24 NOV 2020
Robert Herman wasn’t always a technologist. His career in the built environment, while rewarding, was a traditional one. After earning his MSc in real estate in the UK, he worked in development, asset management and investment for a Washington State Pension Fund backed Real Estate Operating Company where he was responsible for Central and Eastern Europe.
He learned the industry inside and out, from identifying properties and growth markets, creating value in built assets and managing spaces that empowered tenants and delivered on consumer needs and wants. He rose from analyst to executive over the course of nearly 12 years.
And then he caught the proptech bug.
“Real estate is a rewarding industry because it is, essentially, everything,” says Herman. “You create or operate spaces for how people live, work, shop, eat, get healthy and so on, and this makes the profession essential, but real estate is also the victim of its own success when it comes to technology and digitization.”
He saw industries across the globe being energized by new digital platforms, new functionalities, new algorithms, new tech hardware and, overall, new technology-driven efficiencies.
“In real estate, the mindset is very much that if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” says Herman.
After all, real estate isn’t an industry that can go out of business. It is one of the oldest human professions and is intrinsic to how society functions and people, on a very basic level, survive. Still, while complacency is a factor, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
“The stakes are also higher in real estate to adopt something new,” he says. “If there’s a mistake or something doesn’t work, it isn’t as easy to correct as fixing the code or finding a new app. All business investments have a degree of risk, but buildings are truly long-term assets and, to use a pun, concrete. Readjustments are costly, difficult and time- and labor-intensive. It isn’t that real estate is necessarily opposed to change; it’s just that the bar is high in terms of value that needs to be demonstrated.”
“This is why the best proptech solutions are typically driven by built environment professionals and experts.”
Herman’s background in development and asset management led him to link up with some professionals developing an exciting technology that uses 3-D cameras and self-driving car technology to map spaces quickly through the use of a camera helmet. Owners or potential investors can then access a virtual replica of the built space on their phones or tablets to help with decision-making and property strategy remotely and with a holistic view. It also can be used to provide data and context for AI algorithms and robotic applications. Together, Herman and his co-founders created REscan and he moved to San Francisco.
Especially now in a post-COVID-19 reality, real estate players are seeing the immense value of remote and collaborative technologies like the one that REscan provides.
COVID-19 didn’t create the need for these technologies, but it has certainly brought the need into relief and, as a result, proptech is accelerating quickly and we’re entering a new frontier in terms of standards and practices. For years we wondered when the technology was going to move the industry, and now we need the industry to help shape the ways we use the technology.
With REscan, for instance, privacy and information security is key. The technology removes people from the scans, so one person with the camera helmet can scan a 300,000-square-foot shopping mall, for instance, in a matter of two hours, without having to shut down the mall. Virtual or augmented spaces, though, create a whole new set of questions about rights and privacy that industry experts need to create standards for.
“This is where I see RICS being essential to proptech and the digitization of the real estate industry. Even in the fast-paced tech world, it’s necessary to take a step back and develop a framework for how we can work ethically and effectively for the good of everyone while still creating new efficiencies for a more sustainable and resilient future.”
This has been the major focus of Herman’s efforts on the Americas Board, where he pushes for the organization’s international network of experts across the real estate industry to help inform how technology is implemented, from sourcing and investment to building management.
“Enthusiasm is important, and that enthusiasm for digitization is going to ensure that creative young people continue to work in our industry, but at the same time, we can’t lose sight of time-tested industry knowledge. The underpinning of responsible property use is that we’re creating solutions for the good of everyone, and RICS can provide that while still evangelizing digitization.”