In Profile: Hawazen Esber, CEO of Majid Al Futtaim Communities

Big Project ME speaks to Hawazen Esber, CEO of Majid Al Futtaim Communities, to understand how the UAE developer is using data and analytics to create a fascinating new approach to real estate development

“We do understand what people need – from toddlers through to six-year-olds, to teenagers, millennials and all the way through to the recently married, the married with children and all the way to people on their way to retirement. Unless you measure this, you cannot really customise your products as per what people want”

In September 2017, Majid Al Futtaim, a UAE shopping mall, communities, retail and leisure developer, announced the results of a first-of-its-kind neuroscience study in the Middle East. Designed to identify the most powerful drivers behind emotional attachments to urban developments and communities, the study measured how participants subconsciously and consciously responded to nearly 100 images of urban developments and landscapes around the world.

Conducted by Neurons Inc and commissioned by Majid Al Futtaim, the UAE-based study used electroencephalography (EEG) and eye tracking technology to record participants’ responses. More than one million data points were collected and analysed to determine findings.

The interesting aspect of this study is that it comes at a time when governments across the region are placing significant emphasis on transformative policies and practices for the real estate sector as they look to drive economic diversification. In the UAE, this has resulted in both private and public sector entities focusing on enabling a nationwide happiness agenda that aims to create a sense of happiness and satisfaction for residents through the development of better services and infrastructure.

However, through the study, Majid Al Futtaim says it has identified a clear distinction between conscious and subconscious responses, with the neuroscientists finding that the elements of everyday human activity (a visual focus in 80% of the 10 best performing images), greenery (70%), artistic features (50%) and bright colours (50%) elicited the most power emotional reactions to real estate destinations and environments.

On the other hand, the strongest negative responses came from images that displayed a visible lack of human interaction and natural landscapes. Dirt and damage were also shown to have an immediate negative, lasting impact on participants.

“Historically, researchers and developers have focused on conscious drivers of preference for real estate design and development. In a testament to the region’s progressive take on the transformation of the real estate sector, our neuroscience research study enables a deeper understanding of what subconsciously drives emotional value and a sense of belonging for our customers and the wider community,” says Hawazen Esber, CEO of Majid Al Futtaim – Communities.

“As destination creators, it is our vision and role to create mixed-use destinations with a heart and soul, where people can come together to celebrate life and create great memories with their loved ones every day. The study helps us identify crucial elements that make for happy, heathy communities and become the foundation for how we bring our integrated retail, leisure and entertainment offering to design mixed-use destinations that drive holistic value for residents and surrounding communities.”

Esber tells Big Project ME that there is a growing sense of maturity in the UAE market, which has been going through a transformation that has led to a real understanding that quality prevails and new trends are no longer just fads. To that end, he asserts that the developer’s biggest differentiator is its philosophy of focusing on placemaking and customer experience.

“Placemaking is more of an art than a science (at present), but we’re currently working on the science part of it. When it comes to what the customer wants, it’s obvious that they always want the best – they want the best value for their money, they want to feel like they’re being taken care of, that the developer hasn’t only sold them a house but rather a home where they can really live and enjoy life.”

This is why Majid Al Futtaim has enlisted the help of Copenhagen University to drill deep into the science and use neuroscience techniques to measure and track respondents’ responses to projects around the world.

“We discovered many interesting things – you might have a conscious preference for a colour, but subconsciously, we discovered, all humans are very attracted to all shades of blue and green. That’s very interesting for us. For example, people consciously claim that they prefer places that have a lot of buzz and activation and animation. But subconsciously, they actually prefer more of a normal social interaction, such as family social interaction or an interaction with culture and nature.”

This data is crucial for a real estate developer like Majid Al Futtaim, Esber says, as it can implement these scientific findings through its own art of placemaking. This means it can tailor projects and destinations accordingly, creating places and projects with increased appeal to visitors and residents.

“It’s very exciting. It’s the first-of-its-kind study in the region, and I would say probably the first in the world to go deep into real estate. When it comes to mixed-use, office and residential, there are a lot of benefits, but it can probably be expanded into other sectors as well. Unless you translate [the data] into how you design homes, landscapes, roads, etc and how you decide what sort of cultural activation layer or marketing layer you have on top of your master plan, then it’s going to be ineffective,” he asserts.

However, Esber insists that Majid Al Futtaim is committed to following the scientific path, pointing out that the developer has also undertaken a detailed market segmentation study that looks at market needs not only by nationality, but also by various age groups.

“We do understand what people need – from toddlers through to six-year-olds, to teenagers, millennials and all the way through to the recently married, the married with children and all the way to people on their way to retirement. Unless you measure this, you cannot really customise your products as per what people want,” he explains.

In fact this commitment goes even further, with the developer announcing in December 2017 that it plans to enhance its advanced analytics capabilities, which will allow the company to gather deeper consumer insights, allowing it to create personalised experiences for customers. By investing in advanced analytics, the developer hopes to be able to understand and predict evolving needs and preferences and deliver experiences that create “great moments” for customers on a daily basis.

Majid Al Futtaim has defined four elements for its data analytics transformation: increasing group-wide analytical capabilities, enriching data to maximise group synergies, enabling analytics through state-of-the-art technology, and delivering value from data through advanced analytics. To this end, it is in the midst of a recruitment drive to secure the services of data engineers, scientists and translators, who will be embedded within the group’s business units to harness the power of data.

In June 2017, the developer launched the School of Analytics and Technology, which aims to become a key part of this data-driven culture. Located at the Majid Al Futtaim Leadership Institute in Dubai, the School has already started delivering education programmes to employees, focusing on enhancing their understanding of how analytics can be used to improve the delivery of experiences within the group.

It is also training a select group of employees to become Analytics Translators, whose role will be to act as a bridge between Majid Al Futtaim’s businesses and a group of advanced analytics experts. In order to harness all the available data across the business, they will be responsible for mining and analysing data in real time using sophisticated algorithms, then turning the results into simple, actionable insights.

“We are really differentiating ourselves with the way we look at placemaking, and by how we really listen to our customers and give them these options and choices,” says Esber. “In the real estate market, we have been bold always – right from when we brought in the Ski Dubai concept and when we brought in the shopping mall experience to people. We’re at the forefront of this drive to adopt technology and data. We’re talking to international partners, all the way from Korea through to Japan and the USA. We’re also very much in tune with what the UAE government is achieving in terms of smart cities – we have a full plan for smart cities, and it is fully in tune with what the government requirements are.”

“Finally, I want to emphasise that the research that we’ve undertaken is very exciting. It’s something that’s not only new to the market, but the thinking behind it is also completely new. I believe that this is one of the edges that developers should have, in terms of marrying their know-how and art into science,” he concludes.


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