I was supposed to go to Cannes, France in March, and then maybe in June, for the annual MIPIM event. Instead, I ended up engaging with the event virtually, trading the South of France for my one-bedroom apartment in Madison, WI. I realize that, given everything going on, this doesn’t really register on the list of things to be upset about, but, as we all continue to use our homes as offices and classrooms, it seemed like a relevant thing to complain about in a conversation about PropTech and real estate in the time of COVID-19.
At a recent virtual MIPIM event — this one meant to take place in New York City — real estate leaders participated in a webinar to discuss how technology will impact the future of the industry, and inevitably, questions about the lasting impact of the pandemic, which has changed the way we interact with physical spaces, came up.
Like many others deeply familiar with the technology sector, Michael Phillips, principal and president of real estate investment and management company Jamestown, pointed out that COVID-19 accelerated a number of technologies that were already “in the works,” such as frictionless building access and the increase in the “monitoring of bodies.”
“Technology is an incredible tool,” he said during the webinar, but when it comes to what the future holds for PropTech, he added, “I think the jury is still out. We’ll know more in 12 months.”
He did go on to say that there are some trends that can be extrapolated, such as more localized working and shopping trends as people seek to avoid transportation.
As Phillips mentioned, contactless building access, such as keycards, smartphone access or smart locks, is one of the most obvious ways in which Proptech can offer a valuable solution in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Again, this trend was already emerging before the pandemic, but interest is only accelerating as people are now wearier of door handles.
At last year’s MIPIM PropTech NYC event, I spoke (face-to-face!) with the Co-Founder and President of Openpath James Segil about his company’s keyless access control product that grants access to a building via the user’s smartphone. He said that people want reduced friction and that “they want a safer environment.”
When he referenced safety back then, he meant security. But, now, employees and tenants want to feel safe from infection, so while a keyless product had merit a year ago, it has even more today.
Other possible trends in real estate include the implementation of non-contact infrared thermometers, like we’re seeing in parts of Asia, which are placed in building entry ways and are used to measure the body temperatures of those entering. This technology is particularly useful in large, public spaces like airports, but its popularity could grow in the coming months as people begin to trickle back to offices and other locations.
In fact, in May, the Wall Street Journal reported that RXR Realty, which owns Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan, will be installing thermal cameras to monitor employees as they return to work in the 32-story office building.
Even the materials used to construct surfaces might change. According to a scientific study, a hybrid of metallic materials like zinc and silver can help reduce the transmission of bacteria when used on high-touch surfaces.
While Winston Fisher, a partner at Fisher Brothers, agreed during the webinar that “post-COVID change is coming,” he also called the belief that everybody will continue to work from home when it’s all — or mostly — over “honestly silly.”
“That’s just not the way we interact,” he said, maintaining that the office real estate market will continue to be critical moving forward.
For him, the future is about “data, data, data,” regardless of the impact of the pandemic. “What’s the data gathering of real estate? That’s the future. What does it mean to have a smart building can manage energy consumption?” he provided. “We really need to be thinking about […] how AI robotics and automation will have dramatic impacts on real estate.”