Automation and Tech Will Change How We Build

The buildings and communities we live and work in could soon serve a very different purpose.

Our built environment and its entire value chain are in the wake of a severe transformation.

Artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things, robotics and other technologies are not only responsible for the emergence of smart cities, automated processes and new business opportunities, but a change to the rules underpinning the real estate industry.

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Technological innovation will prolong life expectancy, alter the job market and affect our ecosphere.

The impact of technological disruption on this industry transcends the possible automation of construction or robotic substitution of real estate agents. Technological innovation will prolong our life expectancy, severely alter the job market and affect our ecosphere and social life.

How will these broader consequences shape our built environment?

Increasing longevity and our aging society

Preventive and technologically enhanced healthcare will significantly increase the longevity of future societies.

While solutions such as CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing are still relatively nascent, they could pave the way for genetically engineered, prolonged human life. This process is expedited by the datafication of our world, including the use of fitness trackers, a nutrition app or data collected from sensors in a connected city.

Because of advances in healthcare research and increasingly granular datasets, there is a slow shift in academia to focus more on preventive rather than reactionary healthcare. Preventive healthcare of the future will, therefore, try to avert diseases rather than treating symptoms.

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Preventive healthcare of the future will avert diseases rather than treating symptoms.

As a result, people in the industrialized world and beyond might on average reach their 90th birthday. With regionally differing reproductive rates and the aforementioned advances in healthcare, we will see seismic shifts regarding population density and age. There will be an older population of about 10 billion, which will need a place to live.

In older, less populated economies, such as future Germany, the built environment will have to adapt to the needs of an aging society. Demand for individual properties is likely to decrease while accessibility will become more important.

In more densely populated countries and megacities, demand for sustainably constructed, flexible, energy efficient “micro properties” will increase because the current development and soil sealing rate would not be environmentally tolerable.

Sustainable real estate with 3D printing and synthetic biology

The real estate sector is accountable for more than 20 percent of carbon emissions, which require significant reduction to avoid further destabilization of our climate – and to meet the challenges of future demographic change.

The combination of 3D printing and synthetic biology might create a more sustainable industry.

Bullitt Center, established in Seattle in 2013, is the world’s greenest commercial building and a paradigm for urban sustainability.

Three-dimensional printed properties and infrastructure such as micro houses, commercial office buildings and London’s new tube expansion are slowly increasing.

Meanwhile, 3D-printing techniques, such as Continuous Liquid Interface Production, Rapid Liquid Printing and Carima-Continuous Additive 3D Printing Technology, could enable on-demand printing of parts or entire buildings in the future.

These 3D-printed structures will be more flexible and improve structural stability, increasing the life cycle and decreasing maintenance in the built environment while reducing the input of resources.

The indirect impact of 3D printing is even bigger. It could enable personalized, local fabrication of goods, reducing emission-intense transportation and the construction of logistics hubs as well as industrial properties, which are responsible for soil-sealing.

The impact of 3D printing on sustainability will be exponentially enhanced as soon as bio-polymers can be used for large-scale projects.

Synthetic biology will enable the creation of sustainable bio-plastics, which could be used for construction or manufacturing. In the long-term future, we might see the growth of connected infrastructure with synthetic, bio-engineered, photo-synthesizing surfaces in the built environment producing regenerative energy, structures that heal or materials storing and transmitting data.

While the combination of these technologies might provide a more sustainable built environment, it may also disrupt manufacturing and logistics, affecting entire communities’ job markets.

Impact of automation on real estate demand

While there are many parameters influencing the likelihood of automation, it is almost certain that our working environment will change significantly and the requirements regarding real estate assets will change accordingly.

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We could see more cultural spaces within former commercial districts.

As automation and digitalization further infuse our current work environment, demand for office space may slightly diminish and demand for connected space may increase. As a result, the need for technical compatibility and flexibility in remaining commercial properties will be of paramount importance.

With more automation and remote working, we might see the redevelopment of office spaces into residential properties or even an exodus from cities into cheaper, more rural environments.

But as the cultural pull of cities is likely to prevail, we could see more cultural spaces within former commercial districts, reviving the city as a hub of creativity and interpersonal exchange. Hence, community and culture will be the defining features in future cities.

Automating logistics and manufacturing, as previously described, will increase demand for highly flexible, connected and server-equipped real estate. Analogue developments might be abandoned.

Shifts in the job market will not only affect our professions but also our living and working environments – the entire spectrum of the built environment. Home owners, city planners and corporate real estate developers will need to think about the future appeal and usefulness of any space, whether residential, commercial or industrial.

Value through data – the real estate business model of the future

North Americans and Britons spend more than 80 percent of their lives in buildings. The statistic is likely to be the same for most industrialized countries, and developing countries are likely to follow suit.

Hence, real estate is the modern environment of a human being in the industrialized world. While this is worrying in the context of health, this trend is likely to continue.

We will see more online retail in the future, with the increasing number of people working from their home office and individuals completely immersed in virtual realities.

If there is not an external shock or massive behavior change in society, we will spend more than 90 percent of our time in properties on average. Since these are increasingly equipped with sensors and connected, granular datasets about our daily life will soon be readily available.

Devices like Amazon’s Echo Dot, connected home appliances, surveillance technology or sensors helping to create adaptive working and living environments will aggregate data about our consumption, sleeping, arguing and working patterns.

Living labs – houses where people are fully observed to obtain data for research – are already a niche-phenomenon and a plausible vision of the future.

Office workers or residents will be offered “free” space in exchange for their data. A future business model could lie in mining the 90 percent of humanity’s behavior, available for study because of our time spent in buildings.

Personalized and targeted ads could pervade our built environment. As such, the future value of a property might not lie in its planning, construction or use but in the data generated within its walls.

This article first appeared on World Economic Forum and was republished with permission.
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Viktor Weber is the founder and director of the Future Real Estate Institute.

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