The evolution of technology is turning it from the unusual to ubiquitous, so much so that there’s hardly an industry that doesn’t feel the disruption. While some sectors, such as finance, are embracing these changes quickly, some long-established fields are moving slower, but the degree at which they are reinvented by the new innovations is not a bit less.

Property technology (proptech)—a sector that combines technology and real estate industry—is on the rise in recent years, especially in the Asia Pacific region. 179 proptech start-ups in Asia Pacific have raised funding since 2013, accounting for almost $4.8 billion of the $7.8 billion that has been invested globally since 2013, according to a research by global real estate services firm JLL.

Like in most of the industries, China—which witnessed robust growth in merging internet and information technologies with conventional industries through the government-backed “Internet Plus” initiative—has formed an impressive force in the rise of the proptech trend. The report shows that mainland China saw a total of $2.82 billion of proptech investments, excluding HK’s investment of US$202 million.

Albert Ovidi, APAC COO of JLL (Image credit: JLL)

TechNode got a chance to talk with Albert Ovidi, APAC COO of JLL, a leading professional services firm that specializes in real estate and investment management, to shed lights on the reasons behind this surge as well as the current and future landscape of proptech in China and Asia Pacific region in general.

The Asia Pacific region is taking a big chunk of the global proptech financing, why is proptech taking off in Asia and China specifically?

Why proptech is thriving in Asia and particularly China can be explained by a few factors, such as rapid urbanization and the boom of megacities.

Asia Pacific is home to largest emerging markets like China; 40 out of 47 cities with the fastest population growth rate are in Asia whereas 20 of them are in China alone. This will result in a wider pool of users with diversified needs, where technology comes in handy.

From a social perspective, the rise of the middle class and millennial generation are reaching prime spending stages and their consumption habits tend to lean towards collaborative and flexible spaces, which presents opportunities for proptech start-ups to offer new products and solutions.

It is crucial to note that proptech in Asia Pacific is also accelerated by the technological sophistication of these consumers. Asia accounts for 50% of the total internet users globally and tops the world in the growth of smartphone traffic. With the rise of millennials and their growing tech-savviness, it will boost user preference for technology.

Finally, the support from government and authorities is a good indicator of proptech advancement in Asia Pacific. Asian countries and China, in particular, are showing their support for new technologies and business models.

Blockchain technology is penetrating lots of industries, and property industry is no exception. But the high risk and lack of regulations always made it a controversial topic when comes to application, what do you think are the biggest obstacles in applying it to real estate sector and how to solve them?

Blockchain offers a means to improve transparency and has the potential to improve liquidity as well as access to investment markets for both institutional and retail investors. As the costs associated with trading real estate are much higher than other asset classes, the difference between buyer and seller pricing expectations vary.

Usually, these transactions are carried out via face-to-face interactions with various other parties such as lawyers, bankers, and brokers. One way blockchain-enabled smart contracts could reduce the costs and friction involved with all parties would be to automatically trigger the transfer of money or assets once conditions in the encoded contracts are met. Another way blockchain can facilitate transactions would be to tokenize buildings by dividing ownership of asset into multiple shares.

Barriers to commercial real estate investment could also be reduced, allowing for greater participation among retail investors. However, there will be challenges to regulate and govern the trading of these tokens. More research is required to study the effects of tokenization on asset management, and how tokenized assets will be valued.

The property industry is quickly adapting to the hottest emerging technologies, from VR/AR to blockchain. What do you think are the next technologies that are going have a great impact on the industry?

Aside from blockchain, there are several other technologies that could reshape the real estate industry in Asia Pacific. Artificial Intelligence could transform property in a number of ways, such as machine learning in search engines that could address a customer’s needs and adapt with their changing preferences; image recognition that enables customers to classify, tag and organise images of properties in real-time; and chatbots that help automate real estate processes such as appointment bookings or information provision. Another new technology is 3D printing, which could transform the commercial real estate market considerably, especially in the Project Development vertical as it enables construction activities to be faster, of a higher quality and at lower costs.

Considering other tools like virtual reality, drones, predictive analytics, etc. I expect that the real estate industry will be transformed tremendously within the foreseeable future.

Chinese proptech firms like Lianjia are receiving massive funds at high valuations. Do you think there’s bubble in China’s proptech sector?

The valuation of a startup is made based on the expectations of investors of the company’s future growth. A company’s future growth is indeed decided by its market current potential situation (i.e real estate’s rising price) but those are only among numerous other factors that decide a firm’s growth.

Even if market potential is the only factor affecting investor decisions in valuations, the rising prices of property in a market does not necessarily point to a bubble. In China, high valuations (2012-2017) are mainly based on the valuations of other existing unicorns, which have already received high funding. In fact, China presents a highly dynamic proptech landscape due to its large market size, ability to scale quickly, and diverse population of tech-savvy users.

JLL’s latest report shows that most of China’s funding flowing into brokerage and leasing vertical. Does this mean China’s proptech industry is still in Proptech 1.0 phase? What’s the future landscape of proptech in China?

Our report has pointed out that brokerage and leasing is the most mature of all verticals, primarily because they are focused on the residential market driven by the country’s strong desire for home ownership. While millennials’ home ownership remains rare around the world, up to 70% of Chinese millennials have their own house. Up to 94%of them plan to buy property within the next five years, which is significantly higher than other developed markets.

Chinese consumers have also become highly tech-savvy since the rise of WeChat and grown accustomed to the use of the internet to make purchases. We see China’s proptech industry also moving towards the Property Management vertical, especially in smart home fixtures and controls. Another strong growth sector lies in investment and financing, where online funding platforms like Duocaitou, Huifenqi.com, and WeLend are gaining momentum in China.

How is the trend impacting different countries in the region?

Across the Asia Pacific region, India is another high-performing market for proptech. India tops the list with the most start-ups, largely dominated by the brokerage and leasing vertical brought by the growth of the Indian middle-income population. Elsewhere, Southeast Asia’s proptech sector is much younger and yet to get the volumes of a China or India, with Singapore’s supportive start-up ecosystem as the leader of the pack. The existing internet user base in SEA is expected to grow from 260 million to 480 million by 2020 so there is a high chance that consumers will continue to be more tech-enabled.

Elsewhere, the use of technology in real estate has been increasing in Japan, driven by the government’s focus on entrepreneurship. The Japanese government is even planning to use blockchain technology to underpin their property registries to prevent tampering. A bullish property market coupled with tech savviness will make Japan’s proptech scene very promising in the coming years.

Lastly, Australasia’s start-up scene mainly lies in brokerage and leasing, as well as property management. Australia’s strong demand for home ownership and government’s support towards fintech offer a catalyst for proptech start-ups, and the number of deals in the Investment and Financing vertical is expected to grow as a result.

High potential areas and where the ‘unicorns’ may be found. Can you name China startups that have the potentials to join unicorn club?

We believe the highest potential for new unicorns is likely to be in the brokerage and leasing vertical. Property management may follow thanks to acceleration in smart cities initiatives and also increasingly high expectations of better living conditions. There are a number of Chinese proptech companies that have already reached unicorn status, including Homelink or Lianjia.com, Fagdd.com, Tujia.com and Aiwujiwu.

Technologies are becoming ubiquitous and shaking traditional industries like real estate, how do you see this trend?

With rapid urbanisation, the emergence of the middle class and millennials, and improved user digital sophistication, technology is certainly going to change several industries. Corporates are also starting to recognise the opportunity to gain efficiencies in their business lines and maximise their reach with technology, so we believe that start-ups too will begin seeing a growing market for their products and more interest from these corporates.

In real estate, we foresee that this will result in new partnerships and perhaps some important new players in the region. Not to be ignored, the power of blockchain also expands into the commercial real estate market. It could improve the property search process, accelerate pre-sale due-diligence, ease leasing and subsequent property and cash flow management and finally empower informed decision-making. As a hotspot for blockchain, Asia Pacific could soon expand this technology’s application into various industries including real estate, specifically the commercial sector.