For Investors, Property Tech Goes Far Beyond a Smart Home

At first listen, the term “property tech” seems to fit comfortably within the context of ultra-luxurious modernism. We picture something at home within sleek glass-and-metal walls and minimalist design. We imagine an -powered abode where the temperature, light, and -connected outlets can be adjusted with a few smartphone taps or an offhand remark, and a security app allows you to video chat doorstep visitors from halfway around the world.

These products align with the average consumer’s idea of residential technology. But for those in the commercial real estate sector, “property tech” has an entirely different definition — one far removed from the realm of modernist homeowners and IoT-enthusiasts. In fact, far from being an unnecessary luxury, property tech stands a good chance of revolutionizing commercial real estate at every point, from development to sales to property management.

Prop Tech: A Promising New Frontier for Commercial Real Estate

As defined by Tech Target,  refers to the “use of information technology (IT) to help individuals and companies research, buy, sell, and manage real estate.” Innovative PropTech solutions are usually designed to facilitate greater efficiency and connectivity in the real estate market, allowing consumers and vendors at all levels to achieve their goals quickly and at high quality. While PropTech capabilities vary widely across products, they tend to fall into three broad categories: smart home, real estate sharing, and .

The first category encompasses the majority of the IoT-powered home devices mentioned at the top of this piece — the smart thermostats, remotely-controlled home systems, and digital security solutions. Real estate sharing refers to online platforms like Airbnb, Redfin, and Zillow, which facilitate the advertisement and sale of real-world properties. The last term is all but self-explanatory; “fintech” references any tool that assists in real estate financial management or transactions.

The potential that PropTech holds to reform the commercial real estate sector is off the charts — and investors know it. According to a recent , global investment in real estate technology netted an incredible $12.6 billion across 347 deals in 2017 alone, $6.5 billion of which funneled directly to U.S.-based companies. Re:Tech researchers further noted that investment trends indicated a great deal of early interest in untested PropTech solutions, with early-stage companies receiving “the lion’s share” of funding dollars.

Early Successes Illustrate High Potential

This flurry of investor interest isn’t without basis. The PropTech sector has seen runaway growth and concrete success in recent years; aside from the evident popularity of digital-forward platforms like Airbnb and Zillow in the rental and buying markets, adoption of smart home technology has reached a fever pitch. Deloitte reports that sensor deployment in real estate is projected to grow at a  and will likely top 1.3 billion in 2020.

Some companies have even incorporated cutting-edge PropTech innovations into their business model to remarkable success. Take the Texas-based real estate investment firm Amherst Holdings as an example. Last year, Forbes profiled  and data modeling during the asset identification process, noting how Amherst used AI not only to discover investment properties, but also to make dozens of offers per day on potentially lucrative homes. The strategy has paid off; today, the investment firm is thriving, and its portfolio encompasses an incredible 16,000 homes across the American Sunbelt region.

New York: A New Sandbox for PropTech Creativity?

Now, however, companies may not need to foray into PropTech testing without support. Last November, New York announced that it would launch a pilot program that would allow PropTech startups to trial their products via NYC’s portfolio of public properties.  in a press release, “The New York City Economic Development Corporation will launch a pilot program that allows companies to implement proof-of-concept property technology products in the city’s 326.1 million square feet of owned and managed real estate.”

“We want to make our buildings available to incentivize the kinds of innovations that you are all out there working on day in and day out,” Vicki Been, the deputy mayor for housing and development, commented. “We want our buildings and our tenants to be helpful to you, and provide a way to test some of the ideas that you are developing so that we can get those ideas out to the market and into buildings even faster.”

In this way, the city is offering itself up as an innovation sandbox, a place where real estate innovators can test and troubleshoot their digital tools to the betterment of all — and especially New Yorkers.

With this philosophy of openness and curiosity comes an opportunity for New York-based real estate players to not only test innovative approaches but put them together into a unified strategy. We’ve all seen companies find significant success by leveraging one variety of PropTech solution. Airbnb thrives in facilitating short-term real estate transactions, Google and Amazon have cornered the smart home market, and Amherst Holdings has established a winning, AI-powered strategy for finding and acquiring assets. Individually, all of these tactics show impressive results — but what could we achieve if we managed to link them together?

The Tools of Today Could Create the RE Strategy of Tomorrow

In theory, the disparate PropTech solutions we see now could be stitched into a seamless strategy. The strategy might progress as follows — real estate operators could use  and  to identify lucrative neighborhoods and home in on investment properties, then apply -powered  to purchase those buildings. Next, they might retrofit their assets to have utility sensors that can ensure optimal utility use and management. These IoT-equipped devices could also better automate the care of a building by notifying owners when a system requires maintenance and providing real-time insights on how tenants .

When linked, these PropTech solutions can , allowing property firms an opportunity to gain better insights into how they can best use, maintain, and improve their asset properties.

The implications for commercial real estate improvement are huge — and, to be clear, this is all available technology. Real estate operators could incorporate PropTech into their strategic workflow today if they wanted. Will that change require some upfront investment and effort? Absolutely — but, as New York’s decision to offer itself as a testing sandbox demonstrates, there is no better time for real estate operators to get ahead of the curve and start crafting unified strategies than right now.

Originally published on 

By |2020-07-20T21:17:45+00:00July 20th, 2020|Business, Technology|

Could COVID-19 Kickstart Surveillance Culture?

Several months ago, saying that the “cure” that facial recognition offers is worse than the ills it solves would have seemed hyperbolic. But now, the metaphor has become all too literal — and the medicine it promises isn’t quite so easy to reject when sickness is sweeping the globe.

Even as it depresses economies across the world, the coronavirus pandemic has sparked a new period of growth and development for facial recognition technology. Creators pitch their tools as a means to identify sick individuals without risking close-contact investigation.

In China, the biometrics company Telpo has launched non-contact body temperature measurement terminals that — they claim — can identify users even if they wear a face mask. Telpo is near-evangelical about how useful its technology could be during the coronavirus crisis, writing that “this technology can not only reduce the risk of cross infection but also improve traffic efficiency by more than 10 times […] It is suitable for government, customs, airports, railway stations, enterprises, schools, communities, and other crowded public places.”

COVID-19: A Push Towards Dystopia?

At a surface glance, Telpo’s offerings seem…good. Of course we want to limit the spread of infection across public spaces; of course we want to protect our health workers by using contactless diagnostic tools. Wouldn’t we be remiss if we didn’t at least consider the opportunity?

And this is the heart of the problem. The marketing pitch is tempting in these anxious, fearful times. But in practice, using facial recognition to track the coronavirus can be downright terrifying. Take Russia as an example — according to reports from BBC, city officials in Moscow have begun leveraging the city’s massive network of cameras to keep track of residents during the pandemic lockdown.

In desperate times like these, the knee-jerk suspicion that we typically hold towards invasive technology wavers. We think that maybe, just this once, it might be okay to accept facial recognition surveillance — provided, of course, that we can slam the door on it when the world returns to normal. But can we? Once we open Pandora’s box, can we force it shut again?

In March, the New York Times reported that the White House had opened talks with major tech companies, including Facebook and Google, to assess whether using aggregated location data sourced from our mobile phones would facilitate better containment of the virus. Several lawmakers immediately pushed back on the idea; however, the discussion does force us to wonder — would we turn to more desperate measures, like facial surveillance? How much privacy would we sacrifice in exchange for better perceived control over the pandemic?

Understanding America’s Surveillance Culture Risk

I’ve been thinking about this idea ever since January, when an expose published by the New York Times revealed that a startup called Clearview AI had quietly developed a facial recognition app capable of matching unknown subjects to their online images and profiles — and promptly peddled it to over 600 law enforcement agencies without any public scrutiny or oversight. Clearview stands as a precursor; a budding example of what surveillance culture in America could look like, if left unregulated. One quote in particular sticks in my head.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that because information constantly increases, there’s never going to be privacy,” David Scalzo, the founder of a private equity firm currently investing in Clearview commented for the Times. “Laws have to determine what’s legal, but you can’t ban technology. Sure, that might lead to a dystopian future or something, but you can’t ban it.”

Scalzo’s offhand, almost dismissive tone strikes an odd, chilling contrast to the gravity of his statement. If facial recognition technology will lead to a surveillance-state dystopia, shouldn’t we at least try to slow its forward momentum? Shouldn’t we at least consider the dangers that a dystopia might pose — especially during times like these, when privacy-eroding technology feels like a viable weapon against global pandemic?

I’m not the only one to ask these questions. Since January’s expose, Clearview AI has come under fire from no fewer than four lawsuits. The first castigated the company’s app for being an “insidious encroachment” on civil liberties; the second took aim both at Clearview’s tool and the IT products provider CDW for its licensing of the app for law enforcement use, alleging that “The [Chicago Police Department] […] gave approximately 30 [Crime Prevention and Information Center] officials full access to Clearview’s technology, effectively unleashing this vast, Orwellian surveillance tool on the citizens of Illinois.” The company was also recently sued in Virginia and Vermont.

All that said, it is worth noting that dozens of police departments across the country already use products with facial recognition capabilities. One report on the United States’ facial recognition market found that the industry is expected to grow from $3.2 billion in 2019 to $7.0 billion by 2024. The Washington Post further reports that the FBI alone has conducted over 390,000 facial-recognition searches across federal and local databases since 2011.

Unlike DNA evidence, facial recognition technology is usually relatively cheap and quick to use, lending itself easily to everyday use. It stands to reason that if better technology is made available, usage by public agencies will become even more commonplace. We need to keep this slippery slope in mind. During a pandemic, we might welcome tools that allow us to track and slow the spread of disease and overlook the dangerous precedent they set in the long-term.

Given all of this, it seems that we should, at the very least, avoid panic-prompted decisions to allow facial recognition — and instead, consider what we can do to avoid the slippery slope that facial recognition technology poses.

Are Bans Protection? Considering San Francisco

In the spring of 2019, San Francisco passed legislation that outright forbade government agencies from using tools capable of facial surveillance — although the ruling was amended to allow for equipped devices if there was no viable alternative. The lawmakers behind the new ordinance stated their reasoning clearly, writing that “the propensity for facial recognition technology to endanger civil rights and civil liberties substantially outweighs its purported benefits.”

They have a point. Facial recognition software is notorious for its inaccuracy. One new federal study also found that people of color, women, older subjects, and children faced higher misidentification rates than white men.

“One false match can lead to missed flights, lengthy interrogations, tense police encounters, false arrests, or worse,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told the Washington Post. “But the technology’s flaws are only one concern. Face recognition technology — accurate or not — can enable undetectable, persistent, and suspicionless surveillance on an unprecedented scale.”

While it’s still too early to have a clear gauge on the ban’s efficacy, it is worth noting that the new legislation sparked a few significant and immediate changes to the city’s police department. In December, Wired reported that “When the surveillance law and facial recognition ban were proposed in late January, San Francisco police officials told Ars Technica that the department stopped testing facial recognition in 2017. The department didn’t publicly mention that it had contracted with DataWorks that same year to maintain a mug shot database and facial recognition software as well as a facial recognition server through summer 2020.”

The department scrambled to dismantle the software after the ban, but the department’s secretive approach remains problematic. The very fact that the San Francisco police department was able to acquire and apply facial recognition technology without public oversight is troubling.The city’s current restrictions offer a stumbling block by limiting acceptance of surveillance culture as a normal part of everyday life — and prevent us from automatically reaching for it as a solution during times of panic.

A stumbling block, however, is not an outright barricade. Currently, San Francisco is under a shelter-in-place mandate; as of April 6, it had a reported 583 confirmed cases and nine deaths. If the situation worsens, could organizers suggest that the city make an exception and use facial recognition tracking to flatten the curve, just this once? It’s a long-shot hypothetical, but it does lead us to wonder what could happen if we allow circumstances to convince us into surveillance culture, one small step at a time.

Bans can only do so much. While the San Francisco ruling proves that Scalzo’s claim that “Laws have to determine what’s legal, but you can’t ban technology” isn’t strictly speaking correct, the sentiment behind it remains. Circumstances can compel us into considering privacy-eroding tech even as those explorations lead us down a path to dystopia.

So, in a way, Scalzo is right; the proliferation of facial recognition technology is inevitable. But that doesn’t mean that we should give up on bans and protective measures. Instead, we should pursue them further and slow the momentum as much as we can — if only to give ourselves time to establish regulations, rules, and protections. We can’t give in to short-term thinking; we can’t start down the slippery slope towards surveillance culture without considering the potential consequences. Otherwise, we may well find that the “cure” that facial recognition promises is, in the long term, far worse than any short-term panic.

Originally published on Hackernoon.com

By |2020-06-12T21:03:05+00:00June 12th, 2020|Business, Current Events, Technology|

If In-Store Experience Falls Short, Product Quality Doesn’t Matter

Most consumers aren’t in the habit of shopping in stores they dislike — and who could blame them? After all, a store visit requires them to leave their homes, sit in traffic, and physically search for the products that they want. Why would they go to the effort that traditional shopping requires if they know that the employees they meet will be rude, the store layout confusing, and the overall experience frustrating?

The truth of the matter is that if your customers find their time in-store underwhelming, the quality of your product won’t matter. They will go elsewhere — and in the digital age, “elsewhere” usually means “online.”

Online shopping has ushered in an entirely new definition for consumer convenience in retail. Digital experiences are painstakingly personalized; as one writer for the 2019 Store Experience Study describes, “Since the rise of the Internet, retailers have done an exemplary job of making their customers feel like royalty each and every time they were engaged online. Retailers made it easy to find items (which were always in stock), knew their purchase history, knew their likes and dislikes, and made suggestions for complementary or supplementary products.”

The cherry on top, of course, is that once a customer swipes, clicks, and taps their way through the ordering process, they can expect their chosen product to arrive at their doorstep within a few short days.

When faced with that degree of convenience, how can traditional brick-and-mortar retailers compete? Younger consumers have already enthusiastically taken to online shopping; according to statistics from Kinsta, roughly 67% of millennials and 56% of Gen X’ers prefer buying online to browsing a physical store.

While online shopping might have claimed top marks for convenience, brick-and-mortar stores are on the verge of reclaiming customers on the basis of shopping experience. If retailers can prove to their consumers that an hour-long store visit is an entertaining diversion, rather than a chore, they may have the chance to redefine consumer expectations for in-person shopping and revitalize the brick-and-mortar landscape.

This shift is already underway. According to the Store Experience Study mentioned above, retailers have begun focusing on personalizing customer experience (51%), empowering store associates to provide better service (48%), and rethinking the design of the in-store customer journey (31%) — all to boost consumers’ interest in in-store shopping. This new strategic focus has likely contributed to the recent uptick of brick-and-mortar performance. As of 2018, retail sales had risen nearly 6% since the year before, and roughly 3,600 net new stores had opened their doors.

The answer is clear: retailers need to recast the shopping experience as a form of convenient entertainment, rather than a digitally-avoidable trip. Below, I’ve listed a few ways to do so.

Rethink the Purpose of a Shopping Trip

When consumers visit stores in the future, they should come out of interest — not necessity. Retailers need to incorporate entertainment and engagement elements into their customer journey designs.

Consider J.C. Penney’s recent redesign of a store in Hurst, Texas, as an example. Described by the company’s leaders as “experiential at its core,” the redesign incorporates service offerings into its lifestyle brand. Now, customers can not only purchase makeup in the beauty section but also undergo a workshop on how to achieve model-perfect looks while in-store. Similarly, the store has begun offering fitness classes alongside their activewear brands.

The department store also recently launched a partnership with Pinterest to help shoppers better explore the store’s offerings during a home decor refresh. Using J.C. Penney’s in-store tool, shoppers can answer a few simple questions and see a curated Pinterest board that lists J.C. Penney products suited to their needs and tastes.

It is too early to know if this revolutionary approach to experiential shopping will pay off. If it does, however, J.C. Penney may have created an innovative blueprint for future department stores.

Meld Digital Convenience With In-Store Experience

Brick and mortar stores may not be defined by technology, but they can certainly benefit from it. By weaving technology into their in-store experiential strategy, traditional retailers can provide the same convenience that e-retailers pride themselves on offering. With an app, for example, retailers could theoretically allow consumers to schedule a fast pickup, repay online, check to see if a given item is in stock, or even access exclusive digital coupons. Such a strategy would make in-store shopping nearly as quick and convenient as online shopping — if not more so, given that consumers don’t need to wait for their item to be delivered.

In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that the digital age won’t spell the end for traditional retail. Instead, it will challenge brick-and-mortar stores to reinvent the in-person shopping experience to be more engaging, entertaining, and convenient than ever before.

Originally published on ScoreNYC

By |2020-06-12T21:07:04+00:00January 16th, 2020|Business|