ATLANTA -- After jetting around the globe over the past year in search of best practices for commercial real estate, automation expert Jim Young has come to one inescapable conclusion: If U.S. malls are to remain engaging, vibrant and reflect a 21st century lifestyle, shopping center owners and retailers need to embrace technology — from high-speed wireless networks to radio frequency identification (RFID) solutions to video conferencing.

“Technology is not stopping. Forget about dot-com,” remarked Young, president of the Jamesan Group, during a keynote speech delivered Tuesday in Atlanta before several hundred attendees of the International Council of Shopping Centers’ Southeast Conference. “Technology is on fire in other parts of the world. The advancements that you are going to start seeing in the next 24 months are going to be four times greater and more phenomenal than we saw in dot-bomb.”

Young has firsthand knowledge of the technological revolution occurring globally. On one recent trip, he visited 38 commercial real estate projects in 10 cities throughout Asia and Europe. His company, The Jamesan Group based in Carlsbad, Calif., specializes in automation projects for the commercial real estate industry. Young also is the founder of the annual Realcomm conference, which focuses exclusively on technology applications for the commercial real estate industry.

“Retailers are going to have to start creating Disney-like experiences,” emphasized Young. “If people want to buy clothes, they can just go online. They are going to the malls for the next sense of where the world is going. We need radical new experiences.”

COEX Mall in Seoul, South Korea offers a glimpse into the future of the shopping center experience in America, says Young. He describes Seoul as the “digital innovative center of the planet Earth.” Internet stations are located throughout COEX Mall. When he visited the shopping center one Tuesday night, he observed thousands of kids watching movies and playing games on the Internet and sending e-mails. “It was the most electric, energetic 21st century retail experience I’ve ever had in my life,” said Young. “I’ve been in malls ranging from the Mall of America to the best shopping centers in the Middle East.”

In some cases, the new technologies may have even wowed the Jetsons. Here’s a sampling of what’s already developed or yet to come:

• Automated checkout stands: Wal-Mart and Costco are working on developing this RFID technology. Every store item — ranging from a cereal box to a Coke — will include a chip. When customers roll their shopping carts through a checkout gate, those items will be instantly scanned and the customers will swipe a credit card to ring up their charges. That advancement, Young insists, will change the retail footprint in the front of grocery stores or malls.
• Video attendants: If for some reason a customer is having trouble navigating a retailer’s Web site, a video attendant will appear on the screen to assist the customer. “The next killer application that’s being built is the integration of high-speed video conferencing at the click of a button on your Internet Explorer,” says Young. That technological advancement will change the online retailing experience, he adds, and force retailers to rethink their store concepts.
• Multipurpose cell phones: Cell phones will operate like credit cards. How? With the aid of thumbprint recognition, soft-drink customers in Singapore can now point their cell phones at a vending machine and a soda will come tumbling out. The charge shows up on a customer’s cell phone bill, not the credit card bill. “If I’m Visa, I’m talking to Verizon right now,” says Young.

There was a second, more sobering component, to Young’s speech: The U.S. lags China and South Korea in the development of next-generation office buildings and retail complexes, and is currently losing the innovation race, Young believes. “So, the message here is get up earlier, work harder, and start investing in new ideas.

“I think that we have about three to five years. Some people believe that it’s a foregone conclusion that Asia will be the dominant innovative culture of the 21st century. I don’t,” emphasized Young. “I think the entrepreneurial spirit and innovation that built this country exists. We just need to have it get off the couch and shake it up a bit.”

Young said that he so petrified about the education gap between the U.S. and countries throughout Asia and Europe and the Middle East that in his hometown of San Diego, he has helped launch an organization called San Diego Businessmen for 21st Century Schools. “We’re ripping down blackboards and putting up plasma screens. We’re basically saying to the administration, ‘You had better get in line with what’s going on in the rest of the world.’”

If parents and educators don’t take that proactive position here in the U.S., Young fears, “by the time we hand this country to our kids we’re going to be the ones being outsourced.”