Property and Built Environment Group hosts seminar looking at smart buildings, digital twins and the Metaverse

Written by Richard Nelson, Chair, IoD Property and Built Environment SIG

Last week I was delighted to host the latest Property and Built Environment Group event: “PropTech: Digital innovations making our buildings and cities smarter”.

A huge thank you to Arup for kindly hosting us in their fantastic theatre space. We only wish we had allowed more time for the networking and great food & beverage afterward.

We were honoured to have IoD London committee member and IoD City chair, John McLean OBE, open the evening’s proceedings for us. John regaled the assembled members and guests with a bit of history about the IoD’s famous HQ, 116 Pall Mall, before highlighting the important and influential work the Institute is doing to support company directors in areas such as diversity and inclusion, corporation tax, R&D tax credits and energy bills.

IoD Property and Built Environment Group Chair, Richard Nelson, then took everyone through an overview of the PBE group and its valuable work, before moderating the session and introducing the expert panel for the evening.

Michael Stych, Director of Smart Buildings at Arup, led off with a synopsis of six key objectives for implementing smart buildings and where the technology is today. Technology can be used effectively in buildings to help us achieve our net zero carbon objectives, as well as to improve health and wellbeing for occupants, thus making them more productive and satisfied at work. Better space utilisation, security and resilience were also highlighted as major benefits that smart tech can deliver. A final key aspect of designing such systems is to keep the future in mind, allowing flexibility to adapt to rapid changes in technology.

Next up was Richard McCarthy, Director of Digital Twin Unit, who delivered a very thought-providing presentation highlighting the importance of culture in implementing new technologies. He cited Apple’s original Macintosh computer desktop as an example of how culture influenced the interface, which enabled consumers to immediately understand and therefore adopt the technology, thus making Apple the success it is today. He noted that digital twins are at a tipping point in their evolution, as building owners and managers realise the benefits such systems can offer them in reducing operations and maintenance costs, reducing their carbon footprints, and delivering excellent user experiences. Richard finished with the prediction that ‘One day space will need to think for itself and react with us to the world around it.’

We felt it important to have a building owner and manager on our panel, and we could find no one better than James Goldsmith, Head of Leasing at AXA Investment Managers, owners of 22 Bishopsgate, one of London’s ‘smartest’ buildings. James discussed the decision-making process they went through when constructing the mammoth building, evaluating the universe of tech gadgets and toys available to them, and then having to make the hard decisions on what was most useful and would deliver the best return on investment – not a task to be taken lightly! He reflected on a quote from the famous architect Cedric Price: “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?” The audience was then treated to a clip from the BBC Click show, which toured the building upon its initial opening in August 2021, and demonstrated some of the useful technologies that were implemented in the project. You can view the clip here.

And finally, we were delighted to have Professor Yolande Barnes, Chair of The Bartlett Real Estate Institute at University College London, who spoke with us about digital transformation and ‘beyond PropTech’, looking at what is coming next for the industry. She led off with a review of where Metaverse technology is. After receiving major publicity, hype and funding over the last two years, the tech seems to have faded from boardroom discussions, as many in the property industry have failed to see a clear business case for its use. That being said, it does have its appeal to certain audiences – especially if you wish to have a ‘virtual villa’ next door to Snoop Dogg in Decentraland, one of the most popular Metaverse platforms!

Yolande noted the distinction that people must make between ‘digitization’ (converting analogue information to digital, ie estate agents on the Internet), ‘digitalisation’ (enabling activities to become possible that were previously unavailable, ie online conveyancing) and ‘digital transformation’ (where the nature of the thing itself changes, eg tokenisation). The virtual and real worlds are already coming together, as she noted in an example of a virtual immersive art installation, where viewers in a digital gallery could then purchase the artwork through an auction – for real money!

Professor Barnes concluded by noting the inspiration for the integration of the real and virtual worlds that comes from science-fiction, citing films such as ‘Lucy’ and ‘Ready Player One’, and finally noting that we are at a point where we as consumers expect ‘Everything, Everywhere, All at Once’, as in the recent Oscar-winning film. It was a very thought-provoking presentation.

The moderator and audience then engaged with the panel, with a few pointed questions:

  • Does size matter for property assets when it comes to making smart tech investments? It really doesn’t, but the panel agreed we should look at each case on its merits, as technology kit can be quite expensive, even though the process of making things digital is relatively inexpensive.
  • Why is digital investment is taking so long in some neighbourhoods? All agreed this is down to economics and lack of investment.
  • Will buildings be ‘sentient’ one day? Perhaps not sentient, per se, but certainly able to think and do some operations themselves, but not for a long time.
  • How can the City of London leverage technology to keep its global edge? It’s not just about technology, it’s the ecosystem of business, academia and government that London offers that is better than most other global cities, and that is what needs to be maintained — then the investment in technology and buildings will follow.

The group then broke out for networking and nibbles to close out the evening. Many attendees commented on the quality of content and discussion, and said they were looking forward to future IoD PBE events.

The PBE Group’s next two events will be:

Please follow the PBE group on LinkedIn, where you can engage in discussions and learn about upcoming events, and visit if you are interested in joining the Institute.

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