Outdoor Speaker Series: Innovation in Real Estate Development

Four real estate and development professionals speaking on the May Outdoor Speaker Series panel, moderated by Mindgrub's Todd Marks

As a company of perpetual learners, we relish the opportunity to bring people together to discuss the latest innovations in their industry. The Outdoor Speaker Series was created as a platform for thought leaders to share their unique perspectives and learn from one another.

This year, we kicked off the second annual Outdoor Speaker Series with a panel on technology and innovation in the construction and real estate development industries.

The event brought together over 120 Baltimore-area development industry professionals for engaging conversations over food from Mindgrub Cafe and drinks from our next-door neighbors, Diamondback Brewing Company.

Our panelists included:

  • David Dymond, Project Architect at Gensler
  • Josh Peters, SVP at Bozzuto Construction Company
  • Yasmine Doumi, Development Manager at Weller Development
  • Janet Delaney, CFO at Plano Coudon
  • Todd Marks, CEO at Mindgrub (moderator)

Here are the biggest takeaways from the evening’s discussions:

On collaboration

The earlier all parties can meet together - designers, managers, developers, property managers, and even prospective customers - the easier it is to integrate new technologies into a project, David pointed out. It’s at this point that dependencies and potential roadblocks can be identified and addressed.

The earlier everyone is involved, the better expectations can be managed, added Janet. Contractors often wind up playing the bad guy that says “no” and “that won’t work.” If everyone has a seat at the table from the start, everyone will be on the same page when it’s time to break ground, and the project will run more smoothly.

The shift is starting to happen. Recognizing this need to have all parties involved is a big change in itself. “We want to help clients see the benefit of getting contractors involved from the napkin-sketch design stage,” said Josh. “The design-build approach is starting to come into the apartment building industry,” and for good reason.

On the end goal

Designers and developers are dreamers. They’re often asked, “Who do you want to be?” Do you want to be just functionally connected? Or do you want to be transformative? Do you want to blow their socks off with the experience technology enables?

“It’s such a careful process because when you are trying to determine what to do, it needs to be all about the end goal. Why are you making these decisions? Each step of the technology evaluation process needs to start with the reason why you’re doing it,” said Yasmine.

Making those goals achievable is a lot about mitigating expectations, Janet affirmed, and it ties back to having everyone at the table so those end goals are within the agreed-upon budget and timeline.

By considering the final goal, you might find that the technology needed is less “innovative,” but more functional.

Yasmine laid out a great example of this: Say the client wants facial recognition technology that can open doors. For that to work, you need a lot of cameras, wires, and infrastructure. If the end goal is a door that opens without a key, an easier alternative might be a key fob or an app on your phone.

You have to assess the costs associated with the wow-factor desired. Is it ethical? Does it make sense with the client’s capital?

On the transition from “location, location, location” to “data, data, data”

Of this, Josh said, “Data is our number one resource.” The ability to forecast, to define KPIs, and to monitor them with custom dashboards is growing more important every day.

There is so much data out there, with so much potential. For instance, Bozzuto uses behavior data to discover what is needed to attract new residents and to select amenities - like expensive pools, or rooftop dog walks - that drive occupancy rates by adding to that sanctuary-like feeling millennials want from their homes.

On using data to create smarter cities

Data collection and analysis on a grand scale has the potential to transform our cities.

“With a large project like Port Covington, we can use data to make suggestions to cities on how to detect and plan for certain trends,“ Yasmine explains. When a multi-building development is managed by one company, they gather anonymous information at scale, like where a cell phone (or several) is/are located within a given area. Using this information, patterns arise about humans and crowds and how they impact the environment. This data helps master developers and cities plan for crowd control, trash collection, public transportation, and more.

“We have the opportunity to run pilot programs. We can measure these trends and give feedback to the city,” Yasmine adds. “We can say, 12 people a day jaywalk at this intersection. If you start handing out $15 tickets, you can make this much revenue over time and increase public safety.”

On future-proofing physical buildings

A hot topic, designing for the future depends heavily on the client’s appetite and ability to invest, David emphasized.

Josh added that with every aspect of a design, the question is what will have that 5+ year staying power? It’s not about the shiny new toy, it’s about the goals we are solving for and what technology will help us meet those goals.

“People are always on edge that the tech is going to change at the drop of the hat, but things aren’t really changing that quickly,” Yasmine pointed out. In all the years it’s been around, the iPhone hasn’t changed all that much. Technology isn’t all the same; different things have different lifespans, and it’s important that developers are educated on the specs of each piece of tech and how long it’s expected to last.

It takes years to complete a project, and no one can reliably predict what aspects of technology will come and go over the life of a project. Flexibility is key in design and development, the panelists agreed.

On top tech choices for developers

To close out the conversation, Todd asked each of the panelists, “If all the technology in the world was at your disposal, what would you invest in?”

For Janet, it’s all about artificial intelligence (AI). “There’s going to be a lot of cognitive ability to these products that will only continue to grow.”

Yasmine chose wireless internet. “People are beginning to expect wifi as a public utility.”

If forced to choose, Josh said he would go with wireless electricity. We already use it to charge our phones, what else could that technology be applied to?

Josh also emphasized the importance of industry-wide investment in research and development. Currently, the agriculture industry invests 3x more in R&D, and manufacturing invests 10x more. “That’s what will help us be more operationally efficient and allow us to stand by our initiatives,” he stated.

David would like to see technologies that reduce stress, either by making something more convenient or by raising awareness of the right amenity at the right time.

David also made a great case for human creativity in the design process: “If we just design based on measuring what is liked, we’re homogenizing. If everyone has a food hall, food halls will suck.”

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