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AI WBEF webinar
Digital Transformation

Who will develop the city of the future?

Across the world, cities of all sizes are wrestling with the climate emergency, affordability concerns, liveability shortfalls and public health issues. Those prepared to continuously innovate will be best placed to succeed.

Sander Scheurwater, Director of Communications, Marketing and External Affairs – Europe, RICS
23 September 2020

How are technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data and 5G developing, and to what extent will they change the real estate and construction sectors? Can these technologies drive sustainability gains in the cities of the future? And what are the skills needs we must address today, if we want to build for tomorrow?

Before we can say who will develop the city of the future, we need to first understand what the city of the future will look like. Jean-Philippe Aurambout, Scientific Officer at the Joint Research Center of the European Commission, cites AI as among the commission’s principal areas of focus. With its capacity to rapidly analyse large volumes of data and identify the patterns therein, AI promises significant advances in the realm of city development. These benefits range from the optimisation of transport networks, “real time” infrastructure maintenance, expansion of housing supply and energy efficiency gains. To this end, the European Commission is supporting a series of initiatives, including a system of continent-wide data collection. 

AI’s got talent…

Carlos Alvarez Ramallo, Industry Manager at Google, defines AI as “computers with the ability to learn without being programmed to do so.” This, he says, amounts to the mimicking of human behaviour. AI is increasingly being integrated into work processes and, as a result, we see new job specialisations emerging and existing roles being adapted.

AI’s got talent, do humans? Who will develop the city of the future

European cities will have to adapt to new factors such as next technologies and an increasing ageing population; but these changes will have to take place in an integrated, affordable and sustainable manner within pre-existing urban fabric. Cities will cope with existing issues, such as providing sufficient affordable housing to an increasingly varied population, ensuring inclusiveness and integration among its communities, and reducing environmental impacts. But who will develop those cities of tomorrow and which skills matter most?

Disruption is certain, and according to Ramallo, “We must open our minds, welcome, and adopt new business models.” This is true beyond the confines of the real estate industry. Disruption will mainly come from outside the sector and will have a “silent future impact” on real estate. Is urban design taking future urban mobility (car-sharing, self-driving cars) into account? With the spectacular growth in e-commerce and home delivery, drones look set to become key tools in logistics and supply chains. Are buildings designed and ready to facilitate this?

Irrespective of how disruption occurs or where it originates, connectivity and place experience will be of increasing importance in future. So says Elisa Rönkä, Head of Digital Market Development in Europe at Siemens. Thinking is already shifting beyond the Internet of Things to the Internet of Experiences. Buildings that currently exist as “human warehouses” will become contributors to the operations of the companies they house, as well as the experiences of said companies’ staff.

Technology can be a key lever for driving human behaviour – as long as it continues to feel intuitive and fluid, and not intrusive. In order for technology to remain unobtrusive, what we now know as soft-skills will become hard skills. In an increasingly tech-led world, inherently human characteristics such as empathy, collaboration, emotional intelligence and creativity can only become more valuable.

In order for technology to remain unobtrusive, what we now know as soft-skills will become hard skills. In an increasingly tech-led world, inherently human characteristics such as empathy, collaboration, emotional intelligence and creativity can only become more valuable.

…Do humans (still) have talent?

Alex Eugenio Sala, Head of Human Resources and Organisation at Generali Real Estate explains how traditional real estate companies can prepare the workforce of today for the world of tomorrow. New skills must be learned and existing, relevant skills updated.

First, urban transformation remains a key concern. Rather than making decisions at a distance, Sala believes it will remain crucial to have people present in the cities where they work. Proximity to local trends and developments will not cease to matter in a tech-enabled future. New skills will revolve around data, AI and automation, as well as sustainability.

Equally important will be how we learn. Life-long learning is no longer desirable but essential. In the past, formal education might have led directly to secure work for school leavers. But the constancy of change in our time means we must seek always to upskill ourselves. Of course, learning can become more difficult as we get older. This is just another piece in the skills puzzle.

Much of what is vital for the current workforce will remain important for the talent of tomorrow. Professor Verena Rock, Course Director in Digital Real Estate Management at the Technische Hochschule, notes that many traditional knowledge requirements will remain. The next generation of built environment professionals will likely enter the workforce armed with a deep understanding of information technology, as well as interdisciplinary and cooperative working. But their understanding of the real estate value chain will need to be coached. As Prof Rock puts it, “Real estate remains real.” Professionals will need to understand how it works in the real world.

The manner in which skills are taught will become increasingly blended – incorporating in-person and digital elements – and increasingly modular. This will mirror changes in the way we conceive of places themselves.

In conclusion, humans do have talent and there remains no substitute for human excellence. In an increasingly tech-led world, the peculiar traits of humanity will take on greater, rather than lesser, importance. Empathy, understanding and experience will be ever more highly prized – of that, we can be confident. Whether such qualities are inherited, or can be taught, remains open to question.