BUT, OVERALL, THAT’S A GOOD THING, SAYS ASIA-PAC SYMPOSIUM
The fact that global digital transformation has had an impact on almost every industry on the planet is hardly news to anybody who has been an active participant in the workforce over the last decade. What’s strange is, real estate and the professions that are associated with it have been among the last to embrace this change.
However, that is finally changing, according to participants of the recently-held 2nd Asia Pacific Leadership Symposium in Hong Kong last week.
Carrying the theme “The Future Is Now”, the event was jointly organised by organised by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and by the World Economic Forum (WEF), and it highlighted that the last couple of years have seen a significant embrace of technology-based building and marketing solutions in the development industry.
Speakers at the symposium noted that these days, industry players are employing computer-aided design, new construction technologies, and even augmented reality marketing solutions among other innovative technologies that are poised to have profound consequences in the industry.
A new white paper, eponymously titled The Future Is Now, summarizes the symposium discussions and argues that with so much new tech on the horizon, the issue for developers is how to pick out the most promising new technologies amidst a sea of potentially disruptive candidates.
“Cutting-edge tech that may seem appealing at first glance may still be unsuited for real-world applications, because it is either underdeveloped or too expensive, or too hard to scale,” the report states.
Some examples highlighted by participants include fascinating and potentially profoundly transformative advances in materials technology, such as organic admixtures that use mushroom-derived or calcium-secreting bacteria that allow buildings to be “grown” or repaired. (See our story on self-healing concrete here).
However, while such advances are promising, many remain in the development stage or have not yet proven themselves on a large-scale commercial platform.
One area that developers are more certain about is the potential of new software design tools to manage construction work.
“That’s where the mojo is… it’s going to transform current practices,” said one participant.
The system that has already gained considerable traction is Building Information Modeling (BIM), which replaces traditional hardcopy blueprints with 3-D computer modeling. The system, combined with the easy availability of handheld devices that allow the concept to be applied onsite, gives it a game-changing advantage over legacy paper-based systems. It helps architects and contractors to collaborate more easily and make on-the-fly alterations to existing designs.
The symposium also discussed the construction of Sweden’s newly opened 12,000-room New Karolinska Hospital, the world’s largest-ever public-private partnership hospital project. Its complex design was executed using a BIM platform.
Post-construction, BIM is also being used at New Karolinska for handling overall facility management.
“As the hospital’s BIM model contains all construction data in a single plan, managers know immediately which materials are used in any part of the building, where all components are located, and exactly what part will be needed to repair any given equipment breakdown,” the report said.
The symposium noted that there are a number of factors behind the slow pace of change in the real estate industry is slow, the primary reason being the lack of urgency for change.
“A 60-year-old building may not have the high-speed lifts and all the bells and whistles,but it’s not unoccupiable. This means the useful life of buildings is extremely resilient, which in turn is one of the reasons why the pace of tech growth has been so slow,” said a construction professional who attended the event.
Another big obstacle to progress is a general resistance from the status quo. One developer pointed out that architects tasked with customising individual units are often resistant to the idea because they prefer the ease of standardised design to the alternative, which is dealing with so many individual players.
Also, contractors are still reluctant to invest in new technology, even as tech costs continue to fall.
However, a major roadblock has also been regulation. The high level of oversight in Asia’s construction industries is a result of a need to ensure building safety, creating deep bureaucratic roots with a byproduct of this culture being that widespread adoption of new technologies requires wholesale changes in existing building codes and approval processes, said the whitepaper report.
This is a tall order in an environment where bureaucratic mind-sets remain generally backward-looking and have little reason to push through new rules.
Despite this, change is being propagated by a few forward-thinking governments. Most notably, Singapore has encouraged its local industry to embrace new technology, stating: “bureaucratic inertia is the invisible hand inhibiting change.”
In Hong Kong for example, alterations are prohibited until an occupation permit is issued meaning that customisation on the go is impossible, and the desire for buildings to be adaptable for mixed use purposes is also frustrated by a zoning system that controls buildings serving multiple functions.
While most participants were fairly pessimistic about the short-term prospects of persuading regulators to adapt the existing prescriptive framework, there is a growing perspective that consumer pressure could ultimately lead to a move from the current specifications-based mind-set towards a more performance-based approach enabled by technology that can monitor building performance.
“This symposium once again highlighted the importance of the partnership between ULI and the WEF. Together our global organizations are considering issues that are of profound importance to the industry and society at large,” said John Fitzgerald, Chief Executive Officer, Asia Pacific, ULI.
“We are nearing a global tipping point and digital transformation is an area that the real estate industry cannot ignore. ULI will continue to alert our members to the relevant technological developments in our industry, and we hope that ULI and WEF will continue to provide the leadership and platform for relevant and constructive cutting edge idea sharing,” added Nicholas Brooke, Chairman of the ULI – WEF Symposium.
The ULI is a non-profit education and research institute supported by its members. Its mission is to provide leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide.
Established in 1936, the institute has more than 40,000 members worldwide representing all aspects of land use and development disciplines, including more than 2,000 in Asia.