How much is your real estate portfolio exposed to skeuomorphism? It’s not normally a question faced by investors. But perhaps it should be.
Skeuomorphism is defined as a contemporary object that retains design elements from structures that are no longer necessary. In the digital world, it is everywhere: the ‘save’ icon on your computer that looks like a long-defunct floppy disk; the mechanical shutter sound on a digital camera that has no real shutter.
Magnus Lindkvist, a Swedish futurologist, introduced the term to delegates at this year’s annual INREV conference in Barcelona. It is related to the issue of obsolescence – a concept more commonly occupying real estate investors’ minds.
After delegates had spent most of the day watching presentations on conference iPads – themselves filled with skeuomoprhs – one panellist admitted to preferring “a yellow pad and pencil” when it came to real estate investing.
David Sherman, president of Metropolitan Real Estate – a multi-manager platform owned by The Carlyle Group – was speaking on a discussion panel about the impact of technology on real estate markets. For him, the primary importance of technology was how it was influencing where tenants wanted to be. The burgeoning office market in New York’s Chelsea district – and not Midtown – is where tech companies want to be – ever since Google set up shop there.
Lindkvist had earlier shown a picture of a 1980s office interior, with its concentration of computer cubicles, at the time considered cutting edge. The contrast with today’s open-plan, hot-desk, paperless commercial space highlights the very real risk of obsolescence in the sector.
A presentation by Peter Hobbs, heard of research at MSCI, showed how capital expenditure on existing buildings was markedly higher in the US versus Europe, possibly because of the greater potential of obsolescence in a country where land is less constrained. According to Hobbs, asset managers are looking to understand better the effect of capex on investment performance. Offices – where renovation is often a necessity – are central to the issue.
Some even have golf courses, as Luis Bobillo, head of organisation at Banco Santander revealed. The Spanish bank’s headquarters on the outskirts of Madrid – known as Santander City – has enough surrounding land to fit in several holes for its employees. The bank’s move away from the city centre is in stark contrast to the urbanisation trend gripping much of the corporate world.
But obsolescence risk in the office sector could become moot if investors begin to shift away to less volatile sectors: namely, retail, logistics, residential and alternative sectors. PGGM senior strategist Maarten van der Spek was clear that the Dutch pension fund manager was favouring this direction.
A straw poll of the audience, delivered via the conference iPads, showed investors were fairly evenly split on which sectors had been most affected by technology advancement: it was either retail or logistics.
The former is feeling the impact of online shopping and has responded with ‘multi-channel’ and ‘omni-channel’ business models, but it is perhaps the latter that has really embraced technology.
Bahram Motamedian, managing director of portfolio management at USAA Real Estate Company, spoke about how automation in logistics was transforming the sector. Amazon, for which USAA has built a number of fulfilment centres in the US, is now thinking in terms of cubic metres rather then square metres. The biggest sections of the buildings are automated and do not need heating or air-conditioning.
The only skeuomoprhs to be found are likely to be inside the thousands of delivery packages.