The Quantified Community: Taking Account Of It All

Hudson Yards Redevelopment Project

Once you start counting things, it can be hard to stop. Commercial property in operation presents a huge number of things to count, and it’s only with modern technology tools that we can handle that data on an ongoing basis.

Every type of commercial property from industrial to retail to office offers a universe of data to be collected. In order to find hidden value, areas for improvement, or to create comparative statistics to increase efficiency in property operation, we can count a property’s various dollar flows, square feet, degrees fahrenheit, kilowatt hours, air pressure psi — the list goes on and on. Unlike decades past, thanks to the sharp rise in automated building operations systems, these variables are increasingly being sucked into computers, where all huge piles of data belong.

If you’re counting new terms coined by our technology-infused times, it’s time to add one more. The marriage of new commercial property development and data collections aimed at ongoing improvement of property and community operation has taken on the name quantified community. It’s a holistic way of capturing the vital signs of a commercial property plus the community it’s embedded in.

If that sounds vaguely medical, it’s because the concept is an extension of the quantified self movement, where technology-enabled people are collecting information about their own bodies and diets in order to tweak themselves to maximum health. The simple bathroom scale isn’t enough any more — and in real estate, neither is the simple electricity bill.  The new thinking says we need to know the reasons behind the numbers, and to know our properties as we know ourselves — as systems.

New Thinking, New Developments

New York City’s Hudson Yards project is flying the quantified community banner very conspicuously.  It’s an eye-popping 16-skyscraper, 12 million sq. ft development on Manhattan’s west side.  The details of the project are impressive and include a fully quantified data collections operation encompassing retail (750,000 sq. ft.) office, residential and public space.

The collaboration is being touted as producing the first “quantified community” in the U.S.—which has a rather creepy, 1950s social experiment ring to it, though Constantine Kontokosta, deputy director NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress, assured us that all participation will be opt-in. Mr. Kontokosta said that NYU had approached Related about participating in the collaboration, after surmising what a good data set the new development would provide.

“This is just an incredible research opportunity for us,” said Mr. Kontokosta. “We hope to make the data available to other researchers and programmers, to find ways to make it more sustainable, and to apply the findings across the city.”

Mr. Kontokosta added that this marks the center’s first collaboration with a real estate developer. Ideally, he hopes to convince the other Hudson Yards developers to participate as well.

Although what, precisely, the center will measure is still somewhat vague at the moment. Possibilities include pedestrian flows, air quality within buildings and across open space and the health, the activity of residents and workers using a custom-designed, opt-in mobile application as well as solid food and recyclable waste and energy usage.

Mr. Kontokosta said that he believes residents will be interested in participating, not only because the project will be “unprecedented in scale” but because there’s a lot of interest in the “quantified self” at the moment.The Center also hopes the collaboration will help advance its leadership in the emerging field of “Urban Informatics—the observation, analysis, and modeling of cities.”

“The ability to conceive of and develop an entirely new neighborhood creates tremendous opportunities,” Related Hudson Yards president Jay Cross wrote in a statement. “Through our partnership with CUSP we will harness big data to continually innovate, optimize and enhance the employee, resident and visitor experience.”

And presumably, assuming the data is public—which we would hope it will be (Mr. Kontokosta said that Center hopes to make things “as transparent as possible”)—it will also allow journalists like us to analyze how well the city’s investment in the new neighborhood has paid off in terms of creating a viable community. And how it should fund, aid and encourage future developments like Hudson Yards.

The Wisdom Of Opt-In

The success of such a data collection project (and the property operations improvements that could follow) all hinge on collecting sufficient amounts of data.  Some of this collections capacity will be “baked in” to the development in the form of smart thermostats, water distribution and the like. But what’s most interesting, and potentially alarming, is the mobile application mentioned above.

Landlords or developers considering quantified community features should be wondering how to balance the successful collecting of data with the very real privacy concerns of American residents, customers, and public passers-by. It’s tempting to imagine that we have turned a corner technologically and that privacy is no longer a right. But that’s not only simplistic, it’s a great way to accentuate, not extinguish the “creepy” aspects of such applications.  It may be a short hop technologically from keeping tabs on lighting efficiency in a commercial property to compiling a database of comings and goings of tenants and visitors, but it’s a giant leap in terms of civil liberties, and one that should be heeded.

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