Technological innovation, from blockchain to shared-economy start-ups, threatens to unlock value that has always been hidden in real estate markets. Steve Weikal and Thomas Wiegelmann explain

WeWork became the largest non-governmental office tenant in central London and the second largest in Manhattan in just eight years. Airbnb, launched in 2008, now has more room inventory than the world’s largest five hotel companies combined, yet it does not own a building.

What has allowed WeWork and Airbnb to become so ubiquitous so quickly? For one thing, they created new, innovative business models to unlock value left in overlooked or underused real estate. Airbnb was envisioned as a way for hosts to make extra money by temporarily renting out empty bedrooms. WeWork, and other similar co-working programmes, saw opportunity in dividing vacant office space into smaller, less expensive units and renting them out to freelance workers and start-ups, benefiting from the lease arbitrage between their own lease terms and the much higher per-square-foot fees paid by its customers.

This fractional use of office real estate mirrors that of vacation time-shares and private jets, allowing customers to use and pay for only what they need when they need it, and owners to maximise revenue. But a broader industry trend is emerging, as technology allows the use of real estate in all product types to get broken up into smaller pieces and reconfigured in higher value combinations.  

Co-working is certainly not new. IWG (formerly Regus), the world’s largest provider of shared, serviced office space, was founded in 1989. But the explosive growth of WeWork’s modern interpretation of shared office space, and hundreds of other co-working ventures like it, is remarkable. The number of co-working venues worldwide grew exponentially from 1,130 in 2013 to 13,800 in 2017. According to the DeskMag Global Co-working Survey, several co-working spaces worldwide is projected to increase to 18,900 by end of this year.

Notably, co-working is evolving. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of co-working users identified as freelance or independent workers dropped by nearly half, while the percentage of workers from companies with more than 100 employees increased nearly six-fold. This is evidence that co-working has moved out of the domain of the freelance economy and into that of larger firms that use co-working to more flexibly manage their short and long-term real estate needs. The trend is supported IBM’s decision to occupy a single-tenant WeWork building in New York City.

Co-working ventures are beginning to specialise in a market segment or interest group. Impact Hub is a global network of 101 co-working locations for entrepreneurs, activists, and creative people, focused specifically on innovation for social and environmental change.  Similarly, La Ruche focuses on social entrepreneurship. 

In science and technology, Biolabs is co-working laboratory space for biotech start-ups; Founders House is a shared invitation-only workspace for technology startups and experienced tech entrepreneurs, and Cybertech offers co-working for companies involved primarily in cybersecurity. 

There are co-working spaces exclusively for women, including Hera Hub and The Wing, whereas Paragon provides space for start-ups in the cannabis industry. While most co-working venues still accept many types of company, this trend of industry or affinity-focused groups is likely to continue.

Beyond co-working

Hundreds of real estate tech start-ups are using technology in innovative ways to unlock real estate value in all product types. One category monetises different or under-used areas in office buildings. LiquidSpace is Airbnb for empty conference rooms, allowing them to be booked by groups such as sales teams and non-profit boards via mobile apps. 

PivotDesk is the Airbnb of office cubicles left vacant due to company downsizing – it was recently acquired by co-working provider Industrious. Groups can book empty desks for flexible lengths of time, providing additional income to the principal tenant. BetterSpaces provides pop-up amenities for office tenants, such as yoga classes, meeting space and educational programmes, and which can be moved as needed within the building as required. These examples all share flexibility, on-demand availability via an easy-to-use app, short-term use, and monetise unused office space.

A separate category of start-ups gathers data and optimises space that is seemingly at full occupancy. Using technology, they are increasingly effective at gathering data on user behaviour to provide a better understanding of real estate needs. Common questions include: what is the workspace used by employees and could we make do with less by hotelling or hot-desking? What size groups are using conference rooms and when; do we need more or fewer; should they be larger or smaller?  Do we really know how much parking is necessary for the tenants in our building; can we optimise the garage to accommodate more cars or charge surge pricing, perhaps allocating more spaces for higher-value public parking?

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Methods of addressing these questions vary by start-up. Rifiniti, for example, monitors Wi-Fi traffic from mobile devices to better understand how employees use space. Beco relies primarily on tiny, solar-powered beacons that communicate with mobile devices to analyse use of space and activity. Humanyze, based on research from the MIT Media Lab, analyses corporate communication data via the Humanyze Badge (a type of employee ID card) and enterprise channels such as Microsoft Office Exchange, Google Suite and Skype, to identify work patterns. InnerSpace uses a combination of technologies to provide ‘indoor GPS’ and analytics. And Smarking, another MIT start-up, uses complex analytics and sophisticated algorithms to make smarter pricing decisions and increase revenue for parking garages. Each of these examples help to analyse how real estate is used and inform decisions to optimise real estate needs and expenditure.

In retail, Storefront, Appear Here and Go-Popup offer a global platform for renting temporary pop-up shops, showrooms and event space that might otherwise stand empty. And b8ta provides retail-as-a-service for small vendors, with curated products and services that alternate regularly to provide an ever-changing experience for shoppers. 

For warehouse and storage buildings, Flexe and London-based Stowga are warehouse-as-a-service platforms, while Darkstore provides on-demand ‘micro fulfilment’ and distribution services from temporary, less desirable office or retail space – and even parking garages – solving the challenge of last-mile delivery. Storage Share makes vacant offices and retail space available to individuals on demand, for inexpensive, temporary storage.  

Other business models are helping optimise multi-family housing and unlock value in different ways. WhyHotel runs pop-up hotels in new apartment buildings during lease-up, providing check-in and concierge services and electronic entry to the units. When the building reaches 90% occupancy, the hotel ceases operations. Flip pre-qualifies renters with a FICO-like score so that new renters can seamlessly take over from former tenants, which minimises vacancies, reduces non-payment, and makes subleasing profitable for landlords.

Blockchain: bigger than bitcoin

As with artificial intelligence, machine learning, 3D printing and virtual reality, blockchain is one of the most cited developments when it comes to digitisation, or in general to future trends and technologies. Blockchain-based applications are in their early days in the real estate industry, and are scarcely implemented in the form of concrete products. However, it is clear that this technology possesses considerable potential for innovation, opening up new opportunities across the real estate industry.

Media coverage of digital currencies such as bitcoin often focuses on its usefulness as an alternative to traditional tender. However, other innovative uses are made possible by blockchain, the underlying technology platform that enables the digital currency system. 

A blockchain is a distributed database that maintains a growing list of ordered, permanent records, called blocks. It uses cryptography to allow each participant in a network to view and manipulate the ledger in a secure way without the need for a central, third-party authority. Importantly, a copy (or partial copy) of the shared ledger is saved on every computer connected to a blockchain network. Thus, a blockchain is a permanent, transparent, append-only, distributed record of an asset.

Importantly, some digital currencies do not function as a unit of value like money, but rather represent a unit of account or a means of exchange, which could be well-suited to real estate. Instead of a digital ‘coin’, these are referred to as ‘tokens’, which are created and distributed to the public through an initial coin offering (ICO), a means of crowdfunding by selling tokens to fund project development.

The challenge, says Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, is that there are no “legal, technical, or normative controls yet, and many people are taking advantage of this”. However, the ICO concept, secured and verified by blockchain, has intriguing possibilities for unlocking value in real estate.

co working space

How does it work? Atlant and Meridio are two examples of a platform for tokenising commercial real estate. In this model, an attorney or other qualified authority verifies that a given property has clean title, no debt or liens, and meets other parameters specified by the owner. A special purpose vehicle (SPV) is formed outlining a direct relationship between a declared number of tokens and the total value of a property. When the tokens are sold in an ICO, owners gain liquidity from their assets, while individuals and businesses worldwide can acquire part ownership in the property, sharing in the rental income or capital appreciation over time as provided for in the ICO agreement.  

While real estate ICOs are new, it is an innovative way to provide liquidity and remove friction in real estate, by creating secure markets for peer-to-peer transactions of partial or whole ownership of commercial and residential property. More scalable than real estate crowdfunding and more flexible than REITs, ICOs could become a viable mechanism for unlocking real estate value.

A shift in thinking

These tech start-ups identified by the MIT Real Estate Innovation Lab each work to optimise the use of real estate, making it more efficient and therefore more profitable. They view real estate as more of a flexible service than a long-term asset. 

Mark Grinis, the global head of real estate at business consultancy EY suggests that “commercial real estate is no longer a fixed asset – it is fluid” – quite a shift from long held assumptions about real estate as static and fixed.

What drives this new thinking about real estate? During the recent economic collapse, workers and work became more transient yet required a place other than the local Starbucks for conducting business. Co-working provided a relatively inexpensive community of gig workers, support resources, and a built-in social network. Moreover, the concurrent growth of the sharing economy made people more comfortable not only with staying overnight in someone’s spare bedroom via Airbnb or hitching a ride in a stranger’s car with Uber, but also with using temporary space like board rooms and empty desks or working in a communal environment like WeWork. 

A wave of new technology – ubiquitous connectivity and more powerful mobile devices, seamless easy-to-use apps, secure frictionless Blockchain transactions – enables real estate to be used in myriad new ways, reinforcing the idea that real estate is a service rather than a long-term commitment. Further impetus for the rapid growth of real-estate-focused technology has come from substantial venture capital. The average funding per proptech venture has experienced consistent growth over the past few years. 

Larger behavioural trends are emerging, as well. Worker accustomed to technology solutions in all areas of their lives expect the real estate business to be similarly equipped – yet this global industry still often runs on spreadsheets, a 40-year-old technology. Former real-estate careerists are launching start-ups to solve problems they experienced in the business, while technologists are eyeing a multi-trillion-dollar asset class that is ripe for disruption.

The impact of technology and innovation on the real estate industry cannot be understated.  Many new business models cause a change in time horizon; in the case of co-working, a shift from longer-term leases to shorter-term licenses. Even with more traditional leases, occupiers are pressing landlords for shorter tenure and more flexibility based on space requirements over time, which has implications for allocating tenant improvement costs, evaluating risk, underwriting, lending terms and even brokerage commissions.

Steve Weikal is head of industry relations at the Center for Real Estate, MIT, and founder of MIT’s Real Disruption. Thomas Wiegelmann is managing director at Blue Asset Management and honorary adjunct professor of Bond University

Property’s digital skeleton key