Patience, catch up and closing tech gaps

COMMENT I have worked in property for almost 10 years now, and one of the things I’ve learnt is the art of patience. Property is a long-term game and creating great places takes time. But this also means we’re often slower than other sectors to respond to major trends.

Take technology as an example. Property is frequently described as the least tech-enabled industry after agriculture. The fact that our industry is so ripe for change, and is the single largest sector worldwide by value, explains the flurry of VC activity we’ve seen in proptech and the emergence of specialised funds like Fifth Wall. 

Fostering change

You can start to feel quite excited about our future. But clearly there are challenges – the obvious one being the length of time it takes for us to deliver a building compared with how rapidly technology can deliver change. The size and nature of the industry does feel as if property ownership should provide a reasonable level of incumbent advantage. But the scale of funding provided to nimble, asset-light start-ups is certainly shaking the market up. 

So how could we play catch up?

First, acknowledge that the tech-led revolution has shifted power to the consumer. Property companies aren’t historically known for their customer-focus, while companies which have thrived have put the customer at the heart of what they do – think of Amazon, Netflix and Deliveroo.

We should view technology as a way of strengthening our relationship with our occupiers, rather than diminishing it. And we certainly should not cede it to someone else. It’s why we created Storey, our flexible workspace offer, and why we don’t outsource property management.

Storey workspace at 4 Kingdom Street, W2

Second, let’s not fear technology but recognise we will need to embrace change – not easy for an industry with such long-term horizons. We will have to stretch our organisations to work in different ways and with different people. Storey, for example, benefits from being part of British Land, but was deliberately set-up as a standalone entity. It’s been challenging at times, but we’ve clearly benefited from them being able to move quickly and do things differently.

And finally, let’s not forget we’ve already started the journey. Technology already plays a big part in how we shop and how we interact with our homes – increasing personalisation, connecting us with people and helping us to do things more efficiently. There’s a great opportunity to digitise the places we create. And it has to play a central role in helping us run our places more sustainably, remembering that the built environment is a major part of the UK’s total carbon footprint.

Tech front and centre

Technology clearly has a significant role in providing our customers with the real estate they need to support their businesses and the communities around them. But we need to put tech more at the front of our businesses, so it’s better woven into the fabric of what we do. 

To help solve this, we’ve formed a tech council chaired by our chief executive which brings together all our tech-related initiatives. We’ve invested in data and insights and smart places teams, both of which have been brought into the strategy and investments group which I head. All of this helps to ensure we think strategically, focus our efforts and deliver the best solutions for our customers. 

Technology is the next piece of the puzzle in creating great places for our people. As long as we keep the customer front of mind, acknowledge the challenges and embrace change, we should be able to close the tech gap for good.

Sally Jones is head of strategy and investments at British Land