Q&A: Innovation and sustainability in real estate

The recent Women in IT Summit Canada explored how organisations can be more sustainable, while innovating and increasing diversity, equity and inclusion. Following the event, Jennifer Rosenak, regional director & insight advisory, and Jon Gibson, Global Director, ESG at summit sponsors Avison Young, discussed how the real estate space has been embracing the need to innovate, as well as the company’s own innovation and ESG efforts.

What would you say are the biggest challenges that the real estate space has been facing when it comes to innovation?

Jennifer: I see three primary hurdles to innovation in the real estate space. One has to do with the lack of transparency in markets, which creates a challenge for people or clients to understand how to navigate the space.

Second is a lack of collaboration, to date. I see a lot of players in the space who see an opportunity and are developing innovative technology, but there’s still a lot of people all trying to solve for similar problems, and I think we could probably move the needle more if there were more collaboration in this space.

The third area is a result of just how busy everyone has been in the last decade. Because 2010-2020 was a decade of growth for landlords, brokers and sales professionals, trying to adopt new technologies was a more challenging proposition. We are now starting to transition away from this constant busy period, so we can refocus attention on technology creation. Also, the COVID-19 pandemic was devastating to the global population, bringing about the need to refocus on creating and adopting new technologies.

Jonathan: In terms of the traditional real estate market, I think one challenge lies in the now commoditised and fragmented nature of the industry — clients need to take a step back and really think about the more strategic objectives of their business, and where they’re heading over a longer period of time. This goes beyond just the short term, quarterly or annual performance. They’re starting to think about their purpose. Advisors also need to work backwards from the needs of clients and be more strategic about presenting a solution.

Secondly, I’d say a lack of diversity in terms of the talent pool is another important challenge to consider. There’s been progress, but it’s not changing fast enough. So we do need more people like Jennifer and some of our other tech-minded colleagues to bring a different perspective. This is a big part of our values, and something we want to change because DEI will help us to provide better services, and quality of advice.

What would you say have been the most valuable and innovative technologies that Avison Young has deployed?

Jennifer: I’m biased, but I think this would be the platform that I have been involved with and aligned with since I joined the firm. Around October of 2020, we rolled out a global data and technology platform with a mission to solve for some of those challenges that I had mentioned prior, the first being to help make markets more transparent. Secondly, it’s intended to integrate and analyse multi-dimensional data, so not just real estate data, but any customer-centric data that could be relevant or applicable to a particular client.

We integrate that with with real estate data, and ultimately what the platform is intended to do is streamline the process of decision making for our clients. Whether it’s a business decision, real estate decision, or both, our our aim is to make that a lot easier for them.

Jonathan: Coming from a building performance lens, we’ve been looking to understand how buildings are performing from the perspective of mainly environmental metrics, with the aid of smart sensor technology. This includes how much energy is being consumed, and how much water and waste are being produced.

Something as simple as a click of a button, in real time, is really enabling better insights and better decisions to make buildings perform better. That’s good for the environment, and good for carbon reduction targets.

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Could you please talk us through the most prominent ways in which Avison Young has been helping clients to promote sustainability?

Jonathan: The first way we look at ESG is by ensuring that our own operations have a strategy, and a vision which is tied to our purpose. We’ve had a longstanding sustainability strategy for over 10 years, so you have to constantly reassess the materiality of impacts and see, which feed into our core business strategy. This isn’t something that sits on the side; rather it’s integrated into everything we do, and we reassessed every two years.

We’re also in the process of creating a brand new global ESG strategy for our business, which is very exciting, and we make sure that we’re living our values and showing our clients how to be a sustainable company.

We make impact not just in the buildings that we occupy, but also in the way we travel and conduct our business. To mitigate this, we recently introduced an electric vehicle staff benefit programme in the UK, which will allow us to be more sustainable, while gaining corporate benefit.

We focus on learning, development and knowledge transfer, which means ensuring that we don’t just have our sustainability team that knows all about the trends. We make sure that all staff are aware of these trends, and how we can advise clients in an integrated way.

What office space trends do you see occurring over the next few years, when it comes to improving sustainability and innovation?

Jonathan: Looking in that broader sense of ESG, we’re seeing huge changes, so it’s not just about being in a green building, and whether there’s a label that shows we’re in a green building. It’s is now really about looking to innovate and create a properly sustainable workspace. Anything that is a visible demonstration of the corporate values when occupying buildings and then fitting out those buildings for staff is really, really important. Health and wellbeing now has been linked to tangible benefits, and you can future proof your workplace and workforce as a company.

One other trend we’ve identified around zero carbon is known as the ‘(work)force of nature’. This encompasses the concept that millennials and Gen Z employees are choosing which employer to work for, based on factors in which they identify with. Climate change and environmental impact was found to be the highest factor, with nearly nine out of 10 Gen Z employees being concerned about the health of the planet. So, this can be a differentiator for companies.

Jennifer: For me, a major office trend will be the amenities in office buildings becoming must haves, rather than nice to haves. This will include more technology features, of course, but I also see human connections becoming increasingly important – the collaborative things that we simply can’t do from home. Employees will need a reason to get back into the office, whether this is a place to have in-person meetings, social events like team lunches, or a fitness facility. This will be very important going forward.

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Aaron Hurst

Aaron Hurst is Information Age's senior reporter, providing news and features around the hottest trends across the tech industry.