“Normal is over”: As Covid-19 surges, so does proptech

“The last thing you want is piles of packages in your lobby with residents going through them.”

Automated entry. Intelligent buildings. Package lockers on every other corner.

This is what urban living will look like in five years, thanks to technology that’s gaining traction during the coronavirus pandemic as property managers work to keep buildings running with minimal human contact.

“Property management is on the front lines,” said Felicite Moorman, founder of Stratis IoT, a software platform for automation management. She said the pandemic is changing the way building staff interact with visitors, delivery people and packages.

“There’s been a 60 percent increase in deliveries,” she said. “The last thing you want is piles of packages in your lobby with residents going through them.”

Moorman, along with Amazon’s Kent Woodyard and ButterflyMX CEO Cyrus Claffey, discussed how technology will be built around social-distancing measures in the long-term on the latest installation of TRD Talks Live, moderated by TRD editor-in-chief Stuart Elliott.

For many homebound New Yorkers, e-commerce is a lifeline that’s burdening already overwhelmed building staff.

“It’s become like a public utility at this point,” said Woodyard, a business development leader at Amazon, who said the company has seen elevated sales volume reminiscent of end-of-year holiday sales. “We look at the strain put on the supply chain when all of a sudden e-commerce goes from growing to forced adoption.”

Amazon is rolling out a tool called “Key,” which uses bluetooth technology to open doors and garages, and it’s continuing to build on existing products like Ring door cameras and the Alexa smart-home assistant. “It’s a cross-company lift right now,” he said.

ButterflyMX, a smart intercom provider, also has a touchless entry product that lets mail carriers into buildings.

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Claffey said companies that were on the fence about proptech are looking for tools to help building staff with an increased workload under trying conditions. For example, landlords who need to lease units have adopted virtual touring. With unattended common space, there’s also the question of how to maintain a clean environment or make the elevator more secure.

“New developments and retrofits will be incorporating a lot of this,” Claffey predicted. “It’s about adopting tech to help with an unprecedented need to provide services.”

But Woodyard noted that when it comes to the future of tech, people are thinking beyond social distancing and more about products that will simply improve operations — such as package lockers.

“We know that property management companies are stretched thin. On-site staff are stretched thin. They have better things to do than shuffle packages from a carrier to a resident,” Woodyard said. “It’s our fault,” he said, referring to Amazon’s e-commerce dominance, “so we’re trying to figure out how to serve property managers and customers as well.”

Moorman said retrofitting buildings is “not as complex as some property partners consider it to be.” Many new tools can help property owners optimize their buildings or make them more sustainable. For example, a sensor that detects a water leak can alert owners to an issue before it gets out of control.

The panelists agreed that the widespread adoption of automation and technology — including facial recognition or sensors that take people’s temperature — requires a serious commitment to data privacy on the part of building owners and technology companies.

“The technology is there,” Moorman said. “Our property partners want to protect tenants. It’s our job to provide that anonymization and privatization so we’re not sacrificing our freedoms for a Big Brother world.”

Claffey said Butterfly MX considers privacy to be “paramount.” However, he said there is aggregate data — such as the number of tenants frequenting a residential building’s gym or lobby — that could be helpful without violating privacy concerns. “You can use that to enforce social distance or use it for cleaning information,” he said. “It’s incumbent to help building residents and staff to stay safe.”

“There’s this whole tension of wanting life to go back to normal,” said Woodyard. “Normal, I think, is over. A part of that new normal is an elevated level of digital interaction and purchasing.”

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