Automation in Real Estate: A Primer on Smart Buildings and Digital Twins

The MIT Real Estate Innovation Lab and EY are taking part in an educational webinar series on the topic of Automation. The third of four webinars featured MIT REIL Director Dr. Andrea Chegut, EY Global Partner in Real Estate Hospitality, Selina Short, and Lendlease Innovation Leader, Bill Ruh. In this educational exchange, the discussion focused specifically on Smart Buildings and Digital Twins and their potential to provide value for owners, operators, investors, and designers across the entire lifecycle of a real estate asset.


Automation continues to be one of the biggest buzzwords in the real estate industry, with much discussion about the benefits and best practices for implementation. Organizations are, however, now beginning to see the benefits of automation and are thinking about how they can automate their processes to ensure their businesses are ready to thrive and compete in a disrupted world.

To help organizations think about what automation means, EY and MIT’s Real Estate Innovation Lab have been producing a series of webinars looking at the future of automation in real estate – cutting through the hype, exploring what’s happening now to understand what will come next.
In the second part of this series, we will look at Smart Buildings and Digital Twins and how they are starting to become mainstream concepts in how buildings are designed and operated.

While NASA first developed “pairing technology” during the Apollo 13 mission in 1969 and Smart Buildings have been around since 2000, these relatively new concepts – which were once only presented as science fiction – are now coming to the fore. This article aims to explore what these two technologies are and how they have the potential to provide value for owners, operators, investors, and designers across the entire life-cycle of a real estate asset.

Automation and the AI Economy

The general economy is working towards automating and augmenting our job tasks with a simple objective: codifying the human experience. The world as we know it has been working on automation in the economy for over 65 years. In the years to come, this will only continue to advance. The real estate sector, however, has lagged behind during this transition and is only now beginning to truly see the impacts of automation and the economy. In terms of economic development, automation could increase GDP by more than 1.1 trillion dollars in the next 10 years. Ultimately, every industry will be subjected to some level of transformation.

As it stands in the general economy, the number of AI startups increased by 113 percent in just three years. The real estate sector was a substantial part of this increase. There are now over 130 AI-focused real estate companies, 150 data companies, 90 robotics companies, and 20 companies that are working towards next level data science and integration.

There are essentially three phases in the automation of a building. The industry is now beginning to organize and recognize all of the information that is available about the physical, human and equipment experiences throughout their assets. This means that the industry as a whole is still collecting data.

What is Smart Building?

Smart Buildings are a bundle of embedded technologies that combine to make a building “smart.” These numerous technologies have been paired with building systems to enhance a building’s operations, design, and experience. Historically, this grew out of building information modeling, and in combination with a shift towards more energy-efficient and sustainable structures, has enabled this advancement in building system monitoring.

The current features of a smart building. Source: MIT REI Lab

It is important to make this link between automation and Smart Buildings as an extra step because it is relevant to understanding why we are collecting all of this data from all of these different sources and pairing them together. Even now, people are starting to make the connections between building operations and rent rolls utilizing their digital security tools. This connection between automated security systems and the data collected can help to build the automation acumen needed to develop tools that help at each stage of automation.

What is a Digital Twin?

Current features of Digital Twin. Source: MIT REI Lab

At its simplest, a Digital Twin is a virtual model of a process, product or service. So in terms of real estate, a Digital Twin is a digital representation of a physical building. We can think of it as a 3D model of a facility combined with all of the dynamic data that can showcase easy-to-understand visualizations and analysis.

Smart Buildings can enable and supercharge a Digital Twin with their numerous embedded technologies that feed data into the Digital Twin virtual model and bring it to life. Instead of stagnant digital representation of a building, we can now layer the continuous feed of both the building’s data systems and human input into the digital dashboard of the twin.

Economic Benefits of Digital Twin

The most obvious benefits of a Digital Twin are management of building occupancy, increased budget reliability, expanded financial opportunity through an enhanced capital expenditure on planning and modeling, as well as faster delivery in the construction realm. However, we are only at the beginning of this journey and have yet to fully see what all the benefits will be as the technology is developed further.

Once seen as a futurist concept, Smart Buildings are now very much part of the real estate ecosystem. As more and more systems become available, these intelligent buildings are using an increasing array of technologies to capture and feed live data that enhances our understanding of both the owner and tenant experience.

In addition, owners and operators of Smart Buildings are learning what works for them. This may include incorporating, for example, green building systems or an integrated building management platform in order to identify the value proposition of Smart Building interventions.  Digital Twin is a new technology that is currently gaining viability in the construction, design and management stages of the industry. However, Digital Twins and Smart Buildings are not the same. Digital Twins, when paired with a Smart Building, could be supercharged for operational and simulative performance outcomes.

This technology offers some of the greatest challenges and opportunities to drive next-level insights for the real estate sector and, ultimately, to build better and more valuable assets across our cities.