Technology, cybernetics, and the importance of innovation were at the heart of the final day of ULI Asia Pacific’s REImagine virtual conference.

Keynote speaker Dr. Catherine Ball, a scientific futurist, spoke about the importance of using systems-led thinking to build better cities and spaces. She introduced the audience to the concept of cybernetics, which she defined as “the triangle of humans, technology, and the environment.” She noted that many ULI members, especially architects and engineers, might realize they have been working inside cybernetics but had never really thought of it like that. A building in a city or a city’s streets can be seen as cybernetic systems.

Ball also spoke about the importance of innovation. “I recently presented to some [corporate] directors in New Zealand,” she said, “and asked them if they had a risk committee. Of course, 100 percent did. However, far fewer had an innovation committee.” Yet innovation and risk are two sides of the same coin, she argued.

One of the key human skills is problem-solving, however we need to be better at identifying problems in order to apply solutions, which may already exist, she said. Systematic thinking is required to apply technology to problem-solving. Cybernetics can be an active way of looking at problem identification and problem solving, thinking about a project in terms of technology, humans, and the environment.

She asked people involved in development projects to consider the phrase converge, diverge, emerge. Developers and planners should look at how the technologies they use are converging and how they help build a better city. Divergence refers to the separation of technologies, which might include leaving it out, for example leaving green space apart in cities rather than trying to integrate green space into buildings. Finally, emerging technologies need to be considered because they “are changing everything about how we’re going to live, work and play in the next few years.”

Ball is one of the world’s leading experts on the applications of drone technology and postulated a future in which drone charging stations might become a feature of all major buildings in the future, as gargoyles were on medieval buildings in Europe.

Another way to think systematically about projects or problems is to consider what is possible, what is probably, and what is preferable, she said. “If you can think about the possible, probable, and the preferable, it will give you a futurist point of view on how we try and think about the future and how it’s coming.”

The second part of the program looked at how ULI member firms in Asia Pacific are innovating and integrating technology into their businesses. Sven Sylvester, corporate innovation lead at Taronga Ventures, presented the results of a joint survey with ULI Asia Pacific, to understand was how different real estate organizations are structured to deliver innovation.

The survey found that 60 percent of companies had established a technology team and that just over half (53 percent) of these said their innovation strategy met or exceeded their expectations. Meanwhile 36 percent of respondents said their firm has established an innovation team, but a much higher proportion (89 percent) of these said their innovation strategy met or exceeded their expectations, suggesting a dedicated innovation strategy was advisable. However, only 20 percent of firms had appointed a chief innovation officer.

The survey found that 62 percent of firms are already partnering with tech companies, 42 percent were developing new tech products internally, and 35 percent were directly investing in tech companies. The key areas for innovation for respondents were data analytics, cited by 63 percent, project management (62 percent), and transaction management (61 percent). However only 27 percent were innovating to source capital, which Sylvester suggested showed an opportunity for the industry.

Perhaps understandably, the biggest obstacle to innovation was resistance to change, cited by 53 percent of respondents, as well as “business-as-usual conflicts,” i.e., innovation having to compete with everyone’s day job. Lack of resources for innovation was only cited by 28 percent, however.

A panel of real estate professionals discussed the findings of the report and agreed that education and communication was crucial to creating an innovative company as was having KPIs which encouraged innovative behavior.  The education process also needs to be collaborative across the value chain of real estate, said Jean de Castro, CEO of ESCA, a Philippines-based engineering consultancy.

Ivan Ko, CEO, Hong Kong and China at Kailong Group, said the disruptive effects of the pandemic had made people more interested in innovation and keener to engage, while Herbin Koh, director and growth equity lead at Gaw Capital Partners, said experimentation at a smaller scale helped his firm boost innovation overall.

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