2019 Real Estate Symposium Panel Report: PropTech in the Era of Climate Change: How the Built Environment Must Innovate to Maintain Sustainability and Resiliency

Moderator      Zach Aarons ’13, MetaProp
Panelists Robyn Beavers, Blueprint Power
  Anthony Fiore, NYC Division of Energy
  Jonathan Flaherty ’07, Tishman Speyer
  Katherine Zamsky ’14, Carbon Ventures

By Scott Ma ’21

The rapid growth in new technologies and capabilities continues to transform the real estate industry, providing opportunities for investment and development while also bringing challenges in implementation and compliance. Zach Aarons ’13, Co-founder of MetaProp, moderated a diverse and engaging panel that examined the intersection of energy, property and sustainability from different perspectives.

The panelists started off by looking at the factors driving the convergence of technology, property and sustainability. Robyn Beavers, CEO and Co-founder of Blueprint Power, spoke about macro-level shifts, such as energy regulatory reforms, advances in physical technologies and decarbonization initiatives, and the continued acceleration of these trends in the near future. Anthony Fiore, Chief Energy Management Officer for the City of New York, commented on the increasing awareness of climate change and on workforce development as a significant driver, with skillsets shifting to adapt to the integration of technology and property. Jonathan Flaherty ’07, Director of Sustainability, Utilities and Building Technologies at Tishman Speyer, highlighted the financial aspects of PropTech investments, which have been driven by a combination of regulatory changes and investors shifting from traditional hold periods to much longer investment horizons. Katherine Zamsky ’14, Managing Partner at Carbon Ventures, emphasized that investors and founders are now far more aware of what types of real estate technologies are available in the market, how they can be effectively implemented and what incentives exist to encourage adoption.

The conversation segued into a discussion about the Climate Mobilization Act, passed by New York City Council earlier this year, and its implications for the energy, property and technology sectors. Fiore spoke about the main impetus for the legislation as being two-fold: (1) the legislation is a reflection of inaction on the part of the federal government; and (2) as a commitment to accelerating the pace of transformation in order to achieve emission reduction targets. Given the City’s obligation pursuant to the Climate Mobilization Act to reduce its building portfolio emissions by 40% by 2025 and 50% by 2030, Fiore stressed the importance of implementing policy effectively by coordinating efforts and consulting with stakeholders. Zamsky underscored the fact that the technologies are already in existence and not difficult to implement, rather, the challenge is creating the right incentives and economies to encourage further investment, development and implementation. Flaherty echoed these sentiments, suggesting that while “low-hanging fruit,” such as building management system technologies, is relatively easy and inexpensive to deploy, and much of the challenge remaining is incentivizing the implementation of major capital projects to mitigate the significant upfront costs. Beavers emphasized that as it relates to the energy infrastructure, real economic value exists in the market and energy market reforms are needed to align financial incentives and encourage greater participation by investors and owners.

Taking a global perspective, the panelists examined the approaches that other countries have taken to energy, sustainability and real estate and how this compares to North America. Flaherty discussed how some of the Nordic countries think about and view energy usage and carbon legislation. In Sweden, for example, many prime office buildings are constructed using cross-laminated timber, which is not yet an industry norm in North America and reflects a different way of understanding the carbon footprint of building materials. Fiore noted that the nature of building stock can differ dramatically between world regions, which informs how technologies and building materials are leveraged. Fiore commented on economic viability and scalability as important considerations and highlighted the renewable diesel pilot project undertaken in New York City and similar efforts by the Port Authority and the MTA. Beavers added that private equity funds have shifted away from the traditional approach of investing in large-scale renewal energy projects and have begun to focus on financing and owning distributive energy and other energy assets. The question becomes which parts of the world are the most conducive to deploying capital and accelerating investment, given that opportunities exist domestically and globally.

The panel offered a dynamic and in-depth discussion on the intersection of real estate, technology and sustainability and what this means going forward for the built environment and for stakeholders like owners, investors and municipalities. Emerging opportunities and challenges in PropTech will continue to drive change and transformations in the real estate industry in the coming years.

Scott Ma ’21 is a first year MBA student at Columbia Business School focused on real estate. He serves as the AVP of Education with the Hospitality and Travel Association and an AVP of Connect with the Hermes Society. Prior to Columbia, Scott worked as a real estate attorney at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP in Toronto, Canada, where he advised clients on a range of matters including acquisitions, dispositions, real property financings and commercial leasing as well as development matters. Prior to that, he worked as a broker at HomeLife Landmark Realty Inc. Scott obtained his JD from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law and graduated from the Schulich School of Business, York University with an iBBA in finance.

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