Digital Disruptors Eye Low Tech World of Facilities Management

Talk to anyone in property technology these days and disruption is mentioned a lot.

It’s a problematic phrase. It’s supposed to reflect the innovation, change and new ideas that tech can bring to the industry, but in reality it’s a polite way of trashing the established norms.

Peel away the self-promotional jargon, and tech disruptors within the business-to-business sector boil down to one thing; replacing paper and excel spreadsheets with better technology.

In residential, this process is well under way. Estate agents are rapidly adopting proptech and have been using relatively sophisticated CRM systems for a decade now.

But property management and particularly facilities management is a long way behind and according to Josh Morris, a Global Capital Markets associate at Knight Frank, the sector is going to be the next big area of ‘disruption’.

At a glance

  • Commercial property is way behind its residential counterpart for tech adoption, but ths is changing
  • Knight Frank is beta testing a ground breaking artificial intelligence document reader
  • Smartphone app that enables anyone to report maintenance issues in office blocks has launched

It’s tempting to agree with the companies launching this assault; facilities management has largely eschewed tech to date and relies all too often on Excel spreadsheets and clipboards, and that adoption of artificial intelligence and dedicated smartphone apps for facility manager and tenants isn’t far off.

One of the most revolutionary new services is PRODA, an artificial intelligence-based system that can read almost any property document, pick out the salient facts and then publish it in any format.

Being tested by Knight Frank at the moment, the system has the potential to radically alter the way commercial buildings with multiple tenants or large portfolios are managed.

For example, it has been taught how to read both leasehold documents,  rent rolls and a myriad of other paperwork and Excel spread sheets without human intervention.

“It’s really clever because you can send a landlord or tenant a link and the information that’s been extracted can then be read in their desired format without need for modification,” says Josh.

Put simply, PRODA will standardise data across the commercial property industry and remove the need for “fiddling around with Excel spreadsheets for hours”, as Josh puts it.

“Once all the information has been aggregated within the system, you can do lots of other clever stuff with it like mapping every property you’ve got or picking out comparable information between sites including tenancy schedules and rents.”

Elements of this ‘machine learned’ document reading are available within property management suites such as Arcus, but PRODA is the first to offer property and asset managers a standalone capability without having to buy into large and expensive systems.

“We like it because it’s part of our business, rather than being ‘the’ system we use to manage facilities plus it can be plugged into other systems,” says Josh.

“The commercial asset management industry is still very basic in its tech, but there are platforms coming up which standardise the way we look at data, and property management tools as well.”

What do the venture capitalists think?

“I consider it more incremental than disruptive and I still think the jury is out on what will happen in this space.  There is a lot of work to be done with the older, more established firms to learn the work styles of, and learn to trust ,the startups that are entering the game “, says Chris Stephenson, Partner proptech specialist Concrete VC.

Another new company hoping to change the way commercial property assets are managed is FaultFixers.
Still very much in start-up phase and based at WeWork’s huge offices in Moorgate, it describes itself rather drily as a workflow management product.

What it is hoping to achieve for the world of  facilities management  is rather less dry.

Its mobile platform enables anyone working within a building to report a maintenance issue, using a system of QR codes attached to assets and locations.

So if a tenant, office worker, cleaner or any of its facilities managers spot a broken toilet, for example, they can report it via their smartphone 24/7.

“We want everyone within a building to become engaged with the way it’s run including the tenants, facility managers and workers,” says CEO and founder Tom O’Neill.

“A lot of people who use legacy facilities management software tend to describe it as ‘Excel on steroids’, but we’re taking a different approach.

“We want the users to design the system themselves and we’re working hard to understand what people really want – in other words articulate our product around businesses and buildings, rather that the off-the-shelf approach many other older systems use.”

While developing their product, Tom says he’s been amazed by how many facilities manager spend so much of their day walking around buildings with a clipboard – an astounding revelation in today’s mobile-first world.

The company, which has several heavyweight backers including Adrian Ringrose, the former CEO of Interserve and former Capita boss Andy Parker, started out as a reporting app but has now developed into a full workflow management tool.

Mundane tasks

Its comparable residential counterpart, AskPorter, is at a more advanced stage of adoption and development.

It’s a digital assistant for residential block property managers that looks after all the mundane tasks by triaging tenant maintenance reports, and is marketed as a 24-hour concierge platform.

The system is designed to pick up maintenance requests either via text or voice, so for example tenants just have to say ‘boiler is broken’ and AskPorter will then immediately triage the issue and ask ‘do you smell gas’.

If the tenant says ‘no’ it will take them through a series of questions to find out what the problem is, including requesting photos are taken, and then bring a contractor into the conversation.

The contractor is then paid through the platform and goes out to fix the boiler; both sides are told when it’s been fixed all without the property manager having to get involved directly.

“It also enables property managers to see what’s going on; if everyone in a block is requesting information about certain topics or issues, then AskPorter points out these trends to the property manager,” says Curran McKay, Chief Commercial Officer at  Ask Porter (pictured, top left).

More for less

“The idea is that more properties can be managed with the same human resource but without extra cost.

“If you have a property manager looking after 150 to 200 units, how can you make them efficient enough to manage 250 or even 300-350 units?”.

Ask Porter says it is currently working with two clients involved in outsourced block management, and the company is also about to sign one large customer on a trial basis to be used on a couple of their units.

“We’ve also got a game-changing investor about to come on board which should fundamentally change what we’re doing here,” Curran says.

The company received seed funding from Faisal Butt of Pi Labs, David Newnes (ex chairman of LSL) and ‘Dragon’ James Caan.

“We’ve used that money to build out the platform and develop the machine learning behind it over the past nine months,” says Cameron.

Shiny tech

But all that is shiny should not be considered good, tempers Stephen Toal from Savill’s Property Management team.

“You don’t want to fall into the trap that because something’s new you should adopt it,” he says.

Stephen believes tech has got to add value and be cost effective, although of course in a commoditised industry where firms like Savills and Knight Frank all do pretty much the same thing, tech adds a competitive edge.

And that, perhaps, is why so many so-called disruptors are beginning to get a foot in the door within this sector.

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