Interviewed on December 17, 2020
Interviewed by Yingying Zhu
Dror Poleg explores technology’s impact on cities and buildings. His insights have been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, NBC, Forbes, The Times, and beyond. Dror is the author of Rethinking Real Estate, Co-Chair of The Urban Land Institute’s Tech & Innovation Council in New York, Co-Founder of Real Innovation Academy, and an occasional angel investor. He regularly briefs, advises, and teaches senior executives from multibillion-dollar companies such as UBS, Goldman Sachs, AvalonBay Communities, British Land, Liberty Mutual, Dubai Holding, Cushman & Wakefield, and others. Dror’s work draws on his experiences as a real estate and technology executive in the US, China, UK, and Australia, and on his formal training at the London School of Economics, INSEAD, and Swinburne University of Technology.
WiPT interviewed Dror as our first “male champion” and a special guest of the Featured Femmes series for his broad insight in proptech market and his work in proptech education and promoting gender diversity.
Congratulations on starting the Future-Proof Office course and Real Innovation Academy. I learned a lot by being a participant of the second cohort of the course. Can you talk about what do you want to achieve here? Both Antony (Slumbers) and I have been writing a lot about the changes and opportunities happening in the real estate industry. We both also enjoy teaching and empowering people to lead the industry forward, not only CEOs and executives, but also people who are earlier in their career or are young at heart and dare to change the way that they used to work. We have been preparing this online course as a side project for a while. When Covid started, we decided to finally launch it. We hope to give people the knowledge required to innovate, the confidence to use that knowledge, and a network of contacts to support them on their journey.
I loved the environment that you created, almost like a mini MBA program where business people from different companies and backgrounds come to study real estate business strategies and discuss their perspectives and solutions. I know for myself, but why do you think the industry needs something like that? Over the past few years, large landlords and many other market players have adopted many technologies “off the shelf”, such as air quality sensors, access control systems, destination dispatch for elevators, etc. But changes are not only about how an existing company or business model can use technology. The real estate industry needs to dig deeper for structural changes. Companies may need to eliminate some departments and create whole new departments or to hire different people; landlords may need to offer more flexible leases and a bundle of new services to their customers; investors may need to invest in startups differently and startups will have to fund their business more creatively. Otherwise what happened to the taxi industry could be a preview – taxis installed GPSs and credit card terminals ten years ago and thought they were ready for the future but business models like Uber took over a big portion of the market almost overnight because they created a brand new service that customers actually want.
“… changes are not only about how an existing company or business model can use technology. The real estate industry needs to dig deeper for structural changes… Otherwise what happened to the taxi industry could be a preview”
Great example of an incumbent being disrupted. Do you see examples of the incumbent being the driver of change? Of course. Many existing companies adapt as we see in other industries. In real estate, newcomers like WeWork and Airbnb put pressure on existing companies so many of them took the challenge and now think and act differently. Catalyzed by Covid, many landlords are reflecting on their business assumptions too. Hines, for example, partnered with Industrious to provide a flexible workplace product to serve their existing and future tenants. Tishman Speyer is building their own flexible workplace brand while investing in construction tech and operation tech. British Land, as discussed in our course of Future-Proof Office, launched a first-of-its-kind sustainability-focused Transition Fund, which is resourced by a fee of £60 per ton of carbon levied on new developments.
You commented a lot about how the pandemic has changed our way of working and in turn how the office should be designed and operated. You have also been one of the people who have extensive working experience in both Asia and the US. How do you make sense of the almost returned-to-normalcy situation for the office markets in China and Korea? Putting government policies and actions in response to the pandemic aside, I think the reason lies mainly in different stages of economic development. In China and even in Korea, the power is still in the hands of the employers, compared to where the US and other places like the UK are. Employers dictate how, when and where people work. In markets like the US, employers are competing fiercely for talent and therefore offering more accommodating policy and physical space to attract the best people and enable them to work as they wish. In markets where individuals have more power is where we see changes in office products arriving first. But I believe markets like Beijing and Shanghai will follow in a few more years as they have demonstrated many times that they are capable of catching up quickly and becoming leaders in some aspects.
What are some of the startup ideas that you like to see more of? There are many ideas that are emerging and I wish that they were much more common and popular. On the office front, I like enabling employees to walk into any space (within a large network) and use it for whatever task they need to accomplish at that moment. Some companies already enable their employees to do that, but most don’t. Booking a space should be as easy as getting an Uber. Secondly, there is growing demand for modular and flexible office buildouts that are cost-effective and environmentally friendly. This is particularly important when leases are getting shorter and companies want to change their layouts more frequently. On the housing front, the process of renting and buying is still too complicated and involves too much inefficiency in coordinating between different parties. The is plenty of room to make it simpler and cheaper for everyone involved.
What is the overarching theme behind your amazingly interesting career – worked in real estate development in China for ten years, researched in economic history, advised real estate and tech companies, wrote a book, now sitting on the tech council of ULI New York and creating an online course? I am always driven by my curiosity and my goal of doing something useful for the world. I quit my real estate job six years ago. Although I loved my job and it kept me very engaged, I felt that using my talent negotiate with people to increase their rent by half a percent or scaring some potential investors to commit to deal faster was not the best use of my time. There are enough people who want to be billionaires and get the best deals. I can help them but I don’t want to be them. I realized the best role for me is to empower people with knowledge — in the form of books, courses and talks. I find tremendous joy when people from all over the world tell me that my work helped them drive changes in their organizations or have their voice heard within their teams. And in real estate, these changes end up affecting the quality of life for whole communities.
What is your plan for 2021? I would be happy if I was able to write books all day long. My second book is coming out this year, I hope. I want to do more with Real Innovation Academy. We have a few hundreds of alumni now and it is important to find ways to keep them engaged and help them throughout their careers. I am thinking about how to help them stay informed on an ongoing basis and on a variety of topics such as sustainability and social impact.
It is great that you try to achieve diversity in gender and other backgrounds in your course participation and are willing to offer a special rate to improve the inclusion. What is the significance of gender diversity to you? When we look at the real estate industry, we see an industry that has struggled to change and to keep up with the times, compared to other industries. One reason is that the industry is led by people of a certain age, gender, education background, etc. At the very days of running the course, we realized that participants really valued the social connections they made while learning. Our goal is to empower people to think differently, and a big part of that comes from meeting new people that they wouldn’t meet on their day-to-day work. And not just meet, but work together as a group and have a real conversation about their perspectives. It was clear to us that diversity is a huge part of the recipe for the right chemistry to happen. Women in real estate still need more people to advocate for them and to give them more opportunities, to gain confidence and have their voice heard, and to network with executives from different companies. As part of our broader mission of changing this industry, we would like to help more women become leaders and change the real estate landscape.
“Women in real estate still need more people to advocate for them and to give them more opportunities, to gain confidence and have their voice heard, to acquire intelligence ahead of others and to network better. As part of our broader mission of changing this industry, we would like to help…”
Who are some of the women that are leading real estate innovations and you think people should know more about? I see some great women who are among the best leaders in the industry, such as Lisa Picard from Equity Office, Karen Hollinger from Avalon Bay, which are two of the largest office and residential landlords. We featured in our course people like Annie Rinker from Hines and Juliette Morgan from British Land. It is invaluable to give young women these role models so they understand it is possible to be the best as someone has already paved the path.
I know you have just become a new father yourself. How does that change your perspective of career and life? Now I know what it means to be really busy (laugh), it makes me crystalize how I want to spend my time and what is most important. It made me want to be more independent when managing my own time and want to be closer to home. I have no time to waste on business chaos that I don’t find my value in. Therefore I choose to write and educate even if I am not making the most amount of money that I could or having the most fame by flying around to meet with or speak with large corporate CEOs. Being a parent gives me more empathy to other people – other fellow parents or just other people in general because they were someone’s babies at some point. That alone makes them valuable and makes me want to understand them more! It sounds corny but it is true that being a father makes me think about what kind of world we are living in and what opportunities will be available to my daughter. I want to make changes in the world so women are given more power and responsibility to lead based on their merits.
What is your suggestion to knowledge workers in real estate today, if they are open to new ideas and want to keep up with new trends? My favorite way of keeping up is actually reading history and learning about the past. One of our biggest failures in real estate is that we take everything we see around us for granted. We see how things are being done and assume they will always be this way. When you read history, even about 50 or 100 years ago, you will see offices and homes were designed and managed completely differently. The second suggestion is to pay attention to technology more generally, not only real estate related technology. I look at how consumers use different products and what kind of technologies are in the pipeline to serve people’s changing needs and then I try to think about what it means to my own industry. For example, drones began to gain usage 20 or 30 years ago in the military and other industries that could afford the high price then. Over time they became cheaper and a big changing force for logistics and site monitoring — which is starting to have a big impact on real estate only now. I also suggest people to be curious about other countries and their latest trends. People in the US can be very focused on their own market and even more so people in New York can sometimes be too focused on just their own city. Often times, other countries and cities are more advanced or see wider adoption on sustainability tech, AR, etc. We should also try to break the silos between different disciplines. Office developers have a lot to learn from their peers in retail and hospitality because they have long incorporated end users’ experience in the development process and are now accustomed to fighting the daily battle in winning over customers by paying attention to programming and operation.
Edited and condensed for clarity.