$500 billion NEOM megacity a catalyst in driving investments in Saudi Arabia’s PropTech sector

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RIYADH — Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion NEOM megacity will play a catalyst role in driving investments in the Kingdom’s emerging property technology (PropTech) sector, Ebrahim Baeshan, Office Managing Partner in Jeddah, at KPMG Al Fozan & Partners, said in an interview.

“PropTech will play a pivotal role in the development of the futuristic megacity, which is the centerpiece of the Vision 2030 plan, to grow and diversify the economy as well as position the country to play a leading role in global development,” he added.

The global PropTech industry has grown from $20 million in 2008 to more than $12 billion in 2017, creating successful unicorn firms such as Airbnb and WeWork.

Excerpts of the interview follow:

• What new technological developments do you consider particularly relevant for the real estate sector in Saudi Arabia?

Technology is transforming every walk of life, and its influence is pervasive across all business sectors. The real estate sector is no exception. Today, the property sector dynamics globally is being shaped by the latest trends in technology, including blockchain and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The real estate industry in Saudi Arabia continues to make progress in its digital transformation. Challenges remain, however, with full-scale adoption of digital technology still some way off.

We are starting to see practical applications of PropTech in the Kingdom, which is helping to enrich the tenant and resident experience, improve response times, and remove a lot of the friction caused by the various stakeholders involved in managing and running a property.

The top technologies that are and will continue to disrupt the realty sector are blockchain, AI, Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), drones, Internet of Things (IoT), robotics and 3D printing.

As more and more developers and construction companies are beginning to integrate technology into their business process or operation, it offers an exciting time for tech firms and start-ups. While the construction industry has been traditionally slow at adopting the latest technology compared with other sectors, digital technology has ignited a change in attitude in the industry.

Among these, virtual reality (VR), blockchain, chatbots, big data and analytics, and drones are making the entire property buying, leasing, marketing, selling, and management process more efficient and exciting.

Over the coming 5 years, we will see a significant technological change in the real estate industry. Buildings will become more human with IoT and other technological improvements connecting individuals to assets.

• How do you assess the current level of digitalization of companies in real estate investment and real estate asset management within KSA?

GCC nations and Saudi Arabia, in particular, are now rapidly adopting new technologies to construct and maintain real estate more effectively. The Kingdom is building its own smart city called “NEOM” as part of the Vision 2030 program that aims to lower the country’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy, and build public service sectors. NEOM will incorporate various smart city technologies in addition to being a tourist destination.

The traditional real estate buying and selling process are being disrupted and one can see not just real estate platforms but also the adoption of technologies like cloud computing, blockchain, virtual reality, IoT and 3D tours and drones. PropTech space in the Kingdom is shaped by entrepreneurs trying to innovate for local problems, garnering renewed interest and funding from Silicon Valley and other markets. Although the market is still at infancy, there are a lot of tech-innovations happening to make the real estate market in the Kingdom lucrative.

• How will the proptech investment landscape in KSA look like in 2020 and beyond?

The global PropTech industry has grown from $20 million in 2008 to more than $12 billion in 2017 and has produced successful unicorns such as Airbnb and WeWork.

As part of Vision 2030, the government is planning to reduce its economic dependence on oil and is increasingly investing in technology and real estate development.

Investment is PropTech in Saudi Arabia is expected to be driven by the development of NEOM, a futuristic mega-city, with the government pledging $500 billion towards it. The smart city is planned under the Vision 2030 and is expected to be completed by 2025. PropTech is likely to play a key role in the development of this smart city.

Apart from this, the PropTech industry is gaining momentum with the development and funding of several startups in the space, such as:

Seed funding of $2 million in home maintenance services startup B8ak by Riyad Taqnia Fund and Darwa Emaar Development and Investment Company in 2018

Ajeer, a Riyadh-based home services marketplace raising $0.5 million in seed funding from two angel investors in 2018

• How did proptech startups perform in KSA in 2019 and earlier years?

Currently, there are very few PropTech companies operating in the Kingdom, which are focusing on providing home maintenance services while keeping up with current trends and finding continuous areas of innovative approaches and improvements, use of drones to visualize and control, provides access to the right technician in an on-demand model. The startups have been successfully raising funds as well from venture capital (VC) funds and investors showing the growth opportunities in the PropTech space.

• Do you think PropTech startups are disrupting the real estate market in Saudi Arabia?

PropTech startups have successfully disrupted the traditional real estate market driven by the increasing mobile phone usage, which reached 99%, as per the statistics by the General Authority for Statistics (GASTAT). The Kingdom and the GCC nations are now adopting new technology to construct and maintain real estate effectively. The conventional real estate buying and selling processes are being replaced with not just real estate platforms but also with technologies such as cloud computing, blockchain, virtual reality, IoT, 3D tours and drones.

• How did PropTech startups benefit consumers in KSA?

Consumers have benefited in the following way:

Simplification of the property market for landlords and consumers alike

Streamlining of age-old processes of:

o renting or purchasing real estate

o managing and maintaining buildings

o cutting out middle-parties

o connect the tenants with the perfect property – be it home or a co-working space

Online real estate agents allow consumers to find a new home or place to work without having to start the search on the ground

PropTech is helping to plan and build new infrastructure for growing populations in metropolises

Efficient and quick turnaround of transactions

Increased transparency of all transactions

Tracking the development pattern of a location to help potential buyers understand how the location is evolving, provide valuation of the property and identify historical price trends

Introduction of a sharing economy that helps reduce the cost of ownership

• Should PropTech startups cooperate with established real estate companies? If yes, how could the cooperation look like?

In today’s world of the gig economy and asset-light business models, PropTech startups should tap the opportunity to cooperate with real estate companies. They can engage in the following ways to deliver higher value:

Outsourcing - Outsourcing operations or processes to the PropTech companies which can add greater value and provide better results.

Acquisitions or stake – Companies investing in PropTech need to get more comfortable with enhancing their risk appetite and look at a more mature, long-term partnership than just a strategic investment.

Real estate-as-a-service – he current operating model in real estate space of creating an inventory of physical space and selling it across will no longer be relevant. Players will be required to create augmented and memorable experiences by using physical space. Using technology, in terms of, analytical and predictive capabilities to identify changing tenant demands and catering to emerging trends will become important for the players to succeed.

• What can established companies learn from PropTech startups in the real estate industry?

Efficiency of operations – Companies need to become efficient in their daily operations and bring customer satisfaction. They can plan to outsource or acquire PropTech companies to handle their operations better

Strengthening data analytics - Real estate companies should focus on improving their data analytics and predictive capabilities to identify changing tenant demands and adapt their offerings accordingly

Adopting technology – Companies need to adopt latest technology offerings and integrate them in their business. This is expected to help them to better engage with their customers, optimize their business and identify the most profitable transactions.

Property management through software - Property management software should be implemented to monitor performance and downtime of building equipment, which can be used by maintenance teams to carry out day-to-day tasks

Smart Homes and cities - Focus on building energy-efficient and sustainable buildings using technology which can help reduce the overall cost for the buyers and reduce maintenance hazards

Use Blockchain technology and IoT to reduce intermediaries involved and streamlining processes for investors purchasing commercial real estate

Use of unmanned drones, 3D printers and robots during the construction phase can help reduce manpower cost and reduce safety issues associated with accidents on construction sites

Companies can now visualize any space using Virtual Reality tools with various customized design elements, thereby helping the interior design process

Use chatbots on their websites/portals to ensure 24X7 availability to help customers with their queries and enquiries

Using Big Data and Cloud technology to maintain records to manage their workflows and customer relationships as well as use it for predictive capabilities to meet future demands and foresee emerging trends.

Asset or property management is the stage of the property life cycle most likely to have received IT investment in the past two years as well as PropTech support. It is, hence, a priority for future IT investment with the highest investment directed towards the development of PropTech solutions or digital innovation.

2019 KPMG Global PropTech Survey key findings:

58 percent of real estate companies have a digital strategy in place, up from 52 percent in both 2018 and 2019.

95 percent of real estate companies have someone responsible for leading digital transformation and innovation. In 62 percent of cases, this is a senior employee; however, in 65 percent of cases, it isn’t a digital or technology specialist.

40 percent of digital leaders come from a real estate, construction or finance background.

Only 25 percent of respondents have a well-established data strategy that enables the capture and analysis of the right datasets.

64 percent of real estate companies have some form of property-as-a-service across their portfolio with a further 13 percent considering it. — SG


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