Our built environment and its entire value chain are in the wake of a severe transformation. Artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things, robotics and other technologies are not only responsible for the emergence of smart cities, automated processes and new business opportunities, but a change to the rules underpinning the real estate industry.

The impact of technological disruption on this industry transcends the possible automation of construction or robotic substitution of real estate agents. Technological innovation will prolong our life expectancy, severely alter the job market and affect our ecosphere and social life. How will these broader consequences shape our built environment?

Increasing longevity and our ageing society

Preventive and technologically-enhanced reactionary healthcare will significantly increase the longevity of future societies. While solutions such as CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing are still relatively nascent, they could pave the way for genetically-engineered, prolonged human life. This process is expedited by the datafication of our world, such as through the use of fitness trackers, a nutrition app or data won from sensors in a connected city.

Because of advances in healthcare research and increasingly granular datasets, there is a slow shift in academia to focus more on preventive rather than reactionary healthcare. Preventive healthcare of the future will, therefore, try to avert the occurrence of diseases rather than treating symptoms.

As a result, people in the industrialized world and beyond might on average reach their 90th birthday. Owing to regionally differing reproductive rates and the aforementioned advances in healthcare, we will see seismic shifts regarding population density and age. There will be an older population of about 10 billion, who will all want a place to live.

In older, less populated economies, such as future Germany, the built environment will have to adapt to the needs of an ageing society. Demand for individual properties is likely to decrease, while accessibility will become more important.

In more densely populated countries and mega-cities, demand for sustainably constructed, flexible, energy efficient “micro properties” will increase, because the current development and soil sealing rate would not be environmentally tolerable.

Sustainable real estate with 3D printing and synthetic biology

The real estate sector is accountable for more than 20% of carbon emissions, which must be significantly reduced to avoid further destabilizing our climate and to meet the challenges of future demographic change. The combination of 3D printing and synthetic biology might create a more sustainable industry.

The density of reports regarding 3D printed properties and infrastructure, such as micro houses, a commercial office building in Dubai or London’s new tube expansion, is slowly increasing. Meanwhile, 3D printing techniques, such as Continuous Liquid Interface Production, Rapid Liquid Printing and Carima-Continuous Additive 3D Printing Technology, could enable on-demand printing of parts or entire buildings in the future. These 3D printed structures will be more flexible and improve structural stability, increasing the life cycle and decreasing maintenance in the built environment, while reducing the input of resources.

The indirect impact of 3D printing is even bigger. It could enable personalized, local fabrication of goods, reducing emission-intense transportation and the construction of logistics hubs as well as industrial properties, which are responsible for soil-sealing.

The impact of 3D printing on sustainability will be exponentially enhanced as soon as bio-polymers can be used for large-scale projects. Synthetic biology will enable the creation of sustainable bio-plastics, which could be used for construction or manufacturing. In the long-term future, we might see the growth of connected infrastructure with synthetic, bio-engineered, photo-synthesizing surfaces in the built environment producing regenerative energy, structures that heal or materials storing and transmitting data.

While the combination of these technologies might provide a more sustainable built environment, it may also disrupt manufacturing and logistics, affecting entire communities’ job markets.

Impact of automation on real estate demand

It is predicted that nearly 50% of all current jobs might disappear by 2055, as a result of automation. While there are many parameters influencing the likelihood of automation, it is almost certain that our working environment will change significantly and the requirements regarding real estate assets will change accordingly.

Image: McKinsey Global Institute

As automation and digitalization further infuse our current work environment, we might see demand for office space slightly diminishing and demand for connected space increasing. As a result, the need for technical compatibility and flexibility in remaining commercial properties will be of paramount importance.

With more automation and remote working, we might see the redevelopment of office spaces into residential properties or even an exodus from cities into cheaper, more rural environments. But, as the cultural pull of cities is likely to prevail, we could see more cultural spaces within former commercial districts, reviving the city as a hub of creativity and interpersonal exchange. Hence, community and culture will be the defining features in future cities.

Automating logistics and manufacturing, as previously described, will increase demand for highly flexible, connected and server-equipped real estate. Analogue developments might be abandoned.

Shifts in the job market will not only affect our professions but also our living and working environments – the entire spectrum of the built environment. Home owners, city planners and corporate real estate will need to think about the future appeal and usefulness of any space, whether residential, commercial or industrial.

Value through data – the real estate business model of the future

North Americans and Britons spend more than 80% of their lives in buildings. The statistic is likely to be the same for most industrialized countries, while developing countries are probably moving towards it as well.

Hence, real estate is the modern environment of a human being in the industrialized world. While this is worrying in the context of health, it is a trend likely to continue. We will see more online retail in the future, an increasing number of people working from their home office and individuals completely immersed in virtual realities.

If there is not an external shock or massive behaviour change in society, we will spend more than 90% of our time in properties on average. Since these are increasingly equipped with sensors and connected, granular datasets about our daily life will soon be readily available.

Devices like Amazon’s Echo Dot, connected home appliances, surveillance technology or sensors helping to create adaptive working and living environments, will aggregate data about our consumption, sleeping, arguing, love making and working patterns. Living labs
houses where people are fully observed in order to obtain data for research – are already a niche-phenomenon and a plausible vision of the future.

Office workers or residents will be offered “free” space in exchange for their data. A future business model could lie in mining the 90% of humanity’s behaviour, available for study because of our time spent in buildings. Personalized and targeted ads could pervade our built environment. As such, the future value of a property might not lie in its planning, construction or use, but in the data generated within its walls.

Emergence of offline and online real estate

More granular data, provided by a wider and more diverse sensor network, could allow governments and corporations – depending on national legislation – to completely erase individual privacy. There is also the threat of cybercrime as well as cyberwarfare, which can exploit vulnerabilities in hardware and software.

To try and avoid the legal or illegal use of their data by benign or malign entities, citizens might opt for unconnected homes and offline spots in public spaces. It is plausible that we could see the emergence of offline real estate and companies specializing in removing sensors from buildings or providing anti-surveillance technology, if there will not be legislation against them. Indicators of this scenario already exist in privacy concerns regarding smart cities, rising scepticism regarding vast-scale data collection and usage, an emerging interest in offline-living and companies offering de-droning solutions.

Connectivity could become a divisive force in our society. One camp will cherish the inferences from data, such as personalized recommendations and adaptive systems in the built environment; the other will not see the positive aspects, but rather the potential means for malign system infiltration or government and corporate abuse. Based on the interest in offline living that seems to be present in predominantly more wealthy parts of the industrialized world, we will view “offline time” as a luxurious commodity.

We decide which future to live in

The future of our built environment is in our hands. We can decide in which houses we want to live, in which offices and factories we want to work or where we want to spend our free time.

We are the ones that can raise our voices against the datafication of our lives. We are the ones that can enjoy personalized shopping experiences provided by artificially intelligent recommendation systems. It is also within our realm to decide whether to technically enhance our life expectancy or to purchase solutions from corporations that are automating their workforce.

It is vital to foster more holistic thinking, connecting the dots between technological, environmental, ethical, legal, political and societal changes - not just within the built environment, but any aspect of life. This is the only way we as a society can build a common vision for your future.