A future-focused Urban Leader Summit discussion in Frankfurt in May on embracing new technology raised just as many questions as it answered.
Many German business leaders have been fretting about what they call Industry 4.0—the sweeping changes created by machine learning, automation, the “internet of things,” and big data—innovations they categorize under the umbrella of “digitization.” The waves of change triggered by this digital shift are going to be felt for generations to come, as more and more jobs are capable of being done by machines. Will we need humans at all? Will we create a superintelligence that finds us an unnecessary burden?
But going back to the present, Sascha Friesike, professor of digital innovation at VU Universität Amsterdam, wondered why urbanization continues to grow even as we increasingly decentralize work. If jobs can be done from anywhere, why do we still largely choose to move to cities?
Klaus Dederichs of Drees & Sommer was wary about the rush to incorporate the internet of things into properties. Tests have shown that the current generation of smart devices, which usually operate over wi-fi, is easy to hack. “They are compromising buildings’ cybersecurity,” he said. “What if terrorists attack smart buildings rather than drive into crowds?”
But Dederichs did also note some potential for buildings to get smarter, optimizing energy use being one of them. Building information modeling (BIM) is another promising field in the world of smart buildings. This digitizing of the planning, construction, and maintenance of buildings increases efficiency and extends the life of a project. Thus far, BIM has not seen huge adoption rates in Germany; the industry is hesitant largely because of the financial investments and the additional training needed for workers.
Blockchain came up in practically every discussion, as did artificial intelligence. It is difficult to find the middle ground between viral anxiety and tech evangelism, said Thomas Metzinger of the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz. “What do we do when a smart city crashes? And it will crash. We need graceful degradation,” referring a web design term that refers to designing a project to continue to function even if some features fail.
“We aren’t going to build houses that aren’t future-proof anymore,” said Martin Rodeck of EDGE Technologies, owned by OVG Real Estate. You cannot risk a new building being outdated within five years. And you should not jump on a trend like blockchain or virtual reality just because everyone else is doing it—you need to focus on how to solve the problem at hand.
During a panel discussion on digital real estate, Juergen Fenk, the chair of ULI Germany, asked why we don’t come together as an industry to develop the tech we need. Other panelists were supportive of the concept, saying cross-operability between current and future platforms will be essential to ensure the longevity of smart developments.
But there’s a German saying that is appropriate here: Handel ist Wandel—business is change. And the German skepticism of technological innovation is more pragmatic than it is pessimistic. “We just have to be aware of the risks,” Fenk said.