The 10 most innovative urban development and real estate companies of 2020

Zillow, Hello Alfred, and eight other companies transforming our built environment, from 3D-printed homes to the next-gen experiential mall.

The 10 most innovative urban development and real estate companies of 2020
Urban Development/Real Estate

The convergence of real estate with the innovation economy took a bit of a bruising in 2019 with the events that transpired around the We Company and WeWork, but despite that, there are a lot of compelling companies creating value in making the world around us more habitable. Sustainability emerged as a significant thread through this year’s list, with climate resilient 3D-printed homes, urban air-quality monitors, car-free communities, cemeteries that are actually forests, and even parking lots converted into farms all meriting inclusion.


1. Icon

For 3D-printing houses to change the economics of housing development

Icon uses a massive 3D-printer, called the Vulcan II, to print full houses out of concrete in place, changing the economics and time scale of housing development, especially in rural areas where bringing in material can be difficult and time-consuming. In 2019, the company laid out its first houses, in a low-income community in rural Mexico, where the government is working with Icon and its nonprofit partner New Story to give new houses to the residents. The printing itself takes 24 hours and is then augmented with roofs and windows installed by local workers. Domestically, it’s also starting an initiative to print homes for homeless residents in Austin.

2. Zillow

For offering the entire home-buying experience, right down to being the buyer

In January 2019, Zillow, the predominant online real-estate platform, started selling homes directly rather than aggregating existing sales, and it’s doing a lot of business this way. When people list their home on Zillow, the company will simply make them an offer. By the end of the year, the program was operating in 23 markets, including Los Angeles. In the fourth quarter of 2019, the company sold more home than it acquired during that time. The company has also begun offering home loans and financing. All these new bets have more than doubled revenue from 2018, to $2.7 billion, though profitability suffered as Zillow sought to fend off rivals in the increasingly crowded real-estate tech space.

3. Sitelab Urban Studio

For removing car culture from new developments


This urban design firm is working with Google to remove car culture from its new developments. In multiple locations in the Bay Area, Google is working on building housing as well as expanding office space, and Sitelab is working to make these new neighborhoods mitigate the region’s traffic problems by designing them to be walkable neighborhoods. In San Jose, the new project will have 6.5 million square feet of office space, between 3,000 and 5,000 new homes, and 500,000 square feet of retail, cultural, arts, education, hotel and other active uses, along with 15 acres of parks, plazas, and green spaces.

4. Aclima

For mapping cities’ air quality block by block so it can be improved

Aclima lets city residents see a block-by-block map of their city’s air quality, so that cities can more specifically address their dirty air. As the science around air pollution expands, it’s becoming clear that cleaner air is an enormous boon to public health. Aclima is now working with a group of California air districts that serve over 10 million people, helping regulators and communities develop plans to clean the air. The company’s software is also available to organizations focused on healthcare, real estate, financial services, insurance, and urban planning to help them better understand a city’s pollution profile.

5. Roofstock

For creating a market in renter-occupied, single-family homes as investments

Roofstock is a marketplace for selling renter-occupied, single-family homes. Now people looking to invest in real estate can easily find and purchase an investment property online, even one far from their home. Roofstock provides inspection services and connects new owners with property management. The company is growing rapidly, with $1.8 billion invested through the platform since 2016 and ten-times growth in sellers and two-times growth in buyers in between July 2018 and 2019. It raised another $50 million in funding in January.


6. Hello Alfred

For powering its residential assistant concierge program to 20 cities nationally

With the launch of its Powered By Alfred program, the residential assistant program grew this year, tripling the number of units it is available in and expanding to 20 cities. The service allows members in buildings where Powered By Alfred is available to outsource tasks (receiving a package, booking a dog walker) to a Hello Alfred employee—all of whom are full-time. Its expansion has been powered by deals with large real-estate companies to offer the service in their buildings: A deal with Greystar added 450,000 units in 2019.

7. Mirvac

For turning parking lots into underground farms

The Australian property and construction company Mirvac spent 2019 launching several ways to better utilize its large portfolio of residential and commercial buildings, including offering solar power and batteries to its residential customers and creating coworking spaces in its retail developments to help get people shopping in person instead of online. But its most interesting development was the conversion of some of its parking lots to underground urban farms. As city culture moves away from the car, parking lots are becoming redundant, so the company partnered with agritech startup Farmwall to build green spaces under its buildings, which are now providing some residents with local produce.

8. Proxy

For easing the navigation of daily life


Proxy has created a privacy-centric identity signal so people can interact with devices in the real world from building doors to cars to connected devices. The company’s goal is to replace key cards, employee badges, and passwords with its product called the Proxy Signal, which emits its unique identifier from a user’s smartphone. The product launched in March 2019, and such companies as Uber, Cloudflare, and Accenture have adopted it for building entrée in lieu of key fobs and IDs. Tens of thousands of signals were activated in its first few months of use, and two-thirds of users take advantage of Proxy daily.

9. Better Place Forests

For reimagining the cemetery as a memorial wood

Better Place Forests has as its mission protecting forests by presenting them as a sustainable alternative to cemeteries, which take up a lot of real estate in urban and suburban areas. Instead, Better Place opened its first memorial site in Point Arena, California, last June, a coastal redwood forest for people who choose to be cremated after death. Families or individuals who purchase a tree are still able to honor their deceased loved one with a marker. The company engages in sustainable forest management, seeking to minimize the risk of fire. In addition, it works with One Tree Planted, a nonprofit that plants trees for each tree Better Place sells in its forests. Better Place Forests opened its second forest in Santa Cruz, California, later in 2019, and has announced plans to expand to the Pacific Northwest and Colorado areas.

10. Area15

For debuting an experiential next-gen mall in the Las Vegas desert

Area15 seeks to bring the experience economy from one-off stores or sites into an immersive, holistic single location. Located in Las Vegas off the Strip, Area15 will be anchored by a new Meow Wolf exhibit (scheduled to open in fall 2020) from the Santa Fe-based art collective; a rotating series of Burning Man-style art pieces; and a “spine” running through the middle of the space that will be programmed in part by users (shooting off a confetti cannon, for example). Unlike most Las Vegas destinations, Area15 plans to be kid-friendly—at least during the day. The space is also attracting an array of other compelling experiences, from a Nomadic mixed-reality arcade to an Emporium arcade bar, making Area15 (a play on the secret government base in the desert, Area 51) a magnet for the best of the experience economy all in one place.