As 2023 opens and Scaler approaches our year anniversary, I wanted to reflect on why I developed an ESG data platform.
My family has a background in real estate, so following tradition, I went to university to study architecture. When it turned out that being an architect meant you had to adhere to the laws of physics (and that I wasn't a particularly talented draughtsman), I decided to study a combination of real estate and data science instead. While I didn't start out with an aim to go into sustainability, my first internship and job out of university was with GRESB (the global ESG benchmark for real estate), which was very formative for my career path and how I think about the world.
When I began working with Nils Kok and Sander Paul van Tongeren at the global benchmarking organization, there were only 8 employees at GRESB. The early days were intense and exciting and the industry was in its infancy - it felt almost like the wild west. I spent a lot of time in Washington, DC at GBCI headquarters and even did sprints in rural upstate New York with our 4-man data-science-tech team in order to launch the Assessment from 2014 to 2016.
While GRESB was a catalyst for the industry, I knew that after a few years, I could make a bigger and more direct impact by working directly with real estate managers and investors to analyze the performance of their assets and figure out how to improve them.
Since striking out on my own as a consultant, I've interacted with organizations in all stages of maturity when it comes to ESG. There are small managers just starting out where the person responsible may not have any experience with ESG, all the way to large asset managers with years of experience for whom the overwhelming amount of data, the complexity, and the rapidly evolving reporting landscape mean that ESG in real estate remains challenging.
But regardless of size or experience, I continue to find managers dealing with some of the same problems.
Many organizations are still working in Excel, which is error-prone and a very inefficient use of time. Various stakeholders are responsible for different data points, so files get sent back and forth through email or are worked on simultaneously in an online version. Different people may make changes to files at the same time and version control isn't handled well; or data is added or deleted incorrectly not to be noticed until a GRESB score falls 2 points; or multiple spreadsheets are collecting overlapping data for different reporting requirements and aren't harmoniously updated. Other managers do work with a data platform, but it doesn't quite fit their needs and so still use a spreadsheet as the source of truth. And even when mistakes aren't made, the entire process requires so much administrative work that it detracts from the time and resources available to actually do something with the data, such as executing and monitoring their actions to decarbonize their buildings.
Organizations still feel like they need a bespoke solution. A couple of big players in the consultancy/data-platform industry developed alongside GRESB over the last decade and as ESG has become (almost) mainstream in the past few years, a plethora of solutions have cropped up recently. And yet, I'm still coming across managers who want to build something in-house because the solutions on the market simply aren't meeting their needs. On the one hand, older platforms were built without the technical infrastructure to deal with how complex the industry would become. Insights gained from these can be superficial or overly complex or aren't giving detailed feedback at asset level that can be acted upon. And they can't seamlessly integrate new and evolving reporting requirements. Or their platforms work with outdated assumptions that are no longer rigorous enough. I meet and work with a lot of managers who are experiencing many of the same frustrations and despite the cost and lack of technical ESG know-how, turn to the option of building a tool in-house. One such client is building a tool in Excel to model retrofit measures on their decarbonization pathways. But the result is static and overly complex to be really useful in the long term.
ESG information isn't actionable when the data lacks transparency or quality. Despite the time and resources put into recording data and reporting, managers struggle with how to act on this data to increase the performance of their assets and decrease exposure to risks— the end goal of an ESG program. Participating in GRESB results in a score and an 80 page document detailing how each response benchmarks against peers; overly complex dashboards provide users with lots of graphs; and spreadsheets are full of columns with kWh and kilograms of carbon. But none of this seems to be making it easier for an asset manager to identify where and how he or she should distribute resources to improve the portfolio.
As I tackled the same pain points over and over again with different clients, I thought there had to be a way to develop efficiencies; a better way to not only help my clients, but also to maximize my time and impact as a consultant— managing spreadsheets isn't an effective use of billable hours for clients and it doesn't give my own employees much job satisfaction.
The tools I started using in my consultancy to address the challenges I was experiencing across clients had the potential to have a wider impact. So I partnered with a friend who had deep knowledge and experience in tech and product development to create a full fledged data platform that could evolve with the industry.
We called it Scaler because it's designed to scale our own impact as ESG professionals by automating (some) processes and making them more effective. But it's especially meant to help scale the positive impact of our clients by providing them with user-friendly, powerful tools to collect, process, understand, and utilize their data.
Along with the great team at Scaler (which grew to 17 in 2022), it's given me such pride to work this past year with leaders in our industry, like a.s.r. real estate, Amvest, NSI, Patrizia and Hartelt. They are embedding the platform throughout their organizations and using it to take real action to improve their portfolios.
As the year opens and managers finalize their data collection for 2022 reporting, I'm excited to work with even more clients toward our mission.