Schulte, Sun, and Shemakov’s new book, “The Digital Transformation of Property in Greater China” [2021]

roptech. What is it? How are complementary technologies like 5G and AI fueling proptech’s rise in China? How is proptech shaping China’s smart city landscape? And is such technology the next step in the Fourth Industrial Revolution? All these questions and more are answered by Schulte, Sun, and Shemakov in this well-researched & accessible book.

As David Lee notes in the book’s foreword, this book could easily be called “The Internet of Everything (IoE).” This book is for anyone curious about the future of work, the emergence of new data-driven, cloud-based technology, & how China is leading the pack in the proptech revolution.

There is no doubting the prowess of China’s many R&D-fueled Five Year Plans (FYPs) over the past two decades. These roadmaps have provided a national direction for the development of new technology that has afforded China the opportunity to harness the complete power of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This “two-handed” approach is also the secret sauce to China’s continued success in the 4th IR. Schulte correctly notes that the CCP and associated planning committees borrowed a page from the US playbook to realize the benefits of public-private partnerships (à la Manhattan Project, the Apollo projects, etc.). This top-down approach to stirring innovation & providing the groundwork for technology firms to build from is nothing new and, indeed, China is picking up where the US left off. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) recognizes the mighty, government-toppling power of tech firms like Tencent, Alibaba, and Pingan and is choosing to work in tandem with them to produce ground-breaking technology meant to promote the development of smart cities, financial inclusion, and even climate resiliency.

“But China is a Communist country! These technologies would never work in the US!” These battle-cries and more are dismantled by the trio over the course of the book.

While the book is mostly focused on the impact technology like blockchain, 5G, IoT sensors, etc. will have on physical property assets in the next decade, Schulte does a great job contextualizing these gains within the context of how China can market and sell such technology on the global stage and further compete with tech-giant countries like the US. The couple chapters devoted to the emergence of a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) is just one example of this contextual placement. For a more in-depth look at CBDC’s in China, I highly recommend Richard Turrin’s new book, “Cashless.” Indeed, Turrin’s book is the perfect aperitif to Schulte’s main course.

My favorite part of the trio’s book was within a chapter called “Established Challengers.” This chapter highlights a unique & not commonly referenced overview of JD’s iCity and associated products. For me, the examples in this chapter nailed how China is leveraging proptech much differently and much more effectively than peers in the US and even other Asian counties.

JD’s iCity

I did find many of the graphics in the book hard to interpret simply due to the color scale in the charts’ legend. Also, while the inclusion of chapters solely dedicated to the leap-frogging technology of Tencent, Pingan, and Alibaba was illuminating, they would have been much better served in an appendix-style afterword. Finally, while I enjoyed the brash ethos of the introduction comparing China and the US, as a US reader I was a little worried reference to the Iraq War and the COVID-19-pandemic-response could quickly dissuade fellow readers from joining the trio on a pragmatic tour of proptech in China. Additionally, the trio is quick to call out what may be “clever publicity from fundamental transformation.” The earnest dialogue of the book removes the monotony of an academic publication and puts accessible examples in the hands of curious readers.

In the end, the most salient points of the trio’s research are easily digestible and laden with current examples that offer a contextualized picture of the massive advantage China has in the proptech revolution. Buckle up, the proptech revolution has already kicked into high gear and it won’t be long until you feel the impacts of China’s truly groundbreaking innovation in a city near you!

Star Rating: 4.5/5

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Brian Larson

Brian Larson

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All Things Future of Work. Graduate of the Fletcher School at Tufts University