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PropTech Today: We can’t ignore the technological underclass

One of my biggest concerns in all of my writing, speaking and influencing around PropTech is that for the people we leave behind.

I call them the ‘technological underclass’. If we are not careful, while we push ahead, forging a future for our agencies, we risk forgetting an entire section of society that are core clients.

We need to appreciate that, regardless of how successfully we roll-out technology across society, there is always going to be this technological underclass - those with no access to, or ability to use, the technology that most take for granted.

Throughout all of this remarkable change, we need to ensure that our children, the next generation of society and industry, are being taught the appropriate and necessary skills for the modern world.

They need to both understand how to use technology and understand its effect on the world we live in. However, even if we manage to do this successfully, regardless of how much technology changes us there will be those who simply do not change because they don’t want to or they can’t.

For us in real estate, this is really important to think about. Although we are not in the childhood education industry, and nor are we technically responsible for the welfare of others, they are both things which will affect how successfully real estate operates.

Allow me to elaborate:

Preparing the next generation of real estate

Last week, I appeared on a panel show hosted by FirstPort. Also on the panel, among others, was Dan Hughes, the former head of data at RICS. The conversation was monitored by Spencer Kelly from BBC Click.

There were about 70 people in the audience and their concerns and questions covered everything from the future of property management (FirstPort’s key area of interest) to the future of our children. How, we were asked, do we prepare our children for a world full of tech-enabled job roles?

It’s vital that we encourage tech-adoption and up-skill our workers to best take advantage of it - this has been the focus of my articles for the past few weeks.

But, we also have an important responsibility for ensuring the next generations are not only tech-able, but also tech-savvy. That’s to say, not only can they use technology, but they also understand it - its potential, its risks, its current limitations and evolving societal implications.

It’s all very good knowing how to apply an innovation, many of us are very good at this, but it’s more important to understand the bigger picture - yes, technology is a facilitator, but it’s also changing the way that humans live and interact.

At one point during the panel, I got on my high horse about the responsibility we have to our children and how the education system is failing them - much of the skills and knowledge which the modern world demands remain untouched by the curriculum.

I was at the Hay Festival recently and heard many talks from renowned writers and literary figures and an awful lot of them spent some portion of their stage-time lambasting the current education system, explaining that we’re damaging children’s development with a programme of standardised testing and core academic standards largely unchanged for decades. We are failing to provide them with the breadth of experience suitable for the modern world, and certainly not showcasing the potential of more vocational careers.

Just as importantly, we’re failing them on a creative level. We’re not instilling within them the creative energy that the modern world is built upon. A few years ago, I used to say that all I wanted from my kids’ schooling was for them to be left with confidence and the ability to communicate.

Nowadays, I add creativity to this list. Without it, without the unique human ability to create something from nothing, we lose our greatest relevance in a world where machines excel at most tasks.

This argument doesn’t stop when kids leave school, either. Are those who are taking higher education courses in real estate or some related subject being appropriately prepared for a career in 21st century property, or are they still being taught the ways of tradition?

Furthermore, a teacher must first know more than their students. When a newly qualified agent enters a firm for their first job, who is there to train them in the ways of PropTech? Or is it the newbie who has the most knowledge and therefore brings with them positive change?

Someone in your firm needs to be the teacher of technology. A firm needs an internal curriculum of its own, a timetable for educating every team member on the long-term value of technology and how to get from it what is needed. That could be efficiency, risk reduction, more leads, etc.

However, despite all of this, the technological revolution is not a universally shared experience - many, many people are completely outside of it. These people are the technological underclass and real estate needs to understand who they are and why. 

Compassion throughout transformation

Who are the technological underclass? They are those who, either through choice or circumstance, do not have access to the technology that the majority of us do.

There is a risk these people will be forgotten and therefore cut off from society. As we progress deeper and deeper into a digital world, we must not forget that those who aren’t following us - they still need access to services, security, and gainful employment.

The underclass might, for example, be those living in the remote countryside. Imagine for a moment that 5G technology has reached a point in the cities where public bus services are now entirely autonomous, no more drivers at all because they’re not needed.

Now imagine that the bus companies, no longer willing to pay human drivers because the tech alternative is so much more economically sustainable, call a halt to traditional busses altogether - even those which travel out into the sticks. But, because 5G is yet to reach the sticks due to the lack of physical infrastructure required, there are suddenly no busses at all travelling to these remote areas. The people living there are instantly made more isolated. The technological underclass is being shoved from society.

We can look at the current state of the Post Office as an example. Various external and internal pressures are leading to Post Office closures. Unsurprisingly, a large proportion of the 2,500 branches earmarked to close are located in rural areas where customers don’t only rely on it for post but also for things such as personal banking and pension services.

As the local Post Office disappears, what are these people in rural communities supposed to do? They likely feel forgotten. It’s reminiscent of Thatcher’s so-called ‘managed decline’ of Liverpool after the riots in 1981.

Here in real estate, we should be seeing the fall of the local Post Office as a serious reminder of our responsibility to work for the whole community. Not just urban-dwelling tech-enthusiasts.

I see an opportunity in all of this. As the Post Office leaves small communities, doesn’t that leave a lot of room for a new company, probably powered by simple yet effective technology, to swoop in and replace the services soon to be lost?

At the same time, as the technological underclass grows increasingly ignored by the rise of digital real estate, doesn’t it leave space for someone to take advantage and swoop into rural Britain just as everyone else is ignoring it?

It reminds me of pirate radio in the days before the internet. Mainstream radio stations ignored that which large swathes of young people wanted to listen to, and so an opportunity was presented for pirate radio stations to rise up and fulfil the demand.

Could we see a new or existing agency become the go-to agency for rural living in a digital Britain?

All of this is a further extension of the point I have previously written about - it is essential that everybody is along for the same transformation journey. So, not only do your current employees and stakeholders need to be bought on the journey, but those who are going to become the future of our industry must also come along in order to gain the right skills to thrive in an age of digital disruption.

Not only do those customers who know their way around tech need to become our clients, but also those who don’t.

This is, however, more than a business opportunity. I believe we have a responsibility to offer our help and services to the ‘have-nots’ just as much as we do the ‘haves’.

Not everyone will agree with me. It’s a socio-political issue which will divide the nation and the industry, but I hope enough agencies see the worth in serving the technological underclass - as we try to familiarise ourselves with this strange new world, it’s useful to take a moment and realise that this is not reflective of everyone’s reality.

So, yes, we must serve our upcoming generations well and teach them the skills they need to thrive as professionals in tomorrow’s world. However, they won’t be entering the workplace for over a decade yet, so first we need to be ensuring that our hot pursuit of innovation doesn’t lead us to neglect large portions of society who continue to need our services and don’t care one bit about our strident efforts to embrace technology.

*James Dearsley is a leading PropTech influencer and commentator, and is co-founder of PropTech platform Unissu. You can follow James on Twitter here

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    Absolutely right that creativity will drive innovation and combined with clear engagement on customer experience will add the value and set the future paths

  • James Dearsley

    Thanks for the feedback Adrian. There is so much to discuss around this topic. We cannot compete academically with machines but we need to consider the ideas that we can generate which they cannot.

    We can still find solutions to problems.

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