Assets vs. Access: A Digital Reality For Commercial Real Estate

The commercial real estate industry is one of the slowest to adapt to the digital age. But it has to change its mental and business models or risk getting disrupted by tech innovators. In this article, authors Michael BermanBarry LibertMegan Beck and Jerry (Yoram) Wind outline a five-step process called PIVOT to help companies change. This article is part of a series on thriving in the digital era.

Berman is a fellow at the Penn Institute for Urban Research as well as the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. Libert is the CEO of OpenMatters, a firm specializing in business model science, and Beck is the chief insights officer. Wind is a Wharton marketing professor. Libert, Beck and Wind also wrote the book, The Network Imperative: How to Survive and Grow in the Age of Digital Business Models. They would like to thank LiquidHub for sponsoring the research that informs this series.

Commercial Real Estate
Photo by midiman

“The way we lived, the way we consumed, this whole ownership economy much of it emerged out of driving our cars. We built a big house in the suburbs, we moved there, we acquired stuff. The direction of change here is probably different, but it’s comparable in how profound it was and the societal implications.”

— Arun Sundararajan, New York University professor on the development of the ownership mindset and how it’s all changing in the sharing economy

The commercial real estate market continues to simmer even as summer comes to a close. Prices are rising while cap rates are dropping. However, a strong prevailing wind is emerging. The first phase of digital development is finally arising in this location and asset-based industry where technology has long played a minimal role. And for good reason — this is the real asset industry by all measures.

Today’s technologies — social, mobile, cloud, Big Data and the Internet of Things — are being used on the residential side of the industry, with the likes of Zillow, HomeAway and Nextdoor having already made their mark. And these early winners are now blazing a path for the technology industry to change the way real estate is managed, owned and financed.

For those in the technology world with some background in real estate, the opportunity may seem obvious: Participants in the real estate industry can use technology to make faster and better decisions. But as noted, the real estate sector is one of the few remaining sectors of our economy that has created immense wealth with little or no technology know-how and interest.

Assets are losing ground to access, whether the assets are hotels, homes or apartments.

This industry has always believed that location, location, location rules. But in the mobile world, where ‘location’ is mainly virtual — many things can be done through smartphones — assets are losing ground to access, whether the assets are hotels, homes or apartments.

Commercial Real Estate: A Big Market Opportunity

The reason why technology is hungry to play in this historically analog world is clear — commercial real estate (CRE) is a huge market. Broadly speaking, real estate is the largest single asset class in the United States, worth an estimated $50 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve.

More specifically, residential housing is the single largest “tangible” U.S. real estate asset class, worth roughly $26 trillion, and commercial real estate accounts for another $24 trillion. To put these numbers in perspective, as an asset class, real estate is meaningfully larger than other heavyweight asset classes like fixed income (bonds) and equity (stocks).

That’s why Airbnb is merely the first of many technology startups to capitalize on this greenfield opportunity by changing the very definition of real estate and the value of owning it. Indeed, many high-flying sharing economy companies prove that individuals increasingly prefer the value of access versus asset ownership — and the numbers show it.

According to a 2015 PwC report, Americans see many benefits to the sharing economy: 86% believe it makes life more affordable, 83% say it adds convenience and efficiency while 63% see it as more fun than engaging with traditional companies. Further, the practice of sharing assets is making Americans rethink the value of ownership — 81% agree it is less expensive to share goods than owning them while 43% say owning feels burdensome.

And here’s the kicker: 57% see access as the new ownership.

The commercial real estate industry, which includes multifamily complexes, and the related CRE finance, are grounded in concepts dating back to 19th and early 20th centuries. Since real estate consists of hard assets, location still largely defines the role of everyone in the industry. For example, office buildings, shopping centers, hotels, industrial properties and apartment buildings have long underpinned the business and mental models of this massive industry — as well as define its source of value.

The premise of the tech disruptors is simple: Let the commercial real estate companies own the assets and we will own the platforms.

That’s rapidly changing. The technology industry and players like Airbnb, Zillow, WeWork and RealtyMogul are transforming long cherished beliefs of the industry and the interaction of its players — tenants, owners, financiers, and agents. The premise of the tech disruptors is simple: Let the CRE companies own the assets and we will own the platforms that enable residents and tenants to access what they need, when they need it, whenever they need it, using today’s real time, Big Data and cloud technologies.

So the key question is this: Should the commercial real estate industry embrace the digital world or take the risk of letting tech startups disrupt it from the outside? (That’s what Facebook did to the corporate world — capturing 1.6 billion customers and then renting them back to Corporate America.) Our answer: Incumbents need to pivot their strategy and leadership today or lose value to nimbler, technology-first firms that understand it is better to represent the customer (business or consumer) than the supplier (CRE assets).

CRE and Digital Disruption

According to research by McKinsey, just about every industry is going through some form of digital disruption. But many industries have been slow to adapt — and CRE is among the slowest. Nonetheless, it finally may be waking up to the opportunity at hand: In today’s digital economy, every person carries their ‘location’ with them every day. People use their laptops, tablets or smartphones anywhere they want (homes, cafes, hotel lobbies and airports). Given this reality, if real estate wants to create value and not lose it as virtual technologies like AR and VR create even more alternatives to the fixed asset industry, CRE leaders must begin to take action:

— While continuing its transition to a more corporate model, where corporate discipline, capital formation, core competencies, and branding are recognized and embraced, it is time to catch up to other industries in adapting and embracing the digital age. Why does the CRE industry lag others? At the core of the CRE business proposition is the assumption that growing the business means acquiring hard assets one at a time. Scale lets them increase profitability.

Conversations with senior commercial real estate executives on embracing

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