It was the 60 or so Chinese sitting in rows at this week's World Built Environment Forum in London, noting every word from simultaneous translation, that persuaded me that the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors is changing. That and the WBEF theme: digital disruption of cities. Or to be official: Our Changing World - Urbanisation, Innovation and Civilisation.
Because, let's face it, in the past, since it was founded 150 years ago in Britain and the vast majority of its professional members are British, RICS' forays into the wide world have been marked by a strong England-orientation and were more than a little, yes, sorry, parochial.
But now it is different. Propelled by its proactive CEO Sean Tompkins, the association is turning its British roots to great advantage; it is 'selling' the product of professional standards and ethics, fashioned over a century and a half in Blighty, to the world. And this is a very good thing indeed! Not only is the message solid and sound but it is sorely needed in many markets, not only but also and primarily those emerging or emerged, especially in Asia. The world, it turns out, is very much open to RICS and is fully tuned in.
And it is, as an aside, interesting that RICS and not the 42,000-strong Urban Land Institute that has had the perspicacity and courage to pick up these massive topics. For WBEF addresses precisely ULI's fundamental urban design themes. Not for nothing perhaps that RICS launched WBEF in 2016 in Washington, D.C., and not Wolverhampton, and is returning to the US already in 2019.
Coming back to the Chinese attendees, they were delighted to be in London last week, absorbing the numerous highly relevant presentations on the surging growth of cities and of digital disruption - all of which will fundamentally impact down-to-earth building valuations once they gain the coveted RICS qualification. Sorry, but I can't help comparing the RICS Red Book of valuation principles with the Chinese Communist Party's Little Red Book containing quotes of founder Mao Zedong in days of yore... not only because the WBEF attendees have probably only glanced at the latter on father's dusty bookshelves if at all, but also because Mao's thinking is a lot less crucial to their lives now than those of Her Majesty's ICS. Good.
But enough frivolity: for the RICS WBEF discussion themes were and remain absolutely crucial for the globe and mankind's future. If that's not important I don't know what is.
"According to the UN's World Urbanization Prospects report, by 2045 more than 6bn people will live in cities while the rural population is espected to decline from 2020," RICS President John Hughes says in a forward to the booklet Confidence handed out at WBEF. "Not only will this have profound effects on how we live in cities, it will potentially change the political dynamic of the nation state itself as city populations find they have a great deal in common with each other but vanishingly little that unites them with those in the hinterland.
"At the same time, emerging technologies are creating new possibilities for urban transport, particularly in the sharing economy. It's no longer enough to develop infrastructures to support growing urban populations from what has worked in the past, those new systems have to be part of the solution - not the problem - 30, 40, 50 years down the line."
Or, listen to Jalak Jobanputra who has founded her own consultancy Future Perfect Ventures in New York, and who was on stage at WBEF: "I believe next-generation technology is going to radically change the built environment. Right now we have billions of centres that are collecting data - on people's movements, on electricity usage, on traffic patterns and so on. That data by itself is not useful but when we begin to analyse it ... we can begin to predict future patterns. That becomes really powerful. On top of that if we add something like Blockchain technology which is in very nascent stages - I like to say where the internet was in 1994 - where people will be able to transact directly with each other in monetary transactions, data transactions or sharing their electricity, we will be able to create more efficiences in the built environment we have now."
These are huge questions. If you are a real estate professional and weren't at the WBEF this week, do yourself a favour take an hour and dip into RICS WBEF presentations and panels on YouTube. You will quite understandably be amazed.
> More videos at the RICS' World Built Environment Forum on the Business Immo YouTube channel