Union bruntwood

Talking tech with Bruntwood

For over 40 years, leading property company, Bruntwood, has provided innovative office and retail space in the north of England and Birmingham.

Looking at Bruntwood’s portfolio of over 100 properties, worth more than £1bn, there’s a clear focus on technology with the company recently signing a £360m deal with Legal & General Capital to create a new company – Bruntwood SciTech – which will focus on the development of assets for the science and technology sector in the North West, Birmingham, and Leeds and will support the creation of over 20,000 jobs over the next 10 years.

PlaceTech sat down with Bruntwood’s technology director, Paul Bamber, and head of digital, Jamie Boulger, in their new head office at Union in Manchester’s Albert Square to discuss the company’s appetite for innovation and technology.

Bruntwood has built and refurbished impressive properties such as the Bright Building in Manchester, which itself is described as a ‘living lab’ for tech and innovation. At what point did Bruntwood want to be at the forefront of technological innovation?

Paul Bamber Bruntwood

Paul Bamber

Paul has been at Bruntwood for over 20 years, and has experienced a lot of changes throughout his time at the company: “When you walk into Union you see a dashboard screen. It shows you in real time the different occupancy levels of the different spaces in the office.  This allows people to immediately navigate their way to a free space that best suits them and the type of work they will be doing. This could be a quiet individual space, a coworking zone, collaboration space or meeting room.

“Real-time access to that level of data is invaluable. It’s one of the most important applications of technology we’ve implemented during my time at the company. It allows businesses and individuals to use their time more efficiently, choosing to work in the environment most suited to the task at hand. This drives big wins; both in customer productivity – but also in how sustainably our buildings operate.

“A customer might be looking for 10,000 sq ft but when you look at the way that they’re occupying their space, they might actually need less. That seems a little counter-intuitive for a property company to encourage people to take less space, but advising and helping our customers take the right space for them is at the heart of what we’re about and our flexible model supports that.”

How do you go about the process of procuring the technologies that you’re incorporating into your buildings and how do you navigate the tech landscape?

Jamie Boulger Bruntwood

Jamie Boulger

Jamie’s job is to accelerate the pace of digitisation within Bruntwood: “What I’m looking for from tech companies is someone that can provide me with the data  that helps to measure or improve user experience.

“Something we’re trying to do is to challenge the conventional wisdom around property and how we plan and design space. We’re now working with, as one example, tech company SPICA and using sensors to be able to tell our customers what is happening in their building.

“Science and technology are a huge part of Bruntwood’s future focus. In the last year alone we have launched two new tech incubators in Manchester and Leeds and acquired Innovation Birmingham, one of the UK’s leading digital campuses which is home to a thriving community of over 200 digital tech businesses who are collaborating with leading brands such as Gymshark, Barclays Eagle Labs and National Express to develop future innovative solutions for the wearables, FinTech and transport sectors.”

“I think what sets us apart from other property companies is that we look where possible to actively work with them on pilots and projects,” added Paul.

“A lot of it is about going to events to understand what is out there, and not just in the property sector. I like to look at the car industry which is at the forefront of technology, and meeting people from companies like Vodafone who are heavily invested in the Internet of Things landscape. Our involvement in CityVerve – the UK’s Internet of Things Smart City demonstrator – has really helped build a better internal understanding of what’s possible and has connected us to some fantastic businesses who are simply full of ideas around how we can make our buildings smarter, and ultimately improve the customer experience.”

Over 750 people work within Bruntwood, has this focus on tech changed the way the company works and have any new roles been added?

“Definitely, and Jamie and I are great examples of that change. In my new role as Director of Technology, I’ve got more time to horizon scan for the latest opportunities in connected and smart building technologies. Bruntwood’s commitment is also evident by having a Head of Digital; Jamie’s role spans multiple departments and functions and really focuses on delivering digital solutions to improve the customer journey. We both work very closely with our Director of Systems Architecture to ensure it all links together into a really powerful solution that makes our whole portfolio operationally efficient. We estimate 80% of our buildings will still be around in 2050, so our smart solutions need to work in existing buildings too,” said Paul.

How easy has this change and innovation in the company been?

“Implementing new technologies is just part of the change and innovation process. A big part of it is the culture of the organisation and the culture of adoption. Bruntwood is really focussed on that and always has been so that’s really helped.

“We’ve chosen to focus on change and innovation that positively impacts on the user experience to improve the journey for our customers, but from a digital team perspective we need to ensure that we’ve got all the systems in the backend that we can integrate so that we can create that seamless smart parking experience, that fast track through the speed gates via Bluetooth, that way of monitoring or changing the environment in the meeting room, or intuitive wayfinding solution,” said Paul.

What’s the budget and appetite for tech within the company?

“We’re really lucky in that we’ve a steady stream of developments already underway or in the pipeline so whether it’s a new development or refurbishment, we’ve always got somewhere we can implement a use case for new technology.

“If you’re testing things, you need the business to be comfortable with the fact that we’re investing in something that might not necessarily get an immediate tangible return, but we’ll learn something from it and use that knowledge to continue to innovate and improve our customers’ experience and buildings” said Jamie.

“There’s no shortage of appetite from an investment point of view. Over the past 6 months we’ve met with ARUP, CBRE, Siemens, HPE and Honeywell. We’re going out to the industry experts and asking, where should we be looking? What’s new in the market? We’re willing to take a risk and say that this might not work but let’s put it in and learn from it,” added Paul.

“For a long time Bruntwood only bought and refurbished buildings, but in the past five years we’ve started building significant developments such as the Bright Building, Circle Square and Didsbury Technology Park which has given us great opportunities to trial new technologies.

A Grade A office space and smart reception scheme doesn’t cut it. The business absolutely knows that, so that’s why we’ve not only changed roles, but attitudes have changed too, and really importantly the leadership of the business is absolutely open to any suggestions and encourages new ways of thinking to get us to the front of that curve; it’s fair to say we’re pushing on an open door.”

What are the different pieces of tech that are going into buildings that previously weren’t there?

“We have sensors that measure occupancy, temperature and air quality, as well as wi-fi analytics which measure flows of traffic through communal spaces” explained Jamie.

“We’ve got smart parking [using a system to indicate availability of spaces] pilots across three of our buildings,” added Paul. “Because one of the biggest pain points in our 40 years is managing car parks.

“It’s one of those pain points that technology can just take away. We’ve done something similar for meeting rooms, enabling customers to book and pay directly online through the website.”

Any advice to techies wanting to approach you with their products?

“Think about use cases specific to us; often people will pitch how they see it working but if there’s a bit more thought about us and you can sell it to us with some relevancy, it makes our job a lot simpler. We can all go walk around a building or a coffee shop and spot where efficiencies can be made,” advised Jamie.

“It’s almost that imperfect product – a company that wants to pilot and work with you. I enjoy engaging with people that aren’t just selling structured, square-edged products but have flexibility in their products or services that can help meet our business’ needs.

“There’s never been a better point in time to be a small business because a lot of companies, like Bruntwood, are increasingly looking to work with smaller, more nimble tech businesses. I’d rather seek out a smaller business knowing that you could help them evolve their product and provide them an opportunity to pilot and that we can learn from them also. I love being around startups; their energy and enthusiasm for their products really energises the room and makes you feel excited to work with them. We’ve got a lot of offices, a lot of opportunity and if we got the right partner, we could help people accelerate their product,” added Paul.

Are there any other areas of technology exciting you?

“My area of interest at the moment is digital twins [a virtual model of a process, product or service],” said Paul. “I just know it could be transformational for property. What’s interesting about it is the size of the data set you’ll get. The more data you have across multiple properties, the more informed you’ll be about preventative maintenance rather than it be reactive maintenance.

“We will definitely be looking for data scientists soon, if not very soon, because we’re going to have so much data coming out of these buildings.”

Jamie added: “From a customer facing side, I’m interested in looking at the opportunities around Artificial Intelligence and what we can learn with a data set of 50,000 plus building users, there’s got to be patterns there that we can learn from.”

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