How will robots make buildings more human?

By Selina Short

EY Global Real Estate, Hospitality and Construction Innovation Leader

Leader of EY Oceania Real Estate & Construction practice. An expert in intelligent buildings and smart cities. Champion of innovation and the strategic importance of cities.

3 minute read 25 Sep 2019

Real estate isn’t easy to reinvent, but intelligent automation is coming — and no part of the life cycle will be left untouched.

Less than half (47%) of real estate companies are automating their businesses, despite artificial intelligence (AI) coming at us like a freight train.

But that means that over half are on the road to automation – and we are starting to see fundamental changes in the real estate sector as a result.

As we get closer to the tipping point, real estate companies that aren’t getting serious about automation risk being left behind, and EY’s maturity curve, below, illustrates how businesses are already building a competitive edge.

Using intelligent automation to build a competitive edge in real estate

Road map graphic

These statistics, uncovered in a recent EY poll, underscores the challenges ahead for one of the world’s most traditional and non-digital sectors.

EY is running a webinar series with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Real Estate (RE) Innovation Lab at the Center for Real Estate. Our most recent webinar with our clients explored  cutting through the automation hype and dispelling a few myths.

The MIT RE Innovation Lab’s Co-Founder and Director, Dr. Andrea Chegut, admits that there is “lots of hype” around automation but suggests that this sends a “strong warning for our sector to prepare and invest.”

One recent study from MIT estimates that automation will impact up to half of all current job tasks by 2030, Chegut says.

Applied appropriately, intelligent automation doesn’t just deliver an efficiency dividend. When intelligent automation is designed for humans, it also frees people up to spend more of their workday in higher-value work: connecting, collaborating and looking for creative solutions to enhance the customer’s experience and solve problems that have not yet upended the business. 

Automation’s future impact on jobs


of current job tasks will be augmented by automation by 2030, estimates MIT.

The residential real estate market is undeniably ahead of the curve. Bots already assist agents with their workloads, help them with house hunting and streamline the property inventory processing, for example.

However, the complexity of commercial real estate sector makes automation a challenging proposition. Commercial real estate is illiquid — it can’t be easily sold or exchanged — and the buildings we construct may be around long after we’ve vacated the premises. Real estate isn’t easy to reinvent, and that creates a sense of permanency that can lead to complacency.

MIT has identified six obstacles that it believes will influence the real estate sector’s ability to automate: scalability, regulation, stakeholder complexity, life cycle synergy, liquidity and difficulty with leapfrogging. We asked our webinar participants to name their biggest barriers, and 35% of respondents nominated stakeholder complexity, followed by regulation (24%) and scalability (21%). It’s clear that the biggest automation challenge facing real estate companies is creating an ecosystem that brings everyone together.

Real estate: ripe for disruption

Despite the challenges, commercial real estate is ripe for disruption. According to MIT, 100 of the 750 AI start-ups established in the last three years are specifically targeting the real estate sector. And arguably the world's top property technology (proptech) analyst James Dearsley cites an “explosion of ideas and capital focused on automation,” with 46% of the 7,000-plus proptech firms globally zeroing in on automation. Thus, the “first big wave” of automation is crashing on our shores, as companies develop their data science capabilities.

AI start-ups in real estate


of the 750 AI start-ups established in the last three years specifically target the real estate sector.

“The sector is getting ready by collecting all this data and information, but only first-mover companies have started automating tasks,” Chegut explains. Around 72 companies are creating the algorithms that can follow physical and thinking tasks, and a further 90 companies are “rolling out the robots.”

The robots that look like C3PO from Star Wars or Rosie from the Jetsons may be some way off. Instead, robots today are more like the computer in Star Trek — an omnipresent force. They make calculations, solve problems and help companies set the best course of action.

Several of the technology titans are dipping their toes into residential, retail and office real estate, sealing partnerships that will, with time, create end-to-end service offerings with bricks-and-mortar businesses, smart home products, AI-enabled portals, cryptocurrencies and more.

Creating more value along the chain

There are two types of automation: core value chain and enterprise services.

EY teams have seen this play out over several years as robotic process automation (RPA) automates a host of back-office functions, from tax processes to rental revenue testing. RPA is not exclusive to real estate, and often companies don’t consider this “real automation”.

But RPA is changing the way our real estate clients make decisions all the way up to the board level. Automating your back-office processes can create permission to play, and move your company up the maturity curve far quicker. Trust distributions have gone from taking 3 weeks to complete to being done in 28 seconds.

Taking on the lower-risk back office automation can prepare you for the even bigger push into commercial real estate’s core value chain. MIT has identified 132 technologies that it believes will transform the real estate industry. Some of Chegut’s favorite examples include:

  • HyperCell, a self-assembly system that promises to meet the need for rapid deployment of new buildings. Each cell is “self-aware” of its surroundings. That means it can climb, roll, change shape and join forces with other cells to create new structures. Imagine an office that could evolve and adapt instantly to meet the changing needs of the occupants.
  • Geophy taps satellite images, sales data, transport links, green spaces, density, crime rates and a database of 150 million property records to determine a building’s true market value. Picture a property portfolio that can be valued instantly and daily. Imagine how that could improve your business procedures.
  • Affectiva brings emotional intelligence to the digital world by analyzing facial expressions. Affectiva has built the world’s largest database of emotions — the four million faces across 75 countries and 50 billion emotion data points. Imagine how this technology could help landlords to understand and respond to the mood of their tenants.

Alleviating automation anxiety

The signposts are pointing in one direction. Automation is influencing the entire life cycle of real estate from dirt to disposition and no part will be left untouched.

Automation is influencing the entire life cycle of real estate from dirt to disposition and no part will be left untouched.

It's a time of uncertainty for the global real estate sector, but two-thirds (63%) of our poll respondents say they are excited about the future of automation.

Just 2% think it will destroy jobs and businesses. But 35% are waiting to see how it plays out – and that could be the most dangerous position of all. Now is not the time to sit on the fence.

RE sector outlook


of the real estate sector is excited about automation.

The only way to prepare for tomorrow is to act today. So, what can you do now? Becoming a data-driven organization requires both human and technical capabilities. EY has developed an intelligent automation road map, with several key steps outlined below as you build your automation strategy:

  1. Pick the quick wins: Look at your processes and identify task-oriented activities across your organization
  2. Choose the right technology: Consider what technology is needed for helping the job task.
  3. Keep your eye on the horizon: Embrace automation today, but understand that technology is continuing to evolve.
  4. Invest in an innovation culture: When you build a culture that encourages creative thinking, is focused on customers, and strategically analyzes your risks and opportunities, you will be ready for any future.

There’s some serious work ahead. According to EY’s poll, 43% of real estate industry respondents are hiring data scientists and machine learning specialists. But 30% say they are “still learning about automation” before they act; 6% can't find the right skills; and 5% don't think AI and automation will have any impact on who they employ in their business. A further 16% of respondents “don’t know” if automation will change the way they do business.

At EY, we are working with clients to prepare their businesses for an autonomous future because as Chegut says: “In the lab, we never say never. We always say, not yet.”


The biggest challenge of AI goes beyond technology; it’s about change management.

About this article

By Selina Short

EY Global Real Estate, Hospitality and Construction Innovation Leader

Leader of EY Oceania Real Estate & Construction practice. An expert in intelligent buildings and smart cities. Champion of innovation and the strategic importance of cities.