IoT: The foundations for smart buildings

Dr. John Bates, CEO, Eggplant

By Dr. John Bates, CEO, Eggplant

On average, people spend 80% of their lives inside buildings – office buildings, schools, hospitals and homes. Buildings represent one of the largest capital expenses for businesses, second only to salaries paid to employees. It is therefore no surprise that property owners and managers are constantly seeking new ways to make buildings more efficient, sustainable, safer and more comfortable. However, as technology has become more advanced and consumer demand more acute, we’re seeing a much more considered coming together of buildings and technology, commonly known as smart buildings.

Today this is being driven via the medium of Internet of Things (IoT). IoT is not a new concept. The example of the fridge that knows when you need a pint of milk has been bandied around for years.

Smart buildings are all about bringing new IoT technologies deep into the lives of people. They’re providing safer, more comfortable environments while preventing equipment breakdowns and disruptions to occupants. They’re even increasing productivity by adapting to how people live and work. However, historically these technologies have taken many years (sometimes even a decade) to deploy.

The biggest barrier to building smart buildings is not innovation –  we have loads of that. The biggest barrier is getting the technology deployed quickly and in a safe way, while also gaining customer acceptance. Perhaps even more significant is that companies themselves need to feel confident that the technology will not fail when it is implemented into existing infrastructure so that their users can accept and use the technology to its maximum potential. This makes the role of building owners and facilities managers increasingly critical.

Facilitating the future
To best deploy IoT and create the smart buildings of the future, facilities managers need a platform that can run at the edge, which means actually in the building itself and close to the individual systems. One of the temptations is to put in a state-of-the-art ground-up high tech new system. However, the real opportunity is to save huge costs and not “rip and replace” legacy systems – but rather add intelligence on top and maximize the value of existing investments.

Either way, these new systems bring the subject of ‘ownership’ into question, particularly regarding tenanted buildings, both domestic or commercial. For example, if a smart building or home has been designed around a network structure then the landlord needs to own that structure in order to ensure smooth operation. However, like energy suppliers, the tenant has the right to choose their provider. Changing a router to a new one provided by a new ISP could cause smart devices to stop working (pending re-configuration).

Smart buildings in action
Despite the clear blurred lines, there is little doubt that new and better user experiences can be enabled by better integration of IoT. For example, smart technology can be used to track people and systems in a building, with sensors that know who that person is and can consequently personalise their experience.

These sensors can be used, for example, in a hospital environment and can detect where each clinician or nurse is in the building, and can consequently match the right clinician to the right crisis. Instead of hospital staff trying to locate a specific member of staff if a problem occurs, the sensors around the building can tell you where they are and can notify the closest member of staff with the most relevant skills. This cuts down on the manual requirement of trying to locate a particular member of staff and can also be used to detect whether a vulnerable patient has left their room, or if a patient’s vital signs become worrying. The most appropriate members of staff can be matched to each scenario, which speeds up to time to care.

Another example is the hotel sector, where smart technology (such as using localised wifi tracking technology) can be used to map the most popular areas in public spaces, to advise staff whether any areas need to become increasingly accessible. Alongside this, smart technology—through mobile technology—can detect when a loyalty member has entered the hotel (tracking them with localised in-building cell or wifi, because you know their mobile number), so the hotel staff can be alerted and can provide them with member benefits. Whether it’s a hospital, a hotel, or an office building, smart technology can use data to personalise experiences and improve efficiency.

The key opportunity comes down to not needing to rip and replace a building for it to become smart. Building owners can utilize the existing systems and can fuse them all together (even if they’re traditionally siloed) to achieve huge savings with a few low-cost sensors alone.

Smart future
To become smart, building owners need an IoT platform and need to envision and test all potential scenarios quickly, precisely and efficiently. To do that, they need a platform that can work across edge and cloud and can test known and unanticipated user journeys around the building to test if we have got the right responses when certain things happen. To test known behaviours, we need to be able to capture and record real user journeys around a building and learn from them. To test the unanticipated behaviour, AI is being used to create likely user journeys and then test that the building responds in the right way

However, IoT should not be viewed as a remedy to all control problems. There is no A to Z guide for its implementation and not all legacy equipment will be IoT compatible. It is important to always have an outcome objective in mind, always look at smart building systems holistically so that it has the desired impact – to improve the lives of the people who reside in it.