17 Mar Episode 24: Sinead Bovell – A Human Guide to a Digital Future
Erin Davis: Welcome to REAL TIME, a podcast for and about REALTORS®, brought to you by The Canadian Real Estate Association. I’m your host, Erin Davis. Today we’re going to be joined by the model guest. I mean that literally and you’ll find out how as we dive into our conversation with Sinead Bovell, a human guide to a digital future.
Over the last two years, we’ve seen technology progress at a rapid pace. Sometimes you may ask yourself, are we pivoting or are we spinning? Our rates of embracing new technology have skyrocketed, and there’s not a chance they’re going to return to pre-pandemic levels. We’re in this for the long haul, but what does that future look like, anyway? What are the risks and benefits of a society that engages, transacts, and communicates primarily through technology?
More to the point, in our industry of real estate, where personal branding, human connections, trust, and networking are fundamental, what does the digitization of our economy mean for a REALTOR®‘s business? These are all good questions, and fortunately for us, we have just the guest to answer them today. Sinead Bovell is, to quote her Insta bio, changing the narrative about who should be talking tech.
She’s known as the model who talks tech, founder of WAYE of tech education forum. She’s spoken three times to the UN on tech and the future. Sinead Bovell is our guest today on REAL TIME. Hey, Sinead, thanks so much for joining us today.
Sinead Bovell: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.
Erin: Well, you’re a futurist and an entrepreneur, and you’ve spoken at the UN and educated 1000s of people on the future of technology. One of the amazing things about you is just the road that your career has taken because it didn’t start this way, you didn’t start this way. Tell us about your journey from a management consultant to a model futurist, and social entrepreneur. This is fascinating.
Sinead: Thank you. Yes, I would say my career has been unconventional, to say the least, but I’ll add as technology continues to change our world of work, my career might not seem so unconventional by the end of this decade. To answer your question, I did start out in the world of management consulting. This is largely to do with how I define success growing up.
I only really considered jobs that existed. I was leaning heavily into societal versions of success. That led me to focus on the things that I liked, which was analytics, problem-solving, strategic management. All of that took me to a place of management consulting. However, along the way, I never felt fully satisfied and inspired by the problems that I was solving. In doing my MBA and landing the goal that I thought I always wanted, it became ever more apparent, and I couldn’t ignore this calling that I was in the wrong lane.
In some ways, the wrong life, these weren’t the problems I wanted to be solving whatsoever, but I didn’t really see an exit. I was simultaneously most scouted by a modeling agency. This is nothing that I had ever considered before.
Erin: How did that even happen? How did that happen? You hear stories about somebody in a lineup at a concert or just – tell us how that happened, Sinead. I’m curious about it.
Sinead: Yes. Interestingly, I was at a business event and a scout came up and said, “Are you interested in modeling? Do you model?” I was in the middle of a conversation with somebody about something else to do with networking, so I was entirely thrown off. I didn’t really take it seriously, I just kind of, as a Canadian would politely say, “Oh, thanks so much.”
Then she returned about a half an hour later. I took the card. I went into the agency a few days later, and I signed with them. Long story short, I ended up quitting the path I had created for myself and stepping into this new world, that I really didn’t know what I was doing, but what I did know is that I would somehow connect my old world with this new one, that the Fundamentals of Business and Economics, all the things I had learned, still applied here.
What makes me a little bit different in this new world might be the very thing I can use to step towards the life I wanted to live, whatever that would mean going forward. One thing I did realize is that I would show up to these photo shoots, and start talking about things like artificial intelligence, the future of work, all the conversations I was having in my consulting and MBA world, and people were incredibly intrigued and wanted to learn.
That was the first light bulb moment that all of these conversations I almost took for granted and got educated in weren’t conversations that everybody was invited to but conversations that everybody needed to be a part of. That was the initial light bulb moment for me, maybe there’s a gap that I can fill here. Maybe this is where I can be of service.
Erin: How did you get inspired to start WAYE? Tell us about this acronym? What it means and how you got it off the ground, Sinead.
Sinead: Yes, WAYE stands for Weekly Advice for Young Entrepreneurs, and where the inspiration for the name came about was, the more I studied the future of work and was forecasting the changes technology would bring to our workforce, the more I realized, a lot of us are going to become entrepreneurs in some capacity in the future. As we start to lean a little bit more into more flexible working contracts, things like gig work, a lot of us are going to have to be our own boss in some way, marketing our skills more frequently. That’s where the inspiration for WAYE as an acronym came from.
Erin: Just the name of it though, the first word is Weekly, so you are committing yourself right from the jump. How did that work out? Was there ever a point where you went, “Okay, this is a lot?” Or did you just know that you had that much content, and enough people interested to contribute and be part of all of this, that you knew your vision right from the jump?
Sinead: I would say I knew my vision. I would encourage every entrepreneur to know what their aspirations are, but there was nothing I could say concretely. Again, with entrepreneurship, everything was up in the air, and not only did I not know if this vision would work, but also if people would care. Is this content that people actually want to consume?
In terms of weekly, our news cycle is, fortunately, or unfortunately, now down to minute to minute. I knew that I would continue to advance the conversation in the best way that I could, but in terms of there were no assurances that any of this would work. Of course, there was the unconventional background also fueling some of my concerns. Would people take me seriously? Is this somebody that they’d want to listen to? I prevailed and persevered through it, and here we are.
Erin: Yes, here we are, indeed. You once said that you noticed the gap in the speed at which technology advances and people’s ability to use it. How big is this gap and who do you think is most affected by it, Sinead?
Sinead: I would say there are multiple gaps happening simultaneously. That depends on the geography you’re looking at, the age group, the skills, economic access, all of these different factors are lenses through the various tech education gaps and tech access gaps that we see.
On the one hand, when you look more geographically, there are a significant portion of the world that can’t even access the Internet, whether that’s the infrastructure itself, whether that’s cultural norms or things like the internet not being gender-neutral in certain locations. There’s that gap that actually is global, even if you’re in a country that leans heavily into technology, you’re still going to find that divide, depending on location, economics, et cetera.
Then there’s the policy base gap. We see technology changing at a pace that our infrastructures aren’t designed to keep up with. Technology is leapfrogging ahead of all of our systems.
That’s quite a gap. Then even if you consider yourself somebody that is tech-savvy, you can pop around on social media, get your news online, there’s an additional gap of how the world of work and life is changing as a result of technology. How we live and exist today is going to look fundamentally different in 5 and 10 and 15 years. There’s all of these different layers and tears of gaps that I’m trying to tackle the close, but I think each of them, all of them are of critical importance.
Erin: Yes. The goalpost just keeps moving and moving and you stop to take a breath and you go, “Okay, it’s moved again.” You’ve suggested, if you want to see what the future holds, all you have to do is Google how tech is disrupting my career. I did that just before we sat down in real estate, and boom, right there, there’s a Forbes article, right online with 15 ways that technology is disrupting real estate. Really, the tools are at our fingertips if we just know where to look or even know to ask the question.
Sinead: Yes, I would say, leaning into technology is the best thing that we can do about our future. Leaning into how the world is changing, doing as much as we can to take initiative, like things like Googling how my career is changing, or how this role is being impacted by advanced technologies.
Erin: Coming up, Sinead looks at how we’ve been forced to fast forward into the future over the past two years, and just how that going.
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Now back to Sinead Bovell as we discuss the future and the reality we’ve been living in for the past two years – the pandemic. Let’s talk about that because there has been so much said and written about it, but really there is no limit to it because your opinion on how the pandemic impacted our with technology now that we’ve been trusted further and faster into a more digital-first economy.
Sinead: Yes, so the pandemic it’s a really interesting case study when it comes to technology and on the one hand, it has been absolutely devastating the amount of lives that have been lost that are still battling this horrific pandemic and virus but I’d say when we look at how it impacted our societal infrastructures and our world of work and life, we have accelerated into the future by at least a decade.
The changes we’re seeing today weren’t on the forecast charts until your 2027, 2030. Interestingly, we often fear that technology is outpacing us and our ability to keep up, which is true in some respects. But at the same time, a lot of us adapted quite quickly. We fumbled around on Zoom. I think you’re on mute is literally going to be the phrase of this time.
Erin: Or you should be on mute. That’s the other phrase, right?
Sinead: Either of those. You’re on mute, you should be on mute or where are you tuning in from, all of these different phrases that we’ve all used at some point, but we got the hold of these technologies a lot faster than I think we would have on ourselves had we not gone through these past couple of years. It has certainly fundamentally accelerated us into the future in many ways.
In some ways, it’s been good. I’d say things like healthcare and industry with so much red tape technology offers a lot of efficiencies, a lot of ways to leapfrog over these legacy systems that were blocking access and now we realize if you can just call in, FaceTime in, remotely meet your physician instead of hustling into a city or having to take a day off work that is a win for everyone.
Of course, it’s not always going to be the right answer, of course, technology you can’t solve all the problems. There are times when you need to go into a hospital or visit your doctor but there’s also a lot of times when you don’t need to do that and so the pandemic forced us in many ways to make these changes and to adapt and in some ways, there have been some silver linings here.
Erin: Yes, and what has felt like spinning is actually pivoting, if you look at it in a positive way too. Yes. Now how do you suspect that digitization is going to impact industries like real estate where personal connections and you mentioned going to a hospital, we can do our medical care so much online, but so a doctor looking at you can often tell you, “Okay, there’s something going on with you. What aren’t you telling me?” Real estate, let’s take it back to real estate where personal connections are so fundamental to business, Sinead.
Sinead: Technology is going to have quite a profound impact, on the real estate industry, and it already has, right. If you were to rewind the clock only a few decades ago, the idea of listings being online was fundamentally unheard of and now that’s the first place we go to check the real estate market if we’re interested in buying or selling or even just browsing. So that’s already been a massive change and social media as well but of course, as we look out into the future technologies like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented reality, you may have heard terms like the metaverse.
These are going to change how we access information, where we access information, and where consumers and prospective buyers and sellers expect the industry to be, and here’s what I mean by that. If, for example, a technology augmented reality or virtual reality becomes more mainstream by the end of this decade, I don’t just want to search and see a house online. I’m going to put on my augmented reality glasses and do a tour as best I can up until the limits of that technology. It doesn’t mean that technology is going to replace the job of the real estate agent. That real estate agent will probably be a part of that walkthrough in the form of a hologram but in a lot of the different areas, our fundamental behavior is going to change.
However, I will let’s say when it comes to something like real estate, an asset and a decision that is usually one of the most important decisions, or at least most important financial decisions in most people’s lives, there are things that you cannot just replace or substitute with technology and this is one of those cases.
An artificial intelligence system may be good at understanding which properties to show you that you might be interested in, but you’re going to want that human real estate agent’s opinion on the areas that AI can’t give you, those subjective human-based experiences that real estate agents have that an AI system doesn’t. Real estate, it’s not a cookie-cutter process.
There is last-minute bidding that happens all of these things that an AI is not cut out to deal with, these ad hoc changes and pivots. That’s where a real estate agent is going to be critical, but you do need to be leaning into how this world is changing. When you hear terms like the metaverse, it means you should stop and think, “How could this change my relationship with technology, with how I sell?”
Erin: Sinead, when you mention the metaverse, I have to confess, I approach it with a degree of cynicism because to me, it’s Mark Zuckerberg changing the conversation from Facebook and saying, “Hey, look over here.” You are addressing it with respect and vision so tell us what we need to know what we can even take in and digest and this point about the metaverse would you?
Sinead: Yes, I have some of the cynicism with you. I totally get it. We hear it. We cringe the way it was introduced to a lot of people, but here’s what I’m turning into a little bit more. Not so much as the cartoons and running around in this virtual world that is a part of it, but that’s not what I think would be important for an industry like real estate. I’m turning into a world, in which the digital is equally, if not more important and so what could that mean in real estate?
It could mean that you have a digital twin of your real house as an asset so when somebody goes to buy a house, they buy their physical house, but they also buy a digital twin that is powered by artificial intelligence, that you can do everything from seeing how furniture rearranged would look before you actually buy the furniture. To get flags and notifications when something’s about to break down ahead, actually breaking down and the same way digital twins are used in engineering right now.
A manufacturing plant would say this dishwasher is going to break down in the real world. We’ve been modeling it on our simulations. We would have that of our houses as well. Those are the types of things that I’m paying attention to. Outside of the real estate, we’ll probably have one of our physical bodies for healthcare and things like that but those are the areas that I’m turning into. I would also as, a real estate agent and technology like augmented reality so if I can show up and give somebody a tour via a hologram that’s a real plausible scenario, for the future.
Again, if you were to align the clock 25 years and tell someone they’re going to really engage in this thing called the internet, and they’re going to put their house in this cyber community, and people are going to bid on it and make appointments on it, we would think that was crazy. Now here we are. So, the metaverse, I think that there are elements that we can ignore, but there are elements that are very legitimate. They’ll of course depend on how the technology changes over time but that’s how I would think about it as a real estate agent.
Erin: If I was to buy a digital twin of my house, what might I expect to pay?
Sinead: Yes, I would say there are many ways that you could look at this question. You could buy actual real estate just in the metaverse and not have a physical house with it but it really depends on how things evolve so maybe this is something that is included in the house deed so it’s not necessarily something that really increases the economic value of the house. It’s something that becomes expected over time and we might look back and think it was ludicrous that we didn’t have this security system where we’re monitoring our house in real-time and where we’re getting these updates, where we’re able to make changes digitally before we invest in them. Physically I think in time, that’s probably the level that well, we’ll get to but there are all different ways that it can evolve and, of course, nobody can predict the future. If anybody tells you, they can, I would be very skeptical.
Erin: When we return. How much do we spend betting on the future? Sinead looks at the risks and the questions we should ask.
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Now back to Sinead Bovell, founder of tech education forum WAYE Talks. From a business standpoint then, what are the risks and opportunities of investing in new technologies?
Sinead: It depends on what you mean by invest. If I’m putting a bunch of money into developing a technology that I hope my line of work will lean into, of course, that’s always going to be a risk. We forecasted the Internet to go one way and it’s gone an entirely different way and people have lost money in that. The dot-com bubble and even technology like virtual reality. If you think that that’s going to be the future and that isn’t the technology that underscores the future, then you’ve probably lost out.
I think that there will be economic risks as we step into this changing world of technology. I think where you can’t really go wrong is what are the general-purpose technologies that are becoming foundational?
The Internet was one and artificial intelligence is another. These are areas where it becomes a little bit less risky but we still have to do our research and lean into them. I think, of course, any investment is always going to be a risk. It’s do your due diligence and ask yourself where is my market? Where will my market expect to find me? Where will my customers seek out information? What will that behavior look like over time? I think that’s in many ways is worth the risk of meeting your customers where they are or where they expect to find you.
Erin: Something that we often hear and feel is a lot of the fear and questions around AI. You’ve talked a lot about AI and the future of technology as it relates to business. How do you think, Sinead, that this growing shift to word automation will impact the workforce? Who’s going to be most affected either positively or negatively?
Sinead: I will say I have yet to come across a job or an industry that won’t be impacted by technology. The same way it’s hard to find a job that hasn’t in some way been impacted by the Internet.
In terms of who will be quite drastically impacted and then what we can say with more certainty, artificial intelligence as it stands today can do one task really, really well and a task that is repetitive and predictable. That would lean more into roles that are more administrative in nature or food preparation, scheduling, and task management. All of those types of roles unfortunately do fall under some of the main advantages of artificial intelligence.
Those types of roles were seen more so in the line of automation versus augmentation. However, 90% of the workforce will have some of their tasks drastically impacted by artificial intelligence. That doesn’t mean that your whole job’s going away but it does mean that tasks in your job will eventually be passed to an AI, some of those tasks. The tasks that can’t are the tasks that are fundamentally human in nature that we need that human interaction, that human viewpoint or opinion or perspective and it’s not something that we can automate.
Erin: The human interpretation, the experience, the wisdom, that sixth sense too because you’ve been there before.
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Sinead, what are some of the benefits of a society that is increasingly engaging, transacting, and communicating through technology? What are you seeing as the benefits of this?
Sinead: Our personal view of the world has expanded in many ways and in ways that we couldn’t have imagined or predicted. It has really minimized the idea of borders in some respects. We’ve shifted into a lot more efficiency in our day-to-day transactions.
The things that I like to point out, one being in the pandemic, for example, we all had to switch to a laptop or screen-based workforce and you’re only really seeing your colleagues in these little squares. At the same time, it was probably the first time many of us saw into the homes of our colleagues. We saw cats running across computer screens and children interrupting meetings. Those were often met with nothing but compassion and empathy and understanding. It became a lot easier to say, “I can’t schedule a meeting at this time. I have to do a pickup or whatever it is the case.”
We became a much more empathetic workforce in a much more compassionate and understanding workforce. In the same ways that we feel technology takes something innately human from us, in other ways it does the exact opposite. It really does open our doors in our windows to one another in ways that previously weren’t possible without technology.
Erin: That is a great point because previously if somebody said, “I’m sorry. I’ve got to pick up my daughter at daycare or whatever.” There might have been, admittedly or not a bit of an eye-roll, from somebody on the team. Now you can picture that little girl or you can see that employee as a parent who has responsibilities and you go, “Yes, okay. We’ll schedule this for later.” Whether we knew those barriers or whatever those preconceived notions were, they seem to have as you say fallen by the wayside as we open up to compassion. That really is a positive thing to focus on.
Sinead: I think so. I think the conversations around remote work and flexible work, these are incredibly important conversations for a variety of reasons but not least of which being inclusivity. Who are we excluding from the workforce simply because we incorrectly assumed they had to be there. We were probably excluding new parents, people with different physical needs, and accessibility needs, all of these sorts of communities. Even when it comes to building a more diverse workforce, a workforce that’s more reflective of society more broadly, that might not be available in your specific town. Now in a world of remote work, there are no more excuses.
We can truly hire and source from everywhere and we should be leaning into that. I think that it’s brought a lot of important conversations and not just because in some ways or sometimes it’s more comfortable to work from home. From a more inclusivity standpoint in a more progressive society, we don’t really have the excuse to exclude people anymore. We have fundamentally proven that that is a myth and it doesn’t exist. Everybody can join the workforce if we’re willing to accommodate.
Erin: Of course with every gift, there seems to be a risk, especially where we’re talking about technology. What are some of the risks? There’s a great vulnerability that is out there from a technological standpoint, is there not?
Sinead: Absolutely. With every technology there are risks. Especially in technologies like artificial intelligence, the way our data is being captured, the more things we do online, the more exposed we are and the more vulnerable we are. We’ve seen right now we exist in a world where our data is used in ways we don’t understand, in ways we don’t truly consent to, our personal information and our personal lifestyles are mined, refined, and sold. That has quite drastic impacts on society from multiple lens points or vantage points. Whether it’s national security, whether it’s just privacy, and the right to exist in private, all of that is being challenged by technology and not in a good way.
I would say when it comes to the risk with technology, I think I flag data almost immediately. Of course, things like workforce augmentation and automation, that is a very big risk. Not even just a risk, that’s something that we know is happening that we actively have to deal with. Then there are the things that are unforeseen. The ways technology will change the world that we haven’t really accounted for.
That’s also why everybody in some capacity needs to exercise some elements of being a futurist. Companies especially, governments especially how can we forecast in some ways how the world is going to change so we can minimize the risks as much as possible and we can be prepared as possible for what’s to come.
Erin: Up next, Sinead shares what we could be even should be embrace racing more for our workforce and in our social media lives.
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Now the rest of our chat with Sinead Bovell, our human guide to a digital future on REAL TIME. What digital opportunities are businesses not taking advantage of right now, Sinead? Can you think of any off the top of your head?
Sinead: There are a lot of different digital opportunities. I think businesses are still not fully embracing how digital technologies can shape their workforce for the better. We’re still seeing a bit of reluctance around things like remote work, but also where are your customers on these digital platforms that you are not taking advantage of?
We’re only now in the last five years, seeing companies step into social media and that become a non-negotiable, but the conversation is changing. Whether that’s augmented reality, and keeping up with how that world’s changing or worlds like the metaverse, it’s not as much that you have to suddenly be there, but you have to be leaning into it and preparing your business to make the leap should these technologies scale in the way that they’re forecasted to.
I think what we’ve seen with the pandemic, is technology isn’t going to wait. It was challenging for many, many companies to pivot and to adapt, but they didn’t have a choice. The companies that struggled the most probably would struggle the most over this next decade. They probably wouldn’t have survived or won’t survive the next decade as we see fit, so I would encourage everybody to lean into the world of technology and to take it seriously even if it sounds something out of a world of fantasy because that’s how we would’ve described technology, the technologies we used today, in decades ago.
Erin: Yes, absolutely. To wrap up here today, and we do thank you again so much for your time. If you could Sinead, share one tip to help our REALTOR® listeners thrive in a world transformed by technology, what do you think it would be?
Sinead: My one tip up and it’s actually very, very simple is to every month, every six weeks do a simple Google of how my industry, my role is being impacted by technology. How technology is changing the work that I do. You can get more specific, you can say how artificial intelligence is changing my role, but I would every month, every six weeks stay in the know, do the best you can to lean in and be prepared. Something as simple as a Google search, I think that has some great return on investment.
Erin: Wonderful advice. Again, we do thank you so much for your forward thinking, for your time, and for leaning in with us today, Sinead. Thanks so much.
Sinead: Thanks for having me. It’s been so great being a conversation with you, Erin.
Erin: Follow Sinead Bovell on all social media platforms or Sinead Bovell, that’s S-I-N-E-A-D-B-O-V-E-L-L.com. Her insight on everything happening now and in the future is well worth your time.
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Next time, two members of CREA talk about the evolution of listing sites in Canada, how REALTOR.ca is evolving into so much more, plus the mechanics of Canadian real estate. Thank you so much for sharing this conversation with us, and we’ll talk to you again soon on REAL TIME.