Ever since the initial ripples of innovation in the 1990s, PropTech has proceeded to reshape our market beyond recognition; going on to disrupt our traditional business models and encourage new ways of working.
However, the technology our industry now relies on is facing a monumental challenge; how to adapt in order to see the market through the triple threat of Covid-19, Brexit, and increasing amounts of regulation.
Over the past two decades, three waves of PropTech development have been identified: PropTech 1.0, which was concerned with the industry moving itself online; PropTech 2.0, which saw these businesses begin to disrupt the industry through a range of new and innovative offerings; and, most recently, PropTech 3.0, which involves a little more experimentation.
And it’s this new frontier of technology that is set to support letting agents as we sail into the choppy waters of 2021.
In comparison to its predecessors, PropTech 3.0 involves greater emphasis on new and emerging technologies, such as IoT, blockchain, and virtual reality tools.
During the pandemic, these tools have transformed the way businesses approach tasks altogether and, in some cases, played a crucial role in allowing them to continue operations whilst under lockdown measures.
Some examples include the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in identity verification processes, blockchain technology in recording and transferring contracts, open banking to power payments and reduce fraud, and the use of virtual reality for house viewings.
Whilst its efficacy within the industry has been debated at length, the growing influence of PropTech is undeniable. The pandemic has raised a wide range of concerns for those across the property industry, to which the introduction of new, Covid-optimised measures - which include deposit replacement schemes, Rent Guarantee Insurance, and optimised referencing checks among many others - are adding crucial a layer of added security.
For those navigating a shaky market (and perhaps exploring these digital tools for the first time) it's imperative that PropTech continues to adapt in ways that mitigate risk. Should it neglect to, all kinds of businesses could fall.
However, wherever new and emerging technology is involved, skepticism abounds. And despite having reached a point in the pandemic where planning for the future must go ahead despite its haziness, many property professionals remain hesitant to embrace PropTech within their plans.
Having launched my own platform in 2017 and investigated the trend, I’ve noted one key reason for this: trust.
The disproportionate levels of trust (and later, training and investment) in PropTech across the industry means that its use is too often concentrated in cities like London; with others across the country unable to access or benefit from them.
If providers are truly committed to making sure that their product is accessible and worthy of investment during such an uncertain period, they must play their part in building bridges across the industry.
Pledging transparency and accountability over the way their product operates, makes its money, and uses data, are a great way to start, but are only just the beginning.
Rather, providers should ensure that these values are embedded into the very design of their products. Throughout their lifetime, these technologies also need to be developed and implemented to support businesses in ways that make most sense to them.
Whether that's to spot and prevent fraudsters, or make it possible to obtain thorough referencing checks amidst strict lockdown measures, an understanding of the various challenges faced by those across the sector goes a long way in building a strong relationship.
For the same reason, product developments should never come at the expense of a human touch. The property industry is one of the oldest to ever exist and, to its benefit, remains a human industry.
As a PropTech provider, it's imperative to surround yourself with individuals that share your values and are committed to adapting products for the better. Having worked as a Sheffield letting agent myself for 13 years before launching Vouch in the city, I knew my experience and familiarity with the city would be among my greatest assets, and have embedded these people-focused values into the development of our product throughout our existence. The fact that Vouch remains staffed entirely by Sheffield residents is by no means a coincidence!
Ultimately, PropTech will undoubtedly continue to adapt. But if it transforms without the interests of its users at heart and, without care taken to consult them, what could result is a property industry that is left to struggle both within an uncertain market and stuck at the crossroads of technology and tradition.
*Simon Tillyer is Director of Vouch