Challenging the status quo within the property sector through the medium of cutting-edge technology. That was the overarching theme of the inaugural Future Prop Tech Conference, held amid the glamorous surroundings of the Altitude 360 suite on the 29th floor of London’s Millbank Tower.
Attracting several hundred eager young proptech aficionados, venture capitalists keen to spot the next Rightmove, and even a sprinkling of estate agents, the event was designed not only as a celebration of this fast-growing sector, but also as a showcase for many of the most innovative new technology-enabled developments in both the residential and commercial spheres.
Writing in the conference guide, organiser Gary Chimua set the uncompromisingly upbeat tone for the day. “We have seen literally hundreds of startups launching in order to change the status quo and provide real alternatives to the incumbents. We strongly believe that disruption should never be feared, but…seen as an opportunity.
“The only constant is change. Ignore it at your peril.”
Talking specifically about the lettings sector, hosts Vanessa Warwick and Nick Tadd of Property Tribes kicked off proceedings by emphasising the key role technology plays in helping landlords, agents and other service providers to operate more efficiently and cost-effectively.
Following a Q and A session on regulation and legislation with John Bagulay from Ombudsman Services and Sean Hooker of the Property Redress Scheme, the opening session was then rounded off with a bullish keynote address from Google’s Scott Sinclair (see separate story).
The second session featured a succession of technology-based service providers, ranging from brand new startups such as Estate Apps, who provide a range of digital products for estate agents, and online auction site Bamboo Auctions, which offers immediate exchange at the end of the auction period, to more established players like flatshare specialists Easy Roommate and Fixflo.
In between these, Mal McCallion of raterAgent talked about the importance of online reviews in building trust and authenticity, while Robert Ellice, CEO of easyProperty – clearly still unrepentant over the firm’s recent controversial mock-funeral PR stunt – quoted a raft of figures designed to suggest that the “death” of traditional high street agency is only a matter of time.
Given the nature of the event, it perhaps wasn’t surprising that Russell Quirk, fresh from his crowd-funding success, spent the lunch break at the centre of an admiring throng of young proptech-ers, all presumably hoping that some of the Quirk magic might rub off.
However, the ensuing Trad vs Online debate – carefully moderated by Paula Higgins of the Home Owners Alliance, and tellingly subtitled “What’s really best for the consumer” – failed to deliver any moments of high drama.
Russell and the three other protagonists – Michael Bruce of Purplebricks, Alex Bailes of Countrywide and Chris Wood of PDQ Estates in Cornwall – each set out their respective positions on issues such as “Is high street agency dead?” and “How can the industry clean up its act?,” but otherwise seemed more intent on finding areas of agreement, rather than difference.
The future, it seems, is all about choice – most of it, apparently, in the so-called hybrid space between the high street and online-only models.
Nevertheless, comments that did stick in the mind for one reason or another included Russell saying that he is in favour of licensing – not just for firms, but for each individual member of staff; Chris repeating his view that the reputation of the industry would be greatly enhanced by the departure of the 30% of agents whom he believes to be seriously sub-standard; and Alex Bailes insisting that Countrywide would “never ever” prioritise an offer from a client using any of the group’s other services. Otherwise, peace and (relative) harmony reigned.
The debaters were followed onto the stage by Simon Donovan of iGeolise, whose revolutionary TravelTime product for consumer-facing websites and apps enables users to search by travel time and the transport mode of choice, rather than simply by mileage – thereby, for example, making property searches far more efficient by eliminating all those homes which, although they may fall within a chosen geographic radius, are actually unsuitable on the basis of journey times.
Next up was Jonny Britton of another new startup, Land Insight, which brings together all ownership, environmental and other land-related information in one place, in order to help property developers identify off-market land.
There followed a Q and A session on “democratising” property investment, featuring specialist short-term lender Lendinvest and Property Partner, which harnesses crowd-funding techniques to enable the public to invest as little as £50 in properties of their choice.
Finally, after a pitch from technology venture capitalists Episode1, it was time for the headline speaker, housing minister Brandon Lewis.
He stressed the importance of increasing the supply of new homes, both by reforming the planning system, and also by encouraging the use of innovative modular construction techniques. “One of the biggest problems we have in this country is that we still build houses the same way we did 100 years ago,” he said.
In answer to one subsequent question, he repeated the official line that the licensing of estate agents might stifle entry into the industry – although interestingly, he suggested that at least some of those agents calling for it might actually be motivated by a desire to do just that!
The minister then departed hurriedly to take part in an urgent vote in the House, bringing the formal proceedings to an end.
There is an interesting interview here: http://www.propertytribes.com/an-inspirational-chat-with-google-about-property-tech-t-127622225.html