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Birmingham, Capital Of PropTech Innovation?

Greater Birmingham and the West Midlands have a unique opportunity to embrace the latest PropTech trend. But do they want to?

As the PropTech sector expands in London and the U.S., the Midlands may need to rethink how it responds to the digital transformation of the property industry.

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Is PropTech changing Birmingham for good? According to JLL U.K. Director for Innovation Alex Edds, it is — or soon will be as it develops the largest tech and digital sector outside London.

"Greater Birmingham has the most tech and digital businesses of any core city in the U.K. outside of London," Edds said at a seminar last week in the city. "The skills and entrepreneurial spirit are right on the doorstep and there is opportunity to harness the talent in the region to help future proof your own company as well as invest in new ones.

"We're already seeing high profile companies such as John Lewis, The Economist, JLR and the BBC base their innovation units in Birmingham to take advantage of the ecosystems here."

 "Locally, we've seen IM Properties push forward the logistics market by harnessing battery power technology to create the U.K.'s first Electricity Cost Neutral building at The Hub in Witton."

The emergence of smart buildings and investments like JLL’s NXT initiative providing immersive technology to help in the search for office space, will quickly transform real estate, he said.

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Can Birmingham really make it big in PropTech? Edds says that whilst the global pull is toward the entrepreneurial culture of London, the U.K. regions have a real opportunity — if they pull together.

“Not only could they collaborate to nurture talent and develop skill sets, but you might also begin to see new PropTech innovations that catered to regional needs," he said.

“Birmingham is already high up on the list of cities for new tech startups and the city has all the ingredients. I could envisage PropTech that focused on the needs of, for instance, the auto sector. You could imagine a Birmingham PropTech sector that builds on its industrial legacy and its technological and digital agenda,” Edds said.

“The more specific needs of the U.K. regions could be appealing for European and U.S. business looking to expand market share,” he said.

You do not have to look far to find Birmingham property professionals who think Edds vision is inspiring. Among them is CBRE Birmingham Executive Director and Head of Offices Ashley Hancox.

Hancox said that with property information now widely available online, PropTech that enhances the human know-how of property professionals could make a real difference.

“We’ve now got technology that can help narrow relocation searches so it's no longer just putting a dot on a map. It has analysed commute times and distance and we can do that instantly, weighing up the options for office occupiers or logistics businesses,” Hancox said. “Then there’s imaging software like Floored that can turn office fit-out ideas into 3D realisations. For occupiers who are not used to visualising what space will look like it gives them a real opportunity to imagine.”

Hancox said that PropTech in the brokerage business can provide “a layer of truth in a business that is otherwise just lived on the strength of opinion.

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Not everyone is convinced that Birmingham can, or should, get too heavily into PropTech. GVA Birmingham Director George Jennings says that there is still a gap between what PropTech offers and what it delivers, and that until that gap is closed there will always be those who are reluctant to adopt the new tech solutions.

“We’ve experimented with augmented reality apps, and it felt a bit faddish, a bit gimmicky, and whilst they have got better and cheaper, they often aren’t quite good enough. I remember standing in a viewing, messing about with an iPad, the clients standing around me … and that’s not what you want to be doing,” Jennings said.

To be sure, PropTech can be clunky. But it is growing up rapidly. JLL’s Edds suggests the PropTech sector is moving faster, and with a lot more assurance, than it has done so far. “Up to now I think we’ve seen PropTech concentrate on data, which is great, but we are now moving onto a new generation of apps and devices that deal with data in new and sophisticated ways that could drive insights into planning and valuation,” he said.

“What we’re going to find is PropTech that can gather millions of items of data and crunch that to pull out patterns and trends on things we were not even thinking about.”

If JLL’s predictions are right, that innovation could be Made in Birmingham.