“As an architect, I have long used digital tools when designing physical spaces to represent in three dimensions, what a future space might look, feel and be like.”
“I see a future where physical space and cyberspace converge.”
Nikki Greenberg says that to create the world, you must first imagine it. A futurist in the property industry, she points to The Jetsons cartoon of 1962 that eerily echoes the present day: a watch that’s a television, a robot maid (think Roomba), and remote working — or maybe that’s just George Jetson with his feet up, not remotely working.
Greenberg says technology has already ripened to create a revolutionary future. Joby plans a drone service by 2025 that will whisk you to a building’s rooftop in a flying taxi. Architect Zaha Hadid used advanced computational tools to create a stadium with the flowing look of a traditional sailing boat in Qatar.
A more pastoral scene is the Eden Project in Cornwall, where a sterile clay pit was turned into a lush garden with eco-dome housing dotting the landscape.
Buildings are not what they used to be, she adds. The invisible hand of automation helps build them. Robotic arms drive 3D printers to layer metals with almost zero waste. Autonomous trucks haul building parts, while drones zoom over properties doing site surveys.
The challenge is not creating buildings packed with AI and robots, which is already happening, she says. The question is how to make them serve people first. “We need a conscious design for people,” she said. “We all check the captcha that says ‘I’m not a robot’ … We’re not designing for machines.” Even the Jetsons, in their luxurious high-tech future, kept their real dog.
Greenberg, a highly sought-after global speaker, is the Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Real Estate of the Future. Her passion is capitalizing on trends and technology to guide the future of the built world. She was formerly the global head of technology strategy and digital management at QIC, representing $17 billion in real estate assets.
She was trained as a brick-and-mortar architect with an Honors degree and Masters of Architecture, in addition to a Masters of International Business with a focus on China.
Her career has catapulted her to the lofty heights of New York's Park Avenue real estate. Greenberg designed state-of-the-art shopping centers in Australia and China, and founded Women in PropTech, a networking and educational organization for women interested in the power of technology.
Such expertise is needed as real estate faces a perfect storm. What she calls “digital native Gen Z,” the world’s largest population group, has eagerly embraced remote working. The result: strip malls and lavish Manhattan office buildings that languish half-empty.
“It’s been catastrophic for the commercial real estate industry,” Greenberg said.
How to entice people back to in-person work is “the billion-dollar question at the moment,” Greenberg said. Even the home office is becoming obsolete. People work “anyplace. The workplace is wherever you have connectivity. It’s working on the bus, at Starbucks, it doesn’t matter anymore,” Greenberg adds.
She dives deep into data to find the reasons behind this. Giving people more chances at upward mobility and making workplaces more welcoming are two answers.
“We can’t use old playbooks or organizational culture of 20 years ago,” she said. “Gen Z digitals don’t use notebooks … they don’t go into libraries. Everything is digital first. We need to think differently, re-write the rules, and that’s perfectly okay”
The reinvention has already started. Greenberg notes that even on Wall Street, that bastion of the traditional office, “One Wall Street (became) a luxury 566-home residential development with exclusive resident amenities including co-working, private restaurant and wrap-around pool.”
The open-office plan, with its many distractions and dramas, was humorously spoofed in The Office. But there is truth to the idea that the open office is alienating and time-sucking.
It drives people to bury their heads in their phones to communicate with co-workers in private, Greenberg said. And having six or more people in one space increases sick days.
Work interruptions cost businesses $588 billion annually. Data from many countries shows that reducing meetings can lead to a 70 percent increase in productivity while moving away from the open-office plan can reduce negative mood by 25 percent and sick days by 63 percent, she said.
These spaces need to be re-designed for greater intimacy and comfort, she concluded.
Shopping malls, including downtown ghost towns, also need re-invention, Greenberg says.
More than 100 retail chains shuttered their doors during the pandemic. The retail landscape may never be the same. Today, most U.S. customers shop online.
Greenberg, who led the digital transformation of 22 shopping malls, has numerous tips on how to win these shoppers back.
One solution is multi-purpose spaces, like adding daycares or storage to existing malls.
Another answer is omnichannel retail. This integrates the customer’s experience into one app or platform. An example is Disney’s My Disney Experience tool, which allows you to order food, use the app as a room key, or book a far-flung trip.
Greenberg has ideas on how to add richness to physical spaces. There are also ways to help the Metaverse and physical spaces converge.
Many in the real estate industry have long faces these days, but Greenberg pumps visionary energy into the future. She urges people to “travel, speak to people around the world. Especially with tech, we have to go beyond our city or time zone … Lifelong learning has never been more important. The world is changing and we need to keep educating ourselves.”
In the end, change is positive and stamps its own style on a place, she said. “Warehouses converted to trendy residential units, churches to restaurants, and banks into clothing stores — the perpetual evolution of buildings nods to the past and gives character to the urban fabric.”
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