What does the future hold for cities? This is a question with which property professionals must grapple if they are to design and build cities today that will serve people tomorrow.

However, it’s difficult to predict the future. Even with a crystal ball.

Karl Popper explained that we cannot predict, by rational or scientific methods, what we will know and therefore what we will be able to achieve in the future. Thus, he concluded that we cannot predict the future course of human history.

In which case, perhaps the quickest and easiest way to think about the future — particularly in relation to the impact of new technology on the real estate industry — is by observing the behaviour of leading edge consumers.

Observing early adopters

Leading edge consumers are early adopters. They are innovators who value and want products and services ahead of the mainstream market. Their behaviour is a litmus test for how the mainstream market will act and behave in twenty years’ time.

However, viewing the future through their eyes is far from a perfect approach.

  • First, leading edge consumers are notoriously fickle. They come and go, and it’s difficult to tell which trends will last and which are passing.
  • Second, technology uptake and use is not linear. Just because one group of people is using voice recognition today doesn’t mean that another group of people will be using it in the same way tomorrow.
  • Third, humanity is messy. What we think about ourselves often bears no relation to what we do in practice. We might imagine a future without road congestion because we’ve invented driverless cars, but will that really be the case?

People are unpredictable

As anthropologists Genevieve Bell and Paul Dourish (2007) remind us, envisioned futures tend to differ radically from how futures eventually unfold in the context of people’s lives.

People are notoriously unpredictable, and technology development is notoriously haphazard. Remember the story behind Twitter? It was originally imagined as an SMS-based communications platform that would enable groups of friends to keep track of each other. After Jack Dorsey acquired the rights to it, Twitter’s user base grew at astounding rates and quite frequently the service would be over capacity.

So, technology evolves as people discover new uses for it in practice. It is only through participating and observing people’s use of technology that businesses will really know its function. This is why Twitter, Google, Facebook, Intel, and Microsoft have a team of anthropologists working alongside engineers to inform the design of new technologies — to anticipate new business opportunities.

Customer experience matters

In the same way, it is becoming increasingly important for property professionals to understand the end-user, and the unintended consequences of building design. Bricks and mortar are no longer the key elements to consider in the construction of property. Customer experience matters now more than ever.

Unlike global digital platforms such as Twitter, buildings are not easy to redesign. It is difficult to change a roofline or move an opening later on. It is necessary to get the design right from the outset. And it is becoming paramount to understand the unintended consequences of building design in relation to productivity and wellbeing.

So, will property professionals be taking a leaf out the book of technology developers? We believe that it is important for them to participate in the everyday lives of their tenants, and observe how people, businesses, and other stakeholders use buildings and spaces in practice. Only then will they understand the unintended consequences of their designs.

Indeed, carrying out research will enable them to provide their customers with a great experience from the outset, and save valuable time and money reselling space or troubleshooting problems later on.

With this in mind, we recommend taking these four steps:

Step 1: Ask questions today that will still be relevant tomorrow.

What we know and think in the future will be radically different from what we know and think now, so it is important to ask questions about the future that get to the heart of what it means to be human rather than focus on future tastemakers and trends.

Step 2: Engage with those who get left behind as well as leading-edge consumers.

It is tempting to only focus on the behaviours of leading edge consumers and assume that the rest of society will follow in their footsteps, but consumers are notoriously unpredictable, and individuals engage with technology in radically different ways.

Step 3: Consider the possibility that there might not be a single, neutral and shared future for all.

Moving from the past to the present and the future is not linear, one doesn’t follow on from the other. Indeed, people experience different histories and futures as a result of their cultural and social contexts. Who is your audience and whose futures count in relation to the problem you’re trying to solve?

If you have any questions or comments about this article, we'd love to hear from you. Get in touch with us hello@humancity.co.uk. We would love to discuss new business opportunities.

Want us to help you think about strategy and impact? Get in touch