Data Drives CBRE Tech Leader Sandeep Davé

The brokerage giant’s chief digital and technology officer sees a near term where technology becomes a big part of companywide decisions


CBRE has long been a giant global player in traditional real estate services, but it is also intent on being equally adept at applying technology to every aspect of its clients’ real estate life cycle.

Sandeep Davé, chief digital and technology officer for CBRE (CBRE), is in charge of making data-based digital integration work for the company and its clients.

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Having been a software engineer in telecom and fintech prior to arriving at CBRE seven years ago, Davé sees his work through the prism of data, which involves many challenges. However, he believes there are even greater opportunities for applying data to each and every property.

Last week, Davé spoke with PropTech Insider about the power of real estate data and the insights it can provide CBRE and its clients.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

PropTech Insider: How long have you been with CBRE and what is your mission there?

Sandeep Davé: I have been with CBRE for almost seven years, three-plus years in my role as chief digital technology officer. We’ve been on a pretty substantial digital transformation to enable the business to deliver superior client outcomes and unlock efficiency through technology and data. As a global company, our size and footprint, our coverage of assets, is unmatched. We sit on this tremendous amount of data. If we bring it together, we can create differentiated insights for ourselves and our clients, which is something that we are also heavily focused on.

What kind of technology do you focus on? Client data or your in-house data? Which takes precedence?

From a technology perspective, we are focused on the entire life cycle of real estate — enabling technology to support our operations for our clients from identifying an asset, investing in an asset, buying or leasing, to managing the property on an ongoing basis. 

As far as data is concerned, we have a data platform that ingests data from 300-plus different data sources. We factor in external and our own operational data. We use it in different ways to bring either operational insights for us from an efficiency standpoint in running the business better or deeper insights for our clients to support their decision-making in many different ways — when to invest, the value of investment, operational metrics around how their portfolio is managed, occupancy, and health and safety. Also, generating operational efficiencies internally within the company. For example, with leases, we have the ability to have AI models extract lease information, reducing the time to abstract the lease by 25 percent compared to doing it completely manually.

Among the broad range of services CBRE addresses, what areas are demanding technology solutions the most?

Across the entire life cycle of real estate there is a significantly higher demand for technology. The nature of the demand varies. We may be focused on certain areas more so than others. For example, in construction we are heavily focused on getting any and all data that we have on site selection. We’ve ingested data from over 1,000 different data sources, and apply it to make intelligent decisions around that process. There is also an operational capability, but there is also data capability along with it. 

There are parts of our business that completely run on technology, such as our outsourcing business, which is totally reliant on end-to-end work-order management and supply chain financial technology to enable it.

What is the biggest demand that you hear from the real estate industry?

What we hear from our clients is the need for efficient operations, a focus on energy and sustainability, and the need for a better workplace experience.

Let’s step back a little. What is your background? Did you have any real estate experience or has it all been technology?

I did not come from real estate. I started my career as a software engineer writing code. I spent a lot of time in high tech and telecom helping them navigate their own industry transformation that was underway through different digitally enabled business models. Then I went to financial services where it was very similar. There was a wave of fintech that financial services was dealing with. How do we dramatically digitize internal operations, but also innovate at pace? 

Those experiences got me to commercial real estate, which seemed to be on the cusp of exactly that — proptech was just emerging. There was a clear need and the demand for technology was increasing. We’ve clearly seen all of that play out in the years that followed.

What are your day-to-day duties and focus at CBRE?

My focus is probably broken into three parts. One is day-to-day operations. What do we need to get done? Are we executing on the right things? Are there certain things that require attention? Perhaps the rest is related to our most important priorities. Then there are specific strategic bets that we have made. AI is one of them, where we have a structured AI program that has delivered us phenomenal returns. The last third is around internal and external communications. Are we having ongoing client conversations? Are we talking about the changes and the benefits that technology enablement is resulting in with our clients?

Tell me a little more about your data. How do you know it’s reliable? What have you done technologically to aggregate, clean, utilize and monetize the data?

That is a great question, because, for all the talk about AI, data is the field. You could have a really expensive car, but, if you have no fuel, then the car is not going anywhere. With all the wonderful models that we now have access to, what we need is clean, reliable data with sufficient density and quality. Over several years we’ve been focused on building a data platform that ingests data from various different data sources, but anchors it around the property. Real estate is a siloed environment where every system has a property, but the definition of the property may be different. So there is a need to reconcile all that data. That’s what we’ve been focused on. 

So how do you ensure that we get clean data? We’ve created interventions and we have a data governance capability. We have the ability to visually inspect data and clean it. And so there are things that we’ve done to ensure that we sit on this volume of data that we can do something with. Now I won’t say the battle is won by any means. We still come across areas where we recognize that we want to do something, but first we will have to go work on our data. But that does not come as a surprise, and we then go and do it. 

A big part of that is business process change. Business stakeholders are very involved with us in terms of recognizing the value of data and ensuring that we can clean data at a point of capture, whatever the operational system or point-of-sale system that may entail. What I mean by that is, whether it’s a broker working on a leasing or a capital markets transaction, or a facilities manager or an engineer trying to fix an asset, whatever the workflow is, there is data to be consumed at that point. Then we can make sense out of it, but that data has to be captured in that workflow.

Let’s talk a little bit more about AI. Everybody says they have AI, particularly incumbent real estate services companies like CBRE that have large delivery promises to clients. Practically, how do you develop AI? Is it all done internally? Have you bought companies who provide that? And how do you develop, integrate and deliver AI for your clients?

Let me answer in two parts. So the first is what is our approach to AI? What we have seen a lot of is that AI has now come into everybody’s collective consciousness. There is a fear of missing out, or of chasing a shiny object — let me do something that in the moment will create a headline. We have been working on AI for a long time and AI, like any other technology for us, is always about, “What is our strategy?” And actually everything that we do with respect to technology is to support the core business. 

Similarly, our AI efforts are all linked to, “What is the business problem that we’re trying to solve?” As a result, what we’ve been able to do is to deploy AI at scale and generate returns that I believe very few have been able to do in our industry. I’ll give you a couple of examples. We manage billions of dollars in supply chain for our clients. We’ve used AI to understand all of that spend, which has allowed us to channel significant volumes towards preferred suppliers, resulting in millions of dollars in efficiencies for our clients. The other is our entire facilities management workflow, which is AI-enabled from the point that we ingest data. Before, it used to take many days, maybe even weeks, to understand the building data. Now that can be done in a matter of hours to manage buildings and have virtual predictive maintenance. Our AI-enabled smart facilities management capability is deployed across 20,000 sites and over a billion square feet. That’s the impact that you can have.

Our approach to AI development is very much anchored on partnerships, coupled with in-house development. We have built partnerships with the large cloud providers that everybody will know and recognize in order to get access to the foundational models. We leverage that, and then we fine-tune those models for our purposes. We also are heavily focused on all the market innovation that is happening, AI-focused but also focused on our industry. And we’ve identified areas where we want market innovation. We will tap into these market partnerships so that we can accelerate innovation for the business.

Can you give me examples of those partnerships?

We constantly scan proptech innovation. Selectively, we’ve made partnerships and we are constantly exploring others. The ones that you will know and recognize is our investment in VTS. We’ve also made an investment in Deepki. Those have come to fruition. We acquired a company by the name of E2C, which has a completely AI-enabled smart FM capability. It has formed a big portion of our overall smart facilities management platform.

Is your general method in making these partnerships to acquire proptech startups and integrate them?

Exploring our venture investments, proptech innovations, and tech innovation does come under my purview. We don’t have a single approach. We have a strategy where if something is core to us, we will build it. There are certain areas where we will look for partnerships, either in a commodity offering or where we are looking to accelerate a certain capability, but we don’t feel that owning it completely is necessarily the right thing to do. In some instances, we will look for an acquisition because we believe it gives us access or helps us accelerate a certain outcome. But we have to believe that it’s core to our differentiation.

Do you feel the real estate industry and service providers like CBRE have now gotten past the hurdle of having to constantly demonstrate the need for technology? Is the demand there? Where will it focus in the future?

I think our clients have themselves come to the realization that technology is critical with respect to operations insights and they expect a certain level of technology enablement from their service providers. As we look ahead, we fully believe that investment decisions are going to be significantly technology-enabled. And data is going to have a big role to play in that.

With respect to our property and facilities management, technology enablement in terms of driving better outcomes, but doing it more efficiently, is going to be critical. That’s something we are heavily focused on. Generally, we will remain focused on deeper insights, because we believe that we are in a better position to do that, given the breadth and scale of the data, more than anyone else has, that we have access to.

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