With continuing, emerging technologies, design professionals must begin the process of true technology adoption to remain competitive and to retain core clients.

After spending the past 18 years on the services side of commercial property (architecture, construction and technology consulting), I’ve made the leap to real estate development. I’ve found some amazing parallels in how technology is used, adopted and valued and used on both sides of the fence.

First and foremost—when it’s properly planned and implemented, technology should be transparent. When was the last time you thought about how a call phone call is technologically accomplished? I don’t really care how it’s done, just that I need to connect with someone on the other side of the call. Our past attempts at implementing technologies in the commercial property sector have been ripe for failure or limited success due to a lack of transparency. Promises of huge gains in efficiency by using web-based project management have been met with less acceptance and far fewer success stories than has been advertised. E-commerce, supply-chain management has also been hampered by dot.com over-hype vs. the reality of function and dependability during the heat of a project.

How does the commercial property industry overcome these past, empty technology promises to make smart technology decisions with scarce resources and razor-thin margins?

The best way to begin a new relationship with technology is to unlearn what you know. Seeing technology as an emulation of a manual task does not recognize its full potential. Data, when used as a business tool, is a powerful asset to the commercial property world. Unfortunately, we spend too much of our time fooling around with making our data static in the form of electronic documents and spend an inordinate amount of time learning software programs to create them. One way of unlearning this process is to begin to use new Internet-based communication tools like Instant Messaging (IM), Bots and dashboards. These technologies allow data to flow through them, giving the user more accurate and effective communications for their projects and businesses. IM tools like Microsoft’s Windows Messenger (http://www.microsoft.com), Yahoo’s Instant Messenger (http://www.yahoo.com) or Cerulean Studio’s Trillian (http://www.ceruleanstudios.com/) allow the flow of a digital conversation to provide instant information and access to additional data and documents. Bots are technology tools that provide you with updates to data and information on the Internet and then allow you to decide whether to view this information or not. This is especially helpful for project mangers who feel overwhelmed at times with the sheer amount of digital information that arrives each day during a commercial project. And dashboards are valuable tools for managers that allow numerous forms of project information to be measured and displayed graphically. A good example would be a warning on a manager’s dashboard if a project is going to fall behind schedule due to a missed delivery of materials. These internal technology tools will continue to enter our businesses over time. But technology’s real impact and potential increase to revenues is when it is integrated into buildings.

Wireless Changes Everything

Wireless systems have exploded on the marketplace over the past two years. Some of us may have wireless networks in our offices or at home or possibly have used wi-fi at Starbucks, Borders or Kinko’s. This first wave of wireless is an exciting way to communicate, coordinate and share digital information. Using a simple technology called 802.11, or WiFi, wireless technology provides an invisible interface that provides flexibility, speed and convenience. Like the cell phone, the transparency of wireless makes this the user’s choice for many people who have tried it. But how does this affect commercial property?

The cost of providing Internet access to certain project sites has been prohibitive in the past. Cable or fiber optic networks, if not readily available, are hard to bring to sites and can blow technology budgets out of the water. Wireless brings the cost of deployment down to levels that the average project can afford. And once you use it, you will wonder how you ever built without it. The flexibility of hooking your laptop, PDA or other mobile device to project information and being able to communicate in real-time provides an enormous efficiency gain to the old processes. Most newer projects are starting to bring in connectivity earlier in the project process, providing fertile ground for commercial property teams to hook into the Internet and project information. By deploying wireless, there is no excuse for not being able to access the right information.

Smart Environments

The promise of wireless is brought to reality not just in the internal implementation of wi-fi networks for our own project teams, but when it becomes part of the physical environment itself. Wal-Mart’s recent announcement of requiring all of its vendors to supply their merchandise with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is the watershed moment that brings the world of transparent technology to the forefront in retail. By RFID “tagging” every piece of merchandise in a Wal-Mart, the vendors (e.g., Proctor & Gamble) will be able to view their merchandise in real time on the shelves in each Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart has created a wireless environment in each Big Box to allow merchandise to communicate its location, price, etc. This “frictionless” supply-chain model is being emulated by Target and Albertsons. The next step in this process is to roll-out a frequent shopper card that will also incorporate RFID. Shoppers will be able to put a dollar amount onto the card, either credit or checking, and have the card charged or debited (with relevant discounts for being a card- carrying shopper) when they leave the Big Box with their RFID merchandise in the cart. No more check out lines.

This style of “wireless” debit card is prevalent throughout Hong Kong. The subway system in Hong Kong is called the MTR and in order to get in and out of the subway, an Octopus card can be issued that has a monetary amount loaded onto the card at ATM-style machines around the city. The technology works as a “proximity” card, meaning that you do not have to touch or swipe your card through a reader. As long as you are in proximity of the reader (9-12 inches) the amount required for entrance and exit is charged. The Octopus is so successful (in a city of 11 million, more than 24 million Octopus cards are in use) that all Starbucks, McDonalds and 7-Elevens also accept the card.

An emerging technology that is sure to explode in usage is the use of Holographic Displays that use air particles as its user interface. Pioneered by IO2 Technology (http://www.io2technology.com/), commercial establishments can provide advertising in mid-air that will interact with a shopper or tenant. This technology has been implemented in Tokyo and is being seen as the “next big thing.” Gloves and goggles are gone. Just go up to the 3D image floating in mid-air and touch it to activate another action or image. This type of technology—straight out of the movie Minority Report—is now on the market. Our imaginations are all we need for creative and effective use, creating a richer experience within our facilities.

3D Object Models for Management

In order to manage transparent technologies, a new user interface needs to emerge. At TMG, we have found 3D Object Models very easy to use, yet highly effective. By providing a 3D image of the building, the user can manage the facility by pointing and clicking a mouse. Too hot? Click the space to lower the temperature. Exit sign out? The corresponding sign in your model is highlighted to let you know this happened and contacts your contractor to repair it. The use of 3D goes beyond just communicating design intent as you can hook other applications behind the 3D image. This use of 3D can also be used for construction by linking the facility in 3D to scheduling software like Microsoft Project or Primavera. This creates a simulation of how the retail facility will be built by hooking it to tasks according to the project schedule. This process is called 4D and was pioneered by Stanford University and Walt Disney Imagineering.

With continuing, emerging technologies, design professionals must begin the process of true technology adoption to remain competitive and to retain core clients. Providing leadership through the use of transparent technologies is a strategy that will lead to successful adoption and use of technology. It is an exciting and perilous time for our industry. Proper and innovative use of technology can help your business manage risk and provide a fertile environment for growth.

—Paul Doherty

Doherty is a registered architect and the Executive Vice President and CIO of the The McLain Group, LLC, a real estate development corporation located in Atlanta, Hong Kong, Little Rock, Tampa, Toronto and San Diego (http://www.themclaingroup.com).