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PropTech Connect: Somehow the twain must meet

by Mark Cantrell
Paul Glibbery, chief information officer at Grainger PLC, on stage at PropTech Connect in September 2023

At last week’s PropTech Connect event in London, keynote speak Paul Glibbery of Grainger PLC, had a few key messages on melding property and technology

Technology, as we all know from our daily personal and professional lives, is fast-paced and relentless.

As many of the speakers and panellists at PropTech Connect admitted last week, the built environment is something of a Johnny-come-lately to the tech side, but the same need for speed applies.

Even businesses you might describe as old hands are moving to embrace the possibilities; in the process belying any notion some might hold that they’re lumbering dinosaurs.

Keynote speaker Paul Glibbery, chief information officer for Grainger PLC, exemplified this with gusto in his session, Delivering Technology at Speed and Scale.

Grainger has been around for 110 years, so it’s really quite a mature business, but as Glibbery joked: “We have upgraded our IT systems in that time.”

He added: “We are turning into a much more data-driven business, but when I first arrived we were very much driven by anecdotal evidence. Now we are moving towards a much more data driven world, which is great.”

Glibbery later told the audience: “Technology has been involved in the built environment since time immemorial. We still don’t know how they built the pyramids, or how they achieved the level of accuracy in terms of how it was built, so technology has always been part of pushing the boundaries with built structures. Today, as well.”

But there’s no getting away from the fact that the built environment world, and the technology world, are different: each has their own cultural frames of reference, that reflects their very real day-to-day realities. But this doesn’t mean they can’t combine, Glibbery explained.

Long term fixture

Property, by its nature, is a long-term deal. Those buildings are going to be around a long time; fixtures of the future in a way that iterations of technology never will be.

Concomitantly, property involves big investments in both time and money and resources.

What’s more, the built environment is a heavily regulated area, “for our own good”. It’s a lumbering beast, because – in many ways – it has to be.

Technology, by contrast, is notorious for its agility and fast pace: you “just need a good idea”. Solutions can be quick to build and scale up, it’s not so heavily regulated.

Given its nature, however, the property sector tends to be risk averse, said Glibbery; unlike the technology sector. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself, Glibbery suggests.

“Of course we want people in the built environment to be risk averse, because we don’t want things to fall down,” he said.

There’s a little less risk of calamity if things fall down in the tech world, however, so it can take a more relaxed attitude to the possibility an idea might not pan out.

“In tech there’s a much more progressive approach to how you move forward,” Glibbery added. “Failure is almost seen as part of the development cycle. People willing to fail, push the boundaries, and learning from their mistakes.”

It’s that “risk tolerance” that’s really important, he said.

“I’m not advocating for the built environment that we take risk,” he added, “but when we start to embrace technology and put that in to the built environment, we do need to understand that it won’t always be right.

“The development cycle for technology versus the technology cycle for property, there’s a real clash there.

“If you specify what tech is going to go in your building when you break ground – you’d probably be wrong.

“Technology has been involved in the built environment since time immemorial.”

Paul Glibbery

Demonstrate value

“So, at some point you’ve got to accept what might be going in there, and accept it might not be perfect, but you will learn lessons from it, and you will be able to move forward.”

However, Glibbery went on to tell the audience that when proptech is presented to a business, it is important that it “demonstrates value”.

As Glibbery rhetorically asked the event: “What is the benefit you are going to deliver to the business?” Can you measure it, and when you deliver it, can you validate that it has actually delivered that benefit?”

Clearly a message to tech vendors not to get too carried away in their sales pitch; also, no doubt, to remain grounded in the practical challenges the property industry face when offering potential solutions.

It may be easy to get a bit carried away by the potential of new technology, but that’s no reason to dismiss it out of hand.

Indeed, as Glibbery went on to say, given the pace of change – and the potential possibilities involved – there is no luxury of dismissing technological innovation. Brick and mortar is no longer enough; if it ever really was.

“It’s super important that we bring property and proptech together,” Glibbery said, “because the rate of change of technology is just going to increase …

“In the technology world we tend to overestimate what will happen in five years, and underestimate what will happen in 10 years. [But] if we can’t get on the prop tech bandwagon now, there’s absolutely no chance of keeping up in the future.”

Main image: Paul Glibbery, chief information officer at Grainger PLC, on stage at PropTech Connect. Credit: Build in Digital

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