Paul Unger Editor PlaceTech

Editor’s note: Rocking the status quo

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Paul Unger

Inside and outside Le Centquatre arts centre in Paris, taken over by MIPIM Proptech Europe this week, there were enthusiastic efforts to break the status quo.

Protestors, property disruptors and climate conscious architects all made their voices heard in keynotes on stage, with megaphones on the street and in pitches on exhibition stands.

I enjoyed the presentation from Michael Pawlyn of Exploration Architecture towards the end of the second day. His was the kind of mind-blowing content I look for from a big event; uplifting, unpredictable.

He explained how his practice takes lessons from three billion years of research and design in nature and applies them to buildings and cities. Ocean plants that make glass using a thousandth of the energy humans currently spend producing the same material; copying insect wings to produce more efficient sun shades; incredible, ingenuous design concepts, many of them highly energy efficient. He finished his rapid 15 minute talk with an impassioned plea to let nature teach us how to save us from ourselves as the planet gets warmer and we run out of time to save it.

Speaking to him afterwards, he revealed his frustration at the high level of risk aversion in property development that has kept too many projects stuck at the design stage. He spent 10 years at Grimshaw, where he was part of the team that worked on the Eden Project, an educational tourist attraction based on using biology for manmade purposes, in Cornwall before setting up his specialist studio. It would be great to see the list of completed schemes Exploration has in its portfolio equal the number of speeches Michael has delivered – more than 400. Clever people like this cannot solve climate change on their own simply by being clever.

As always at these proptech gatherings, there were not enough property people – a minority of the 2,000 were developers, landlords and advisors. The bulk were from the tech vendors and venture investors. Adoption is starting to happen but will take a long time to gather mainstream momentum, such is the slow pace of property’s work, where outputs are large, complex, infrequent and expensive.

Outside the venue, protestors called on politicians and business leaders to prevent smart cities being ‘reserved for the rich’.

This echoed concerns already being heard across society that Big Tech is creating a rarified existence for those that can afford the latest computers and smart phones and setting up a new form of tech-led class divide.

The rich get richer, the world gets warmer, property keeps its traditional ways.

What would it take to shatter these status quos?

Mass civil disobedience of the kind Extinction Rebellion has shown to effectively raise the climate crisis on the news agenda?

Another global financial crisis to prompt a drastic rethink of current business models?

Jack Sibley, head of innovation at developer-investor Nuveen, speaking on a panel I chaired about young leaders’ perspectives, said it will take 10 years to get the foundations in place for a proptech revolution, things like structured data which can be analysed easily to serve up nuggets of insight that improve the space for users, that drive value.

He expects to see new models emerge in property within the next two years as the early adopters discover the potential for dramatic shifts in strategy due to these unprecedented levels of insight being digested in real estate boardrooms.

Progress on these big fronts is slow, and yet the world has never experienced such rapid change as right now, led by consumer technology and ubiquitous connectivity.

And companies are starting to take climate change seriously in their plans. Just as two years ago it would have been impossible to gather 2,000 people from across Europe and the US in Paris to discuss proptech.

For now though, the status quo holds, reflecting a level of comfort with the way things are – we like GDP to go up and drive consumption, even though we know the planet is dying – and fear that if we try new things we might erode lucrative margins in an industry that has produced a wealthy lifestyle for so many for so long that they don’t feel the need to alter their ways.

Philosopher Anders Indset employed a bit of inversion thinking in his speech, which I missed but others said was entertaining and enlightening, including slogans such as ‘We are not born to pay bills and die’. Another one of his caught my eye, he asked the audience to consider ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’

As the event ended and one delegate after another complained of struggling to get an Uber driver to turn up and not cancel on them, it showed even the biggest and best disruptors find change hard to manage.

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