How Commercial Real Estate Brokers Can Make Peace With the Robots

That technology is impacting the real estate world is by now a familiar refrain. Whether the subject is smart buildings, innovative software platforms, AI, or big data, it seems like another disruptive technology is highlighted every week. At a recent Propmodo Live event, real estate marketing platform Buildout CEO Vishu Ramanathan connected the dots on what these seemingly-disparate technologies might look like in practice, and offered some insight into the changing face of the brokerage world.

First, Vishu explained that the road to total technological implementation may be a bumpy one. In some cases, the emphasis placed on connected spaces and automation leads to less control and flexibility for the end user. For example, a building’s recently-implemented smart thermostat system, relying on tenants submitting work orders to change the temperature, only serves to deprive individuals of options they would have otherwise had.

“…what they’re trying to do is…have the building efficiently know what’s going on so it can keep all of the temperatures right, but they’ve taken the control out of my hands, and so screwing up these little details makes it feel like this stuff isn’t even worth it,” Vishu said.

In another example, Amazon’s recent acquisition of Whole Foods led to over-general branding in the upscale grocery stores that Vishu pointed out as incongruous with the retailer’s overall refined message.

However, the end result of this frustration, Vishu said, might be worth it after all. A system that truly knows what its occupants prefer would certainly be an attractive feature at any office. A Whole Foods that operates like the cashierless Amazon Go shops of recent months might be an even nicer experience than the stores are today. With such a great payoff at the end of the rainbow, perhaps the short-term frustrations of embracing this new tech-enabled world are really just growing pains – the aches and strains of layering the real world with a digital one.

“That marriage as it becomes more and more complete is going to let us reason about the physical world in ways we are only beginning to see,” Vishu said.

The biggest impact of this new data layering is a fundamental shift in how we use spaces. Where once a banquet hall would agonize over providing enough parking, today a new event venue might not be so concerned – an Uber is just a tap away, and much safer for patrons who consume alcohol. Similarly, the very idea that we must be in the right place at the right time to attend a meeting or event is now being challenged. Streaming and telepresence apps such as YouTube or FaceTime might one day make the conference room as antiquated as the telegraph.

In the world of real estate brokerage, many of these points are crystallized. With data providers like CoStar now ubiquitous in the profession, and specialized platforms like Apto and BuildOut making inroads as well, the way brokers do business is now forever altered.

“It’s not something that’s a flash in the pan, it’s not something that’s “we’re going to try a technology and abandon it in a year”. Even if we do, there’s going to be a new technology that’s going to come and there’s going to be more and more and more,” Vishu said.

Beyond platforms and data sources, AI threatens to rewrite even greater chunks of the field. Vishu described AI as above anything else the idea that there will continue to be more power and opportunities through computers. With that come a host of challenges.

“It leaves people wondering ‘what’s going to happen to me’,” Vishu said, explaining that brokers face two problems from AI: the general fear of being replaced – a concern workers in numerous industries are addressing – and also the more industry-specific dread of being rendered irrelevant within the transaction. This second fear is already a longtime concern amongst brokers who know their more resourceful clients might want to save themselves some money on brokerage fees.

For Vishu, the way brokers may face these seemingly-unavoidable challenges will be through understanding where exactly they add value.

“Is the value that you bring that you hold some secret information…or is the value that you bring that I, me, can trust you with a million-dollar decision that matters to me a lot? And I believe it is the latter that really matters.”

So perhaps a broker’s best defense against being automated out of a job or scorned by a client isn’t in his or her database, no matter how qualified those prospects may be. For more than just brokers – for other businesspeople, medical experts, and professionals in all sectors, perhaps the real armor is in the handshake, the deal-making, and the human element – parts of the business AI is far from ready to overtake.

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