech’s sake. It is about developing situational awareness skills inside the business to be able to map technologies for the market needs.

The name of the game is to drive efficiency of service, and that all-important element of experience, by first understanding how people interact with their physical, virtual and social infrastructures, and then by using that understanding to build tomorrow’s future using yesterday’s technology. With the breakneck pace of technological advancement, what’s new today won’t be new tomorrow after all. Data will help shape what we do. It will help make things simpler and more efficient. But first we have to ask the right questions.

It seems the property industry is enjoying its light bulb moment. There is definitely the recognition that tech and data can be used to leverage efficiency, that it can help create and manage environments that make people want to come to work by enhancing the employee experience, and that it can support organisations, enabling them to be flexible, adaptable and resilient to a whole host of political and economic unsteadiness. With wellbeing once again on the agenda, it seems tech can even help safeguard the nation’s health. Blending man and machine capabilities will change the world as we know it. But, before that can happen, we need to look at the building blocks that will help us capitalise on tech’s promise, starting with the biggest brick – data.


Jo Sutherland is Associate Director at Magenta Associates and board member of the International Facility Management Association (IFMA) UK Chapter.