As technology evolves at an ever-increasing rate, dynamics are emerging that likely will affect the future of real estate development. Panelists at ULI’s 2017 Carolinas Meeting in Charlotte shared some of the technology trends they are seeing in North America and abroad, some of which are not yet popularly known, with the potential to massively transform the way land is used, including four-dimensional buildings, hyperloop and driverless transportation, and a cashless society.
Municipalities often have vast piles of information that has been collected by their programs, but it frequently has not been converted to digital form or analyzed. Cities like Charlotte are beginning to consolidate their program information so that they can coordinate data collection and analysis across sectors.
At the same time, said Linda Isaacson, senior vice president of First American Title, “technology is being used to share ideas and real-time information.” Smart cities, for example, collect data from sources such as vehicle probes, connected infrastructure, and sensors to create integrated systems that share data, optimize service provision, and reduce inefficiencies. In many areas, that information is now available to the public, fueling what is being called an “open data revolution.” Many cities are establishing open data platforms and even inviting their citizens to participate.
For the land use and real estate industry, the result will be much greater amounts of data available for planning and development. “The opaqueness of real estate money is over,” said moderator Trish Healy, cofounder of Hyde Street Holdings and ULI chairman of the Americas. “Transparency is getting ready to explode in our industry.”
“China is moving to a cashless society,” said Deborah Weinswig, managing director of Fung Global Retail & Technology, who is based in Hong Kong. Mobile payments—payment processes performed via mobile devices—have a huge market share in China. E-wallets (also known as mobile wallets or digital wallets) are used to initiate mobile payments; they account for a 58 percent share of the mobile payment market in China, the highest percentage globally. In the United States, that figure is just 15 percent.
“My whole life is just one app: WeChat,” said Weinswig. She explained that the popular Chinese all-in-one app, developed by Tencent, lets users do everything in one place: send and receive message and photos, pay utilities, donate to charity, book flights, and even reserve library books. Weinswig added that even homeless people in Hong Kong have phones and are able to receive donations through WeChat.
Vehicles that drive themselves are already on the road in some places, but Isaacson pointed out that the technology is still developing. “There’s a difference between autonomous cars and driverless cars,” she said. Autonomous cars still have a steering wheel and space for a driver, while driverless vehicles lack both. The latter is still evolving, but will be very disruptive to a number of industries—particularly urban planning and design, as the logistics of facilitating vehicles without drivers through city and highway streets are explored.
Fleets of self-driving trucks recently traveled hundreds of miles in Europe. The impact of that? “The last-mile delivery system will be the most critical,” said Isaacson. “We will have autonomous drones that will greet autonomous trucks.”
Weinswig added that the philosophy and shape of destinations also will radically shift. “If the steering wheel disappears, you can work while you drive,” she said. “It might matter a lot less where you live. Maybe people will start moving to the suburbs again.” And shopping centers might rethink their big parking lots once cars can park themselves anywhere.
Inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk is deep into a new project: Hyperloop, a system of above-ground pneumatic tubes that can transport people and cargo at almost supersonic speeds. The project was beta-tested in 2016 in the Nevada desert, and construction on the first pod to be used in the tubes began recently.
“It’s a scalable, safe way to move people and cargo,” said Isaacson, explaining that the pods will travel at 700 to 750 miles per hour (1,126 to 1,207 km per hr), almost exceeding the speed of sound. That means a trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco would take only 30 minutes.
Musk’s goal is to move cargo by 2018 and people by 2020, but there are still major technicalities to work out. For example, the tubes would often travel over international borders—from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, for example. That is a legal issue that will not be quickly worked out. Still, said Weinswig, “moving inventory that way could completely change the supply chain.”
3-D and 4-D
Three-dimensional printers are transforming retail in Asia, said Weinswig. Customers can design clothing online and then pick their items up 45 minutes later. “It’s personalization and customization in collaboration with a retailer. There’s a robot interface, which is entertaining, but it’s still using a person,” she explained.
Three-dimensional printers are also actively in use in many factories, where machine parts can be instantly built on site when something breaks down. That allows factories to work longer hours without having to take lengthy pauses for maintenance.
The fourth dimension being time, 4-D is becoming a factor in the construction industry, said Isaacson. In Dubai, for example, a skyscraper designed by architect David Fisher is being referred to as 4-D: each of the tower’s 80 floors will rotate independently, resulting in an ever-changing building shape.
Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, and Artificial Intelligence
Our perception and interaction with the world are already being mediated by machines, and that is going to rapidly increase in the future. Neither augmented reality—supplementing reality with computer-generated sound or video—nor virtual reality has yet become mainstream. But they will, said Weinswig; it is predicted that there will be 80 million virtual-reality headsets worldwide by 2020.
Currently, she said, many of us are already using artificial intelligence: on our phones, with Siri; in our ears, with Pandora; and in our homes, with Nest thermostats. “It’s machine learning, and we’re moving toward predictive analytics,” said Weinswig—that is, technologies that can predict what we want.
How will artificial intelligence affect the real estate industry? “The office will be most disrupted,” Weinswig said. Eventually, the workplace may cease to be a physical site and will simply become a concept that involves digital collaboration anywhere, resulting in a need for far less office space.